Mak­ing a stan­dard­ized test­ing mole­hill into a moun­tain

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

Dur­ing my school days, I used to en­joy tak­ing stan­dard­ized tests the way some peo­ple like do­ing cross­word puz­zles. To me, they were more re­ward­ing than most of what went on at school. As an avid reader and an in­dif­fer­ent stu­dent, tests like the SAT were made for some­body like me -- a book­worm who read fast enough to fin­ish the exam early and who knew lots of vo­cab­u­lary words he’d never heard spo­ken at home.

Per­haps ac­cord­ingly, I’ve al­ways found the re­cur­ring spasms of anx­i­ety and out­rage that ac­com­pany the Col­lege Board’s every ad­just­ment in what used to be called the Scholas­tic Ap­ti­tude Test to be overblown and un­per­sua­sive. So when I read a Wash­ing­ton Post col­umn by Prince­ton grad­u­ate Chris­tine Emba ref­er­enc­ing the SAT as a “hazy, hor­ri­ble mem­ory” and “the test from hell,” it’s hard not to sus­pect ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Most pro­fes­sional writ­ers had high ver­bal scores.

I’m guess­ing Emba did too.

Or maybe it’s be­cause my other great pas­time back then was sports. Play­ing ball­games, you learn pretty quickly how good you are, how good you’re not, and how to deal with it. I’ve al­ways won­dered if some of these stressed-out hot­house flow­ers would ex­pe­ri­ence less SAT anx­i­ety if in­stead of drilling with tu­tors, they’d spent more time get­ting cho­sen last in pickup games.

In­deed, one rea­son Amer­i­cans love sports is their ob­jec­tiv­ity. You can’t bluff your way into Ma­jor League Base­ball; no amount of Daddy’s money can put you in the NBA. So it’s good to re­mem­ber, as Jonathan Wai, Matt Brown and Christo­pher Chabris, a trio of ed­u­ca­tion re­searchers, wrote re­gard­ing those Hol­ly­wood ac­tresses and hedge fund man­agers who scammed their chil­dren’s way into elite col­leges: They had to hire ringers to take the SAT. That is, “they had to fake in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity -- the one thing they could not buy.”

Grades, cour­ses, rec­om­men­da­tions, all these things can be pur­chased. But when it comes to col­lege ad­mis­sions, they write, “for every priv­i­leged stu­dent whose bad SAT score keeps them out, there is an­other stu­dent whose SAT helps get them in.”

I was one of those, although I never thought it made me a ge­nius. The SATS mea­sure ver­bal and math­e­mat­i­cal fa­cil­ity, noth­ing else. For ex­am­ple, I have zero mu­si­cal ap­ti­tude and couldn’t draw a rec­og­niz­able hu­man face to save my life.

The test said I had math ap­ti­tude; it re­mains the­o­ret­i­cal.

For that mat­ter, I had a child­hood friend who could scarcely read (dys­lexia, I sus­pect) but who had amaz­ing me­chan­i­cal abil­ity. Steve

was mak­ing lawn­mower-mo­tor go­carts and re­pair­ing TV sets in ju­nior high. School was tor­ture for him, but post-sput­nik, he made rock­ets in his fa­ther’s base­ment shop and fired them out of sight. He aced shop class; I did not.

Any­way, here’s the thing: No­body in our cir­cle ever thought Steve was stupid. Af­ter I left for col­lege, he moved out to Cal­i­for­nia, where he be­came a suc­cess­ful con­trac­tor. I ex­pect he hires the book­work done.

Not ev­ery­body needs to go to an Ivy League col­lege.

Which brings us to the lat­est cod­dling mech­a­nism by the Col­lege Board, some­thing called an “En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­text Dash­board,” pur­port­ing to mea­sure with so­ci­o­log­i­cal ex­ac­ti­tude the pre­cise de­gree of priv­i­lege or deprivatio­n in a stu­dent’s back­ground. Col­lege ad­mis­sions of­fices will be pro­vided a num­ber from 1 to 100 based upon things like real es­tate val­ues, crime rates in the stu­dent’s neigh­bor­hood, av­er­age SAT scores in his or her high school, etc. Kind of like the “de­gree of dif­fi­culty” mul­ti­plier in com­pet­i­tive div­ing, I sup­pose.

Sup­pos­edly, the “ad­ver­sity score,” as The Wall Street Jour­nal dubbed it, will be kept con­fi­den­tial from test­tak­ers -- a stip­u­la­tion that I doubt will sur­vive the first law­suit filed by a dis­ap­pointed Prince­ton ap­pli­cant.

Any­way, I’ve no clue what de­gree of dif­fi­culty would have been ap­plied to my own scores. I never lived in a posh neigh­bor­hood, although my sub­ur­ban high school sent lots of stu­dents to pres­ti­gious col­leges. My mother, a high school grad­u­ate like my fa­ther, taught me to read at age 3, and spent much of her life re­gret­ting it.

See, when other kids were work­ing on Dick and Jane, I was read­ing nov­els by John R. Tu­nis and Al­bert Payson Ter­hune. (Base­ball and dogs.) A bit later, I’d hide a flash­light un­der the cov­ers to keep read­ing my Book of Knowl­edge en­cy­clo­pe­dia af­ter lights-out.

My mother feared I’d go blind. In­stead, I went off to Rut­gers, The State Univer­sity, which sent me an ad­mis­sions let­ter ba­si­cally say­ing that given my SAT scores, my high school grades were a dis­grace, and that I’d bet­ter wise up. So I did, be­cause I couldn’t take my hard­work­ing par­ents’ money and flunk out.

How­ever, I’ve never be­lieved that my fa­cil­ity with stan­dard­ized tests made me any­body spe­cial. And I also think that many Amer­i­cans’ ob­ses­sion with send­ing their chil­dren to “pres­ti­gious” high-dol­lar col­leges verges upon ma­nia.

Arkansas Times colum­nist Gene Lyons is a Na­tional Mag­a­zine Award win­ner and co-au­thor of “The Hunt­ing of the Pres­i­dent” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eu­gene­[email protected]­


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