NPR's Morning Edition ran a fascinating snippet recently about a program at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which is a magnet high school in Baltimore. The school's "Ingenuity Project" has a good track record of students earning perfect scores on various sections of the SAT. (NPR sounded like everyone was getting 2400s or 1600s -- the old perfect score -- but the school web page is more toned down -- it says from 2001 to 2006, 12 students scored 800s on various sections, and one scored a 1600; you can listen to the NPR story here).
The most fascinating thing for me about this story was that NPR made it sound like the point of the program was to get students to ace the SAT, which isn't the case (though the project does like to publicize such scores). The program is designed to have Baltimore students achieve on the national levels in various competitions and gain acceptances to top colleges. To do that, the Ingenuity Project has students accelerate through the high school math curriculum and do calculus by their junior years. The program also leaves plenty of time for AP science courses, labs, and independent research (see here for more details). I've been coming across more and more public schools that have these research programs -- partly to have students win Davidson Fellowships, Intel nods and the like. What is rewarded gets done. We will talk about this more in the near future.
But anyway, back to the SAT question. The Ingenuity Project is a great example of a high expectations public school program. In 2005, three participants earned finalist nods in the Intel Science Talent Search. But with all the accelerated math these students are doing, you might think that more than 12 students would have achieved perfect SAT section scores. As one young man told NPR, there was nothing on the SAT they hadn't seen.
Fundamentally, a test like the SAT tests both content knowledge and your ability to call it up quickly and apply it to new problems. This is one of the reasons people dislike the SAT -- if your geometry class grades show you know the subject, why does it matter how quickly you can conjure it up? Why does it matter that you can solve a geometry problem that's next to an algebra problem? Others dismiss the test altogether, saying it can be coached.
But while coaching might raise a kid's 1800 to a 1920, coaching alone will not get anyone a perfect score. If a program like Baltimore's Ingenuity Project, which likes to publicize its perfect scores, can't get more than 12 of them in a 5 year period, that shows how difficult such a score is to achieve. It's not just a matter of having an excellent high school curriculum -- though obviously that's a big part of it.
For many years there's been a cultural debate over the place of the SAT. Once it was viewed as more of an intelligence test -- designed less to cover the high school curriculum, and more to identify people with high intelligence, regardless of what their high schools covered. Over the years this idea has fallen out of favor. Some schools are now even moving away from requiring the SAT.
But I still think this idea of fast critical thinking has a place. It may not be the most critical factor for predicting high grades in college -- it would make sense that one's academic grades in high school would be a better predictor of this. But it may predict some of one's future success in life. A Vanderbilt study done two years ago studied kids who did well on the SAT, taken in 7th or 8th grade. They were more likely than a comparison group of graduate students to earn an annual salary of more than $100,000 or achieve tenure in a top-50 institution. That's not what the SAT sells itself as predicting - so it's quite interesting if that's the case.