Friday, May 29, 2009

SAT (For Better or Worse)

Key West -- It's that time of year for those of you who will be applying to college in the fall. You have to take them. You have no choice (well, almost no choice). But look at it this way. You can't possibly do as poorly as I did. (More about that in a minute.)

A few years ago I was asked to give the commencement address at Mount Holyoke College. Usually I think long and hard about accepting such an invitation. But not this time. From the moment their invitation reached me I didn’t think twice. They had no way of knowing this, but they'd given me a second chance.

To explain I have to take you back to 1956 when I was a senior at Battin High school in Elizabeth, NJ, the only all girls public high school in the state. When it came time to apply to colleges I knew next to nothing about the different schools, though I’d heard there were a lot of boys in Boston and boys were high on my list (but that's another story). I knew very little about the College Boards (SAT) either, except you had to take them. We didn’t have Kaplan courses or coaches to prepare us then, and our teachers never mentioned them.

I can still remember that sunny Saturday morning in May when my mother dropped me off at the Pingry School, site of the dreaded test. I remember opening the booklet and reading the first paragraph of the first essay. I remember it not making any sense to me. I read it again, or tried to, but by then my heart was pounding, my mouth, dry. The words on the page began to blur together. I had a fantasy of getting up from my seat and calmly walking out of the building, calmly walking away from Elizabeth, NJ.

Instead, I flipped through the test, the panic inside me rising – then I picked up my number 2 pencil and filled in all the little circles at random. No kidding. I really did that. When the test results came in my high school guidance counselor, who had never spoken to me before, called me into her office.

“You have to take the College Boards again,” she told me. “You’ve got the grades. You’ve got the activities. But I want you to go to Mount Holyoke and you’ll never get in with this score.” (I think it was something like 350 -- that's probably as low a score as you can get -- which is why I don't recommend random answers.)

The only thing I knew about Mount Holyoke was they required the Afternoon Boards. (That's what we called the achievement tests) so I told the guidance counselor, “Never – I’m never taking any of those tests again.” She shook her head. “What a waste.”

Cut to that invitation from Mount Holyoke. When I read they had the funding to try a different way of identifying students who might do well there -- that for three years they weren't going to require standardized test scores -- I knew I was going to give that commencement speech. And when I did I told them why that day meant so much to me. It wasn't just that I was there at last – it was that today I might even be accepted as a freshman. I thanked them for that on behalf of all of us whose minds work differently. I got my honorary degree and that day remains a highlight of my life.

I've been arguing against judging prospective students by their SAT scores for years. Doesn't test creativity, doesn't prove how well a student will do at college or at life.

So why am I kvelling (beaming, swelling with pride) that my grandson has just received his SAT scores and they hit the top? (He would not be happy if I told you his actual scores.) Partly because it's amazing to me that anyone with at least some of my genes could come up with scores like these. Especially in math! He actually likes standarized tests.

My husband says -- "You, of all people, Judy -- who've railed against these tests for years -- how can you be so impressed?" Sorry, George -- can't help it. I know it doesn't predict how you're going to do at real life. I mean, Amanda hated the SAT almost as much as I did. She graduated from U New Mexico and guess what? She's a huge success at life and has a thriving career as a political consultant. Much in demand. Nobody ever stops to ask how she did in her SAT.

I cut a story by Sara Rimer out of the New York Times on Monday, September 29, 2008. The headline reads:

Study of Standardized Admissions Tests Is Big Draw at College Conference

5,500 college admissions officials and high school guidance counselors gathered in Seattle at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The main event was William R. Fitzsimmons's first public presentation of the findings of the Study of the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission. Basically, after he said the SAT had many advantages, he affirmed that they and other standardized admissions tests are "incredibly imprecise" when it comes to measuring academic ability and how well students will perform in college.

I'm sure the debate will go on for years. I have to thank NYU for accepting me as a student despite my dismal scores (and Boston U, and Syracuse). I was a good student. So is Elliot and I know he'll do well wherever he goes. Those scores of his may mean he has more options and it's always good to have more options. While test results don't tell the whole story (and he knows that) I'm a grandparent first, so I'm entitled to celebrate, right?

Which brings me back to the SAT. A stressful time for many of you, I know, especially today when everything might depend on financial aid. But try not to worry. If you want to go to college, if you're determined, you will. And you'll enjoy it, wherever you go. Wishing you well.
xx Judy