I had planned to write something about President Barack Obama or about some other pressing issue. Like, is President Obama really operating as a Vulcan when it comes to his policy decisions, all logical with repressed emotions? Or can a computer virus ever become a real world one, and start a pandemic that will destroy our civilizations? Or if we ever created the Star Trek equivalent of a holodeck program, will our birthrate drop to the point where humanity would be in danger of extinction because we engaged in sex with virtual people? Or is it possible to impregnate a nine-dimensional hologram? Sadly, I decided against all of these topics because of an article in today’s Wall Street Journal about the efficacy of test preparation programs for the SAT and other national standardized ETS and College Board exams.
The article goes on to say that there isn’t much bang for the buck from the Kaplan’s and Princeton Review’s of our world. For the $1,000 or $1,500 folks plop down to make their scores a couple of hundred of points higher, they really only raise their scores by a handful, maybe even 50 or 70 points. True that. Yet is this really news to anyone who has ever taken the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, Praxis I and II, GMAT, PSAT, AP and other exams? Books like Nick Lemann’s The Big Test and Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen have shown over the years that family income as it relates to race, gender, neighborhood and public schools is the single biggest factor in the scores that students earn on these exams. In other words, if you didn’t grow up with parents who read to you as a toddler and young child, have immediate access to information through physical or online encyclopedia, dictionaries and thesauruses, or traveled to various parts of the world, oh well! That’s a disadvantage that can’t be made up by taking a six or ten-week class in test strategies and cramming words like “acerbic” and “esoteric” and “etymological” into your brain.
I should know. Even with years of accelerated classes, of being around kids who traveled and lived the boring lives of the upper middle class and the affluent, I wasn’t as well prepared for standardized tests as them. Of course, some of them took test prep classes even with their built-in socioeconomic advantages. October ’85 was the first time I took the SAT, when it still stood for the “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” I scored a 1050: 480 Verbal, 570 Math. That’s well above the national average even now, and was about 200 points above it back then. For African Americans, whose average scores in the mid-80s was a 736, it made me seem genius-like by comparison. I knew those kind of statistics even then. But I also knew if I wanted a scholarship or to get into a school like Columbia or Yale, I would need a score closer to 1200.
The following October was when I faced the SAT again. I prepared dutifully at the end of the summer of ’86 and into September. I went through the entire Barron’s SAT prep book. With all of that, my score went up, but only by another 70 points. I scored an 1120 this time: 540 Verbal, 580 Math. My classmates scored 1360, 1350, a couple of them 1280s, one a 1220 and a bunch of them 1200s. One of them had the nerve to say, “only an idiot would score under 1200.” I assumed that the comment was directed at me, since the asshole looked directly at me when he said it. I know for a fact that some of them took a Kaplan or some other course to help them prepare. The reality was, though, that most of them would’ve scored at least my score without any test prep at all.
A new standardized test cycle began for me during my junior and senior years at Pitt. Luckily, I did learn a thing or two about taking these kinds of tests during my undergraduate years. I hadn’t learned nearly enough, though, and I still didn’t have the funds to pay for a test-prep course. I took the GRE for the first time in February ’90, with next to no preparation. My total score was a 1680 out of a possible 2400: 530 Verbal, 580 Math and 570 Analytical. The Analytical section was new, having just been added to the exam that year or the year before. Based on my SAT experience, I knew I’d have to take this exam again.
But there were a couple of interesting wrinkles in my standardized test plans. One was that I was learning how to drive that spring and summer, and for me, that was tougher than the GRE. Especially since no one in my family owned a car, and I split my time between Mount Vernon and the ‘Burgh between May and September. I also wasn’t certain whether I should go to grad school for a master’s in history, or to law school for something a bit more sensible. So I bought two Barron’s books, one for the LSAT and one for the GRE in August, and hoped for the best.
I ended up taking the LSAT the week before I took the GRE for a second time. I’m not sure what the LSAT is like now, but back in ’90, it was virtually two-thirds Analytical and one-third Verbal Reasoning and Reading Comprehension. I spend about two weeks off and on preparing for it. I scored a 31 (out of a possible 47) on the exam, which put me at the 50th percentile. Pretty average, obviously! But it also helped me prep for the GREs. The one area my score improved was the Analytical section. My total score was a 1720: 530 Verbal, 570 Math and 620 Analytical.
In a twist of irony, because the section was so new, not one of the admissions people I talked with even knew what to do with my Analytical section score. I was rejected by UC-Berkeley and the University of Virginia because my verbal and math scores didn’t put me in the 70th or 80th percentile (I was only in the 64th and 51st percentiles for those scores). Mind you, my Analytical score — the one that involves critical reasoning, a key component for being a brilliant historian — put me in the 74th percentile. Even Pitt, NYU and the University of Maryland — all schools that accepted me into their programs — didn’t account for that particular score.
I say all of this because standardized testing, test-prep and other related work is really a crock when it comes to evaluating students for college or advanced degree/professional programs. At best, they can be used to show how students with a certain level of life knowledge can perform under the pressures of a timed bubble exam (of course, now they use essay writing too). These tests, regardless of what the psychometricians at ETS and The College Board say, don’t correlate well to how students actually perform while in postsecondary, graduate or professional education. They tend to weed out folks who otherwise would do all right, but not great, in college or graduate school more than they help others who would likely get into an undergrad or grad program even without taking these exams. Two friends of mine from Pitt both took the LSAT at least three times. Between the two of them, their highest score was a 17 (back in the day when the point-scale for the LSAT was between a 12 and a 47).
Anthony Carnevale, a former vice president at ETS (and someone the folks I used to work for full-time should’ve hired for our education reform work back in ’02), let it be known a decade ago that ETS had been doing some promising research into understanding the correlation being SAT scores and family income as it related to race, gender and neighborhood. It snowballed into a controversy over what many in the press called the “Strivers Report,” where it was suggested that someone with my upbringing could have my SAT score of a 1120 weighted to reflect my relatively high score. In other words, an affluent White male from Scarsdale with a 1280 SAT score and my 1120 score would be seen as the same under the circumstances. The mere suggestion led to many a conniption fit among policy makers, educators, and affluent parents.
I respectfully submit that any education system or policy that doesn’t account for relative circumstance is an inequitable one, and that not all standardized test scores are created equal. If the elite schools like UC-Berkeley, Harvard and Princeton can recognize this, why can’t the rest of us?