I never expected to go anywhere academically. But one exam changed my life.
This important point reaches far beyond your own experience. Unless we think that college admission should be by lottery (which is a different issue), colleges need some information to base their decisions on. I'm a high school teacher, and I'm not sure people appreciate how little grades mean. What earns a student an A in a given course can range widely from teacher to teacher within a school, never mind between schools. Some schools allow anyone who wants to to take honors and AP classes, while other schools guard the gates to those courses. The transcripts, therefore, do not tell colleges much. Extracurriculars, essays, and recommendations are much easier for wealthy families to game than the SATs. Yes, a tutor may help a student a bit, but if the Lori Loughlin example shows us anything, it's that all the money in the world can't necessarily help a student earn the score they want without outright cheating. Standardized tests were designed to even the playing field, and, imperfect though they are, they are still the best tool we have to truly distinguish students from each other.
This is a great article. I have been a college professor for 40 years. I grew up in a world of violence, drugs and police. As Joe Namath said, I thought my dad was friends with the police they were over so much. I never expected to go to college and figured I would live the criminal life of my father. But the SATs changed that. I did not do great, but I got into a college with them, and I had some pretty terrible grades and no extracurriculars except smoking weed behind the gym, and one juvenile probation. I ultimately discovered Philosophy and eventually got a PhD at a top University. The liberal arts, which the somnambulant woke want to cancel, and the SAT's that the virtue-signalling universities want to eliminate saved my life, no hyperbole there either.
What a wonderful article! These are critical points that are often overlooked. I would add another. Emphasizing grades discriminates against the more independent personality type. There are of course people in this group who are willing to game the system and can get good grades, And I wouldn’t want to say that grades shouldn’t matter – obviously they must. But over emphasizing them will tend to select for people who don’t take art because it’s not an honors course so it doesn’t add an extra point to their GPA; for students who are afraid to disagree with the teacher in case it hurts their grade; and more generally for people who are motivated by extrinsic rewards than by the intrinsic value of activities. To use William Deresiewicz ‘s phrase, elite schools are now creating excellent sheep. No system of admission is going to be perfect. We also need to stop over emphasizing the importance of elite credentials. There’s talent in many places.
You're saying the military uses exclusionary gatekeeping tests to determine who gets to operate the reactor on a nuclear submarine? That's unfair! Somebody cancel the military! I don't want elitism in nuclear reactors!
What's next? Intelligence tests to determine who gets trained in cryptography or field medicine?
Your experience is extraordinary. Congratulations. In my teaching and personal experience, however, many have precisely the opposite experience. I recall one bright, spunky girl I had as a Latin student in the South Bronx who aced all her tests but froze up on each of the official, standardized testing days. According to her scores she was in the twentieth percentile in ability and intelligence, and she absorbed and accepted that like it was an official designation. She was difficult to "bring back" emotionally afterward. She told me she thought of herself as stupid. On the other hand, I was a rich kid who tested very well, and so assumed my placement in the ninety fourth percentile obviated the need to work hard.
Some very smart people do not do well in school. I don't recall what my high school GPA was but my class ranking was probably in the lower third of the class. Yet, I also had the 2nd highest ACT score in a class of over 400 people. I only know that because my high school counselor told me. I am sure that he was as surprised as I was. Attending college was never a goal for me. In my family I was only ever encouraged to go into the military due to my family's financial status. I tested very high on the ASVAB and was recruited to join the nuclear power training program in the US Navy. I served for one enlistment period and got out. I have been employed in the power industry since getting out and have done quite well, entering into management positions where I am the only one without a 4 - year college degree. Looking back, I wish my high school guidance counselor had taken me aside and encouraged me to apply for scholarships and attend college because I needed someone to show me that it was possible. With that said, I am happy where I am at. My 2 oldest children graduated from college, one of them with an advanced degree. Both have good jobs. I have another daughter in college that will be getting an advanced degree and one entering college next year.
It's not well known, but James B. Conant (then President of Harvard) promoted the SAT as means for getting poor,. but very smart kids into Harvard. Quote from "The Meritocracy’s Caste System: What’s Good and Bad about the SAT" (https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-meritocracys-caste-system-whats-good-and-bad-about-the-sat/)
"James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University and one of the most influential men of his day, wanted to replace this aristocracy of birth and wealth with what Thomas Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of the intellectually gifted from every walk of life, who would be educated to high standards and then be given the responsibility of governing society. The creation of what Conant called “Jefferson’s ideal,” a new intellectual elite selected strictly on the basis of talent, and dedicated to public service, would, he believed, make America a more democratic country.
In 1933, he gave two Harvard administrators the job of developing a nation-wide scholarship program for gifted students. The key to the administrators’ work would be the creation of a single standard for evaluating the astonishing diversity of the country’s high-school students. And the test Conant ultimately selected for that purpose—the newly developed Scholastic Aptitude Test—would become for many students a narrow path to the best opportunities—and richest rewards—in American society."
This is such an important article. I was a highly inconsistent and mostly not-great student - I found out at around age 30 that this was because I have ADHD! - from an immigrant family. My parents were professionals in Iran but came here after the Iranian revolution with no money, poor English language skills, and zero understanding of the American school system or what it took to get into college. I had no connections and no idea of how to pad my college resume. But because I always did well on standardized tests, teachers noticed me and recommended me for the gifted program and honors classes. I developed a love of reading and an interest in literature and history. I signed up for the SAT on my own, and bought myself a single book from Barnes & Noble to study for it. I didn’t even know SAT prep course existed, and my parents probably couldn’t have afforded them anyway. I was a smart kid but had trouble with discipline and focus, so I didn’t study nearly as much as I should have, almost entirely ignoring the math half of the book because I found math boring at the time. But I nonetheless scored well, and ended up getting into a solidly good college. Four years later, I did well on the LSAT too, and got a full scholarship to law school because of it. At every step, standardized tests helped lift me up despite the disadvantages I faced compared with more privileged kids. So it always breaks my heart a little when my fellow progressives push to eliminate standardized tests, because I know it means that a great many smart, talented, but underprivileged kids (as well as kids with issues like ADHD) will be left behind as a result.
Two humble suggestions. First, let's not call these tests "aptitude tests" . Suggesting that a test measures raw mental firepower or some other innate ability is misguided. All a test can measure is what has been learned so far in a person's life. It does not measure how easily a person learned it, nor whether a person had all the advantages (great schools, family support, private test prep tutors) or all of the disadvantages, not to mention motivation and other personal factors. I won't drone on, but in the end a test score on a academic admissions test is simply a reflection of the academic achievement of the test taker at the time the person took the test. Granted, current achievement is predictive of future achievement, but that does not mean that a test measuring current achievement provides insight into a human being's potential (i.e., aptitude). Human beings are amazing, and not only is it fundamentally false, but it also can be dangerous when one human being starts to claim that they have special insights into another human being's aptitude. My second suggestion is that since standardized achievement tests provide an additional piece of information on a potential student's current status, it is useful data to continue to collect. Useful does not mean perfect. For the author the additional information was critical in a positive way. There are others who could tell an opposite story. For the vast majority, a standardized test provides an additional layer of information that is useful to consider alongside other relevant information (e.g., admission essays, interviews) by colleges making admission decisions. Part of the push back against these tests is that they are perceived as being used as arbitrary cut offs to reject applicants versus as a useful piece of information that is considered alongside other useful pieces to find applicants to accept. College admission committees' should strive to make sure all of the students who they eventually accept are a good match for their academic program's expectations, and that the students who they accept have the potential to contribute positively to the college experience for everyone involved. I suppose this sounds idealistic, but if colleges were better at communicating they are recruiting a wonderful student body instead of setting up a "Hunger Games" type of competition for admission, perhaps the push back against the standardized tests would not be so intense. Of course, I went to a regional state score about an hour from my home where having a stellar standardized test score was not so important . Although I thought I got good education and emerged 4-years later debt free, employable, and happy, I'm sure the place would have horrified the Aunt Becky's of the world.
In any statistical analysis, there is variance, that is cases that do not fit the norm. On average, zip code is more predictive of performance on SAT which is why some advocate that it is not a measure of potential. There is other data that suggests that high school GPA is, in fact, more predictive of college performance than is SAT or ACT. I am glad that your score increased your self-efficacy. Your story, however, points out the failure of the adults in your world to recognize your intellectual talent and facilitate your engagement in learning.
Per some of the comments, aren't there genuine "poor testers?"
Are there good studies of what potential admissions criteria correlate with OUTCOMES? (College graduation rates, college gpa, subsequent job or advanced degree, lifetime earnings, etc.?)
McNamara's "Project 100,00" had a perverse effect on its supposed beneficiaries not mentioned here. A huge fraction of them were unable to adapt to the demands of military service and ended up "Undesirable" administrative discharges or "Bad Conduct" discharges by courts-martial conviction. They had poor prospects as it was, and then they were saddled with a further hindrance.