Sunday, October 18, 2009

Guilt, Shame, Denial: Elite Schools and the SATs

Searching for the right college with your kid is not the most entertaining process in the world, so if you need a break in the tension, ask the admissions officer about the school’s reliance on SAT scores. Then watch him or her react like a family-values politician who has been caught doing an Eliot Spitzer.

“SATs?” they’ll respond with an avuncular chuckle and twinkle in the eye, “Oh, I wouldn’t obsess so much about the SATs. You know, we really pride ourselves on looking at the whole student.” Translation: “What do you take us for?! Do you think we’re so horribly shallow as to pay attention to something as meaningless, as common as the SATs? My God, that would be like dating a girl just because she’s pretty! You may find some rival institutions who sink to that level, but not us. Of course, we require SATs, but just so we can glance at them, in the most cursory way, for divertissement, if you will.”

I’m not sure where this outpouring of guilt is coming from, but it’s spread to the high school college counselors, as well. I heard one of them suggest that the entire SAT process is a conspiracy between the College Board (which administers the test) and the Princeton Review (the biggest test prep company). In fact, he said, “The SATs don’t measure intelligence, they don’t measure knowledge, all they measure is the ability to take the SATs.”

Well, maybe. But when my first born was tutored for the SATs, no one planted a secret test taking chip in his brain. (I was watching.) His scores went up, because he studied and learned more vocabulary words and mathematical formulas than he knew before he started. Could all that educational time, effort, and expense have been put to even better use? No doubt. But the colleges and universities are calling the shots, and they remain addicted to the SATs, despite how clearly embarrassed they are by their own behavior.

So if the young scholar in your house is attempting to scale the ivy covered walls of academia, should you eschew the expense of SAT tutoring and have your kid read T.S. Eliot or memorize the chord structure to Beowulf instead? Well, let’s look at some of last year’s average SAT scores.
Harvard: 700-800 (Critical Reading) 700-790 (Math) 690-790 (Writing)
U of South Florida: 500-600 (Critical Reading) 510-610 (Math) 470-570 (Writing)
Seton Hall: 470-580 (Critical Reading) 480-590 (Math) n/a (Writing)

I discern a trend. But hey, that’s just me. You really don’t need to obsess over SAT scores if you’re applying to Harvard—unless you want to get in.