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SAT Scores Are Bullshit. So Why Are We All Still Obsessed With Them?

News that President Trump allegedly instructed Michael Cohen to suppress his SATs has the internet in a dither of schadenfreude. Also, aren't you impressed with my vocabulary? Don't you want to know MY score?

News that President Trump allegedly instructed Michael Cohen to suppress his SAT score and grades has the internet in a dither of schadenfreude and humblebragging. Trump, a self-described “stable genius,” loves bragging about IQ. He considers one of his strongest attributes “being, like, really smart,” and as he often reminds us, he has the raw intelligence and chutzpah of the self-made man. So the allegations that he was terror-stricken about someone discharging 55-year-old test results raises a few questions: 1) How substandard could the old boy’s SAT scores really be? And, 2) Does the keen vocabulary in these paragraphs suggest to you that my SAT scores were distinguished? Because I really need you to think so.

Well, sorry, nerds, but the only problem with all this pontificating is that even if Trump’s scores were shittier than a Michigan pothole, it doesn’t really prove anything. (A “good” score is generally above the national average, and in the early 1960s, when Trump would’ve taken it, an average score would’ve been about 975.) The SAT score, an increasingly contested metric in the world of higher education, is not exactly useless — but nor is it the something we think it is.

So let’s dive in. In 2019, how important is the SAT, really? And what are we really measuring?

The SAT Is a Modified IQ Test

The SAT, or the Scholastic Aptitude/Assessment Test, invented in 1926, was drawn from the Army Alpha, an IQ test devised a few years prior that measured the math, vocab, pattern recognition and common sense abilities of army recruits so they could separate the grunts from the officers. Princeton psychologist Carl Brigham adapted that test into the SAT and administered it to 8,000 high school students in a pilot program. It’s owned by the education nonprofit the College Board.

Soon after it was devised, Harvard president James Bryant Conant began using it for Harvard admissions in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until Henry Chauncey, an assistant dean at Harvard who founded the Educational Testing Service (who administers the SAT), hustled it into a wide range of colleges and universities in the late 1940s as an admissions tool that it became the ultimate metric of abilities that we think of it as today. Chauncey died in 2002, but in his obit, his son told the New York Times that Chauncey regretted that the SAT became the only shorthand for “college fitness,” when he’d only intended it to be just one of many criteria.

But it was too late, and outside of the regional (read: shittier) schools that would take the ACT, and in spite of the fact that nearly all schools insist either test is just fine, the SAT remains the dominant admissions test score for Ivy Leagues and what you might call “good schools.” Some of them want to abolish it, or at least the essay portion, and some 1,000 schools no longer require the score for admissions.

The SAT Can’t Measure the Many Types of Intelligence That Inform Success

Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor who devised the theory of multiple intelligences, argues that the educational system and testing (including the SAT, which he reasoned should have no time limit attached), fails to recognize the importance of myriad other ways of knowing and learning that lead to success. The SAT can’t test musical ability, for instance, or spatial intelligence. It can’t test bodily kinesthetic, which is what makes an athlete able to coordinate the body with grace. It certainly can’t predict emotional intelligence, which is a life skill so in demand that corporations now consider it essential to success on the job.

Still, It Was Meant to Level the Playing Field of Academics

The test has long been proven to be biased in terms of race, class and gender against women and minorities, but James Bryant Conant’s use of it at Harvard was meant to disrupt the legacy of wealthy elites attending the best schools, and instead demonstrate a Jeffersonian commitment to meritocracy, or a “natural aristocracy” that was based on intellect and not background.

It’s Bad at Predicting Collegiate Success

Generally, a high score on the SAT doesn’t mean you’re going to rule at life, but it has typically meant that you’re more likely to perform well in college (in terms of first-year grades, and also cumulative GPA after four years) and complete college, which is why it’s useful as an admissions tool.

Or at least, that’s what the College Board always said. New research finds that it’s not as much the case as once thought, though. It’s not as accurate a predictor of college success/completion as high school GPA is, though, but when both are good, that’s a better predictor than either score alone. If you score over an 1100 on the SAT, the research found, but only had around a 3.0 GPA, your expected graduation rate from college is only 39 percent. But a high GPA next to even an average SAT score correlates to a 62 percent college completion rate.

In other words, how well you do in high school makes more sense as a predictor of how well you’ll do in college, which is high school on steroids, than some general aptitude test you can game with $1,000-an-hour tutors and a good breakfast (though some of them claim to get that score up over 400 points).

More Accurately, It’s a Measure of Family Income

In an ironic twist, the SAT’s existence has merely doubled down on the original problem. Wealthier families have better educated children with more resources ranging from better schools to expensive tutors. The result? A high SAT score is the best predictor of a rich family. Basically, whites and Asians are neck-and-neck on SAT score domination, so much so that the latter group now insists that top schools are discriminating against them for having too nearly perfect scores.

But even if Trump’s score was shitty, it obviously didn’t stop him from getting into good schools, because you can still just buy your way in. That’s why the question “Would you rather be born smart or rich” is a trick, because rich kids are as good as smart.

Still, Some Working-Class Kids Can Get a Leg Up With Solid Scores

At least, anecdotally.

And Plenty of People Who Score High Don’t Get Far in Life

If you consider an advanced degree and money important. Some research does show that people who tested in the top 1 percent of SAT scorers went on to get advanced degrees, and those in the top one-tenth of 1 percent scorers ended up earning in the top–5 percent income bracket.

But the majority of business owners didn’t go to college.

That, plus his father’s wealth, are more reasons why Trump’s SAT score, terrible or not, has no bearing on his life “success.”

Which Means…

The SAT is really only great for bragging rights.

So That’s Why ‘SAT Twitter’ Is So Insufferable.

In response to the Trump SAT news, lots of people have taken the opportunity to point out how desperately some people need to humblebrag their SAT scores.

Or to make fun of the sort of people who would do that:

And given what we know about Trump as a rich troglodyte braggart, we know that this missed opportunity to preen himself about literally anything he can means the score was probably appalling. He would never pass up a chance to remind us of his stable genius. I, of course, would never do that. However, I did just use the words troglodyte and preen.