“Big Score” by Elizabeth Kolbert. The New Yorker, 3/3/2014.
I never took the SATs, and that was unusual even back in 1954. I didn’t need them. I was going to Penn State who accepted all Pennsylvania residents, even those like me with no SATs and less-than-stellar high school grades. Then they furiously weeded out the misfits during the freshman year. The toll was horrendous, but at least we had one final chance to get serious about education with a clean slate in a new location. Worked for me.
I had read somewhere that the SATs were originally an anti-Semitic ploy adopted to counter the flood of Europeans (read: Jewish) after WWII who were getting all of the scholarships by studying long hours. At that time, the scholarships were based almost entirely on high school grades, and American parents felt their party-going progeny were being unfairly punished for their more rounded lifestyle. Their children would surely get the scholarships if they, too, became dreary grinds. Hence, the new emphasis on the SAT scores which purportedly measured natural intelligence and were not affected by fanatic dedication to study.
SAT, originally standing for “Standard Aptitude Test,” began in 1926 and was strongly based on intelligence tests developed by the Army for officer candidates during WWI. In 1933, they were first used by Harvard to determine acceptance, and other colleges quickly followed. By the mid-1950s (my time!) half a million students each year were taking it.
Although the College Board, administrators of the SATs, claimed studying for them was useless, a young high school tutor, Stanley Kaplan, thought that was a crock and started very successful SAT prep classes. In 1994, the College Board acknowledged the criticism by changing the name to “Standard Assessment Test.” Since then, they removed the words entirely, so today “SAT” stands for nothing, like the S in Harry S Truman.
Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The New Yorker article and obviously a successful, grown woman describes a frigid Saturday morning when she joined a group of sleep-deprived teenagers taking the exams. They largely ignored her incongruous presence, but a bathroom monitor called out, “You go, Mom!”
She was doing this to research her article which is mainly a review of the book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, by Debbie Stier.
Stier was a 46-year-old mom who set a goal of getting a perfect SAT score of 2400 as an inspiration to her two children (but only alienated them). When she first took the SATs back in 1982, the test was just two parts, verbal and math, with a top score of 800 each, making the perfect score 1600. She scored only average then (scores 410 and 480) but got into Bennington and became a successful book publicist. The SAT now is in three parts, critical reading, math, and writing, of 800 points each. The writing section involves composing a short essay.
In her later-life quest for perfection, Stier bought SAT study books and attended expensive prep classes. She peaked on her fifth SAT exam with a perfect score of 800 on the new writing section, but 740 in reading and 560 in math. After year of concentrated math study and two more attempts, her math score actually dropped to 530. Of a million and a half students taking the SATs each year, less than 500 get a perfect score.
(In my years of administering the Red Cross Lifeguarding written test, no one got a perfect score, despite the test being rather simple and taken by many bright students in their 30s. The mind numbs after a long string of questions, and occasional foolish errors are almost inevitable near the end.)
Even Kolbert struggled with the essay part of the SATs. She recommends the advice of Stier to begin with a clear thesis and “Declare, don’t waffle.” Take a position and bang away at it as you might attack a piñata or a rabid dog, she tells us. Advice you might pass on to your grandchildren.
(Like the rest of the world, I am unsure of whether SAT or SATs is correct. I am leaning toward the singular as logically correct, but the plural seems more common.)