Wednesday, March 05, 2014
The Perfect Score (or not)
I've been fascinated to read the media coverage of Debbie Stier's new book, The Perfect Score. As her teenage son prepared to apply to college, Stier decided to uncover the secrets of the SAT, and took it 7 times herself in the course of a year. She went through lots of coaching and SAT prep too in her quest for (as the title notes) the perfect score. What's most fascinating to me, though, in light of the debate about the role of the SAT in college admissions, and hence society, is that she didn't actually succeed. The SAT began to be used, many decades ago, as a way to compare students from various backgrounds. In some ways, such a standardized test was supposed to be an equalizer. A kid from a rough background could still score well on a test of intelligence, and hence could open up elite colleges to students not from the Andovers and Exeters of the world. Of course, the idea of testing intelligence has gone in and out of favor over the years. The SAT has broadly been changed to test more of the material covered in high school. In theory, it can still be a way to compare kids from different backgrounds. Some high schools are much harder than others. Straight A's at one school may mean little in terms of how prepared for college you are, whereas straight A's at another school may mean a great deal. I experienced this myself in my two different high schools. A good college admissions test should be able to show this. But people can prepare for tests. And so, one widespread criticism of the SAT is that well-to-do kids can spend thousands of dollars on test prep. They can be coached to higher scores, and take the test numerous times, and hence appear more prepared than they are. Which may be true. But stories like Stier's also show that the SAT may still mean something. After her year of coaching and prep, she did manage to get a perfect score on the writing component. And guess what? Having worked in publishing for years, and as a published author of a book, she probably is quite competent at writing! On the other hand, she never managed to boost her math SAT score higher than 560 (out of 800). This is after a year of studying the high school math covered on the SAT and taking the test numerous times. Given that, isn't it possible to believe that a high schooler scoring in the 700s on the math section is, in fact, showing serious mathematical promise? Whether she's been coached or not? If the SAT were perfectly "coachable," you'd see a lot more perfect scores. As it is, only a few hundred students per year score perfect 2400s. It's fashionable to trash the SAT, but it may mean something despite its flaws.