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Big Score When Mom takes the SATs

Publication Date: 2014-02-25

This is from The New Yorker, March 3, 2014, in which Elizabeth Kolbert ponders, "The SATs may determine a studentâs future, but what do they really measure?"

This is an informative, highly entertaining essay.

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Taking the SATs is not something to do lightly. Nevertheless, on a frigid Saturday morning not long ago, I found myself filing into a classroom with twenty sleep-deprived teen-agers. One of the girls was carrying two giant SAT review books studded with pink Post-its. I couldn't decide whether sheâd brought them along to do some last-minute studying or to intimidate the competition. We'd been assigned to a chemistry classroom, and its walls were covered with placards offering a variety of emergency-evacuation instructions and motivational sayings.

"If you aim for nowhere, that's just where you"ll go," one poster observed.

"Some days you're the pigeon," another, written in runny, guano-colored letters, said. "Some days youâre the statue."

The proctor, who herself seemed oddly nervous, handed around the tests and the answer booklets. After issuing a series of warnings, which she read word for word from a script, she told us that we'd have twenty-five minutes to complete the first section of the exam--the essay question. The last time I took the SATs, there was no essay. Fortunately, though, I'd been warned about this development, along with many others, by Debbie Stier, the author of The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT (Harmony). At the age of forty-six, Stier decided to devote herself full time to the test, with the goal of achieving the maximum possible score of 2400. My hopes were modest: I was looking to avoid humiliation. What this meant in numerical terms, I'd resolved to leave unspecified. Ohanian Note: Trying to motivate her son, Stier took the SAT seven times in one year.

On this particular day, the essay question involved progress--does it require struggle and conflict? According to Stier, the key to scoring well on the essay is a clear thesis. "Declare, donât waffle," she counsels. Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog.

I considered my options. I wanted to argue against the questionâs very premise; who can even really say what progress is? Then I realized that everyone else was already scribbling away, so I ditched that idea and went with the obvious: "No pain, no gain." I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer's famous line "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,â I couldn't remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier's advice--"Details count; factual accuracy doesn't"--I made something up. (Emphasis added)

Next there were some vocabulary questions, and then a math section. The girl with the review books was sitting directly behind me. We must have been given different tests, because, whenever I was trying to read, she was clicking away loudly on her calculator. By around the fifth section--grammar for me, more math for her--I was starting to flag. I felt increasingly at a disadvantage, and not just because the last time I reckoned the surface area of a cylinder my fellow test-takers had not yet been born. As the morning wore on, they seemed to be growing perkier, while I was suffering from caffeine deprivation. My sixth section was math, with free-response questions of a sort that also hadn't existed when I went to high school. One problem involved finding the coordinates of the point where two lines on a graph would intersect. Only one of the lines had been drawn, and I knew that to answer the question I needed to figure out the slope of the second. But I couldn't, and I had to leave the answer blank. Then I had to leave another answer blank. Soon I came to a reading section, with a long passage about writing and running by Haruki Murakami. Was this passage "analyzing an activity" or "challenging an assumption"? Both seemed valid. Was a phrase in a second reading passage "speculative" or "ironic" or "defensive"? Damned if I knew. By the time I got to the tenth section, I was zonked. That's when I made a dreaded bubbling error. I started to fill in my responses in the part of the answer booklet reserved for section nine. I went to erase the errant marks, but then I wasn't sure how many I needed to get rid of. In the confusion, I felt my chances of getting into the college of my choice slip away, which, considering the circumstances, says a lot about the power of the SATs.

Stier, a divorced mother of two who lives in Irvington, New York, decided to take up the SATs for the same reason we all do foolish things: out of love. Her oldest child, Ethan, a B student with modest athletic abilities (yet several minor concussions), was a sophomore in high school. Stier, in her words, was "beginning to feel frantic." Ethan would soon be applying to college, but what were his chances of getting into a good one?

"A possibility presented itself,â she writes. "Ethan could study for the SAT, earn high scores, and get a scholarship at a decent school." There was just one hitch: Ethan wasn't interested in studying for the SAT. He preferred playing Halo. So Stier thought she would model the behavior she was hoping to inspire: "I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself." Initially, she intended to sample a different test-preparation method each month, but her "project" kept growing, or metastasizing, until she determined to take the SAT each of the seven times it was offered in the course of the calendar year. She'd try taking the exams at seven different schools, to see if desk size or classroom configuration had any impact on her results. "Not too far into it I got a teensy bit crazed," she writes.

Before embarking on her quest, Stier's only experience with the SAT was the sort that most students have, or at least had: she'd taken the exam just once, in 1982, when she was in high school. As almost anyone Stier's age will recall, SAT scores then came in two parts--verbal and math--with a maximum combined value of 1600. (The three-part test, with a top score of 2400, was introduced in 2005.) Stier had received a 410 on the verbal and a 480 on the math, scores she characterizes as "very bad." Still, she attended Bennington College and went on to a successful career as a book publicist. That Ethan might try to follow a similar trajectory is precisely what has her concerned.

"The land I would be sending my little tadpole into was a different place," she writes. No longer, she's concluded, can a kid from an affluent suburban community expect to waltz his or her way into a decent college, and from there back into an affluent suburban community: "The days when you could la-di-dah your way out of Bennington" and into "a guaranteed starter job in the industry--a job, not an internship--were gone."

Stier's worries about Ethan are quickly transferred to the exam he's not worrying about. She signs up for a Kaplan online course, which she ends up hating "every minute of." She buys a Barnes & Noble's worth of review books: "Dr. John Chungâs SAT Math," "A-Plus Notes for Beginning Algebra," "The New Math SAT Game Plan," "Kaplan SAT 2400," "Kaplan SAT Strategies for Super Busy Students," "Kaplan SAT Strategies, Practice & Review," "Outsmarting the SAT," "The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar," "PWN the SAT: Math Guide," and the College Board's "Official SAT Study Guide," which is known as "The Blue Book." She Skypes with a tutor named Stacey in Seattle; undertakes a regimen called Cogmed, which is supposed to improve her memory; and meets with a tutor named Erica in New York City. Throughout it all, she frets.

"There was anxiety everywhere," she writes of the run-up to her first SAT of the year. "My anxiety level was soaring," she observes of the approach to the second. "I started to panic," she says, recalling the weeks leading up to the third.

Somewhere between the fourth SAT and the fifth, Stier's project very nearly collapses, along with her family life. It's summer, when no SATs are offered, and Stier decides this would be a good time for her and Ethan and Ethan's younger sister, Daisy, to work together on their math skills. She brings the kids to a local tutoring center so they can all take a diagnostic exam. Apparently, the two teen-agers have not been consulted about this plan, because they react with fury. Stier, in turn, is enraged by their behavior. Harsh words are exchanged. That night, the kids decamp to their father's house. Some days later, they reappear, but bad feelings linger.

"Ironically," Stier observes, "it was now time for Ethan to begin studying for the SAT in earnest, and we were barely speaking." Bowed but not broken, she returns to the tutoring center alone. There she learns from Jennifer, the preternaturally patient woman who runs the place, that she has tested at a third-grade level. Stier requests extra practice sheets so she can quickly work her way up to high-school math. Instead, she gets bogged down on long division.

"'How long till the polynomials?' I'd always ask Jennifer," she recalls. "'Not for a long time,' Jennifer would say."

The SATs were administered for the first time on June 23, 1926. Intelligence testing was a new but rapidly expanding enterprise; during the First World War, the United States Army had given I.Q. tests to nearly two million soldiers to determine who was officer material. (Walter Lippmann dismissed these tests as "quackery in a field where quacks breed like rabbits.") The SAT's inventor, a Princeton professor named Carl Campbell Brigham, had worked on the Army's I.Q. test, and the civilian exam he came up with was a first cousin to the military's. It contained some questions on math and some on identifying shapes. Mostly, though, it focussed on vocabulary. Brigham intended the test to be administered to students who had already been admitted to college, for the purposes of guidance and counselling. Later, he argued that it was foolish to believe, as he once had, that the test measured "native intelligence." Rather, he wrote, scores were an index of a person's "schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else."

By this point, though, the test had already been adopted for a new purpose. In 1933, James Bryant Conant, a chemist, became the president of Harvard. Conant, the product of a middle-class family, was dismayed by what he saw as the clubbiness of the school's student body and set out to attract fresh talent. In particular, he wanted to recruit bright young men from public schools in the Midwest, few of whom traditionally applied to Harvard. Conant's plan was to offer scholarships to ten such students each year. To select them, he decided to employ the SAT. As Nicholas Lemann observes in his book The Big Test (1999), this was one of those small decisions "from which great consequences later flow." Not long after Harvard started using the SAT, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale followed suit. More and more colleges adopted the test until, by the mid-nineteen-fifties, half a million kids a year were taking it.

In the early decades of the test, scores were revealed only to schools, not to students. This made it difficult to assess the claim made by the College Board, the exam's administrator, that studying for the SATs would serve no purpose. Still, a brash young high-school tutor named Stanley Kaplan concluded, based on the feedback he was getting from his pupils, that the claim was a crock. Kaplan began offering SAT prep classes out of his Brooklyn basement. Accusations that he was a fraud and a "snake oil salesman" failed to deter his clientele; the students just kept on coming. In the nineteen-seventies, Kaplan expanded his operations into cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami; this is when the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate his claims. The commission found that Kaplan was right: tutoring did boost scores, if not by as much as his testing service advertised. The College Board implicitly conceded the point in 1994, when it changed the meaning of the SAT's central "A"; instead of "aptitude" it came to stand for "assessment." Then the board took the even more radical step of erasing the meaning of the name altogether. Today, the letters "SAT" stand for nothing more (or less) than the SATs. As the Lord put it to Moses, "I am that I am."

The premise of Stier's "project" makes Kaplan look like a piker. Her high-school SAT scores put her below the national average among test-takers in 1982. Three decades later, she's proposing to loft herself into the upper reaches of the ninety-ninth percentile. (Stier can never quite figure out why there isn't a hundredth percentile.) Out of the more than one and a half million students who now take the SATs each year, fewer than five hundred will earn a "perfect" score. These are, Stier concedes, daunting statistics, and at one point she considers scaling back to "The Higher Score Project." But she rejects this idea after Daisy and Ethan accuse her of setting the bar too low.

Since Kaplan set up shop, test-prep tutoring has come out of the basement. It's now a billion-dollar industry whose primary product is heartache: college admission is, after all, a zero-sum game.

What might be called the Institute for Advanced Study of tutoring services is a Manhattan-based operation called Advantage Testing. Advantage's tutors hold Ph.D.s from Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, and its rates can run as high as seven hundred and ninety-five dollars for fifty minutes. (Emphasis added.) (A friend of mine who has worked for Advantage told me the tutors there get paid according to an algorithm based, in part, on how many points their pupils' scores increase. My friend's own personal best was an eight-hundred-and-twenty-point jump.) During her yearlong quest, Stier is repeatedly advised to go to Advantage--"Everyone uses them," a real-estate mogul she knows tells her--but she balks at the price. Finally, with less than three weeks to go, she decides she's got to try it. "By that point, I would have considered refinancing my home," she writes. Advantage, however, will not assign her a tutor on such short notice. After considerable noodging, the president of the company, Arun Alagappan, agrees to meet with her. He tells her that the whole premise of her project--sampling a different method of test prep each month--is misguided; successful preparation requires a sustained approach. This critique only makes her that much more desperate to sample Advantage's method. At last, Alagappan relents, and Stier spends the last two weeks of her project camped out in Advantage's office. She comes to feel so at home there that when other students arrive for their sessions she buzzes them in.

What does all this "struggle and conflict" accomplish? The first scores Stier receives as an "adult tester" show that four years of college and twenty-plus in the publishing industry have considerably boosted her sentence-completion skills; before any prep, she scores a 610 on the writing section and a 680 on critical reading. At first, it seems that her math score--a 510--has also improved, but this turns out to be an artifact of the curve. Thanks to a generalized decline in scores, the College Board in 1995 "recentered" the exam. As a result, Stier's original 480 in math has been pushed up by thirty points, so officially her new number and her old one are equivalent.

In subsequent SATs, Stier continues to make progress. By her third exam, she's lifted her scores to a 700 on the writing section, a 690 in reading, and a 530 in math. Her scores keep on climbing until, on her fifth exam, she does reach perfection, or a least a third of it--an 800 on the writing section. On that test, she gets a 740 in reading and a 560 in math. This turns out to be Stier's peak. All of her scores drop in the sixth exam, and two of them drop again in the seventh. She ends the project on a note of frustration. She's spent an entire year bisecting angles and factoring quadratics; still, her final math score, 530, is, by her own account, mediocre. "Oooofff," she says of it.

The morning I took the SATs, none of the other test-takers paid much attention to me. Probably this was because they were preoccupied with the exam, but it may have been because adults are to teen-agers just too weird to bother about. The only person to comment on the oddity of the situation was one of the security guards posted by the bathrooms, who cheered me on. "You go, Mom!" he called out during one of the breaks.

As an adult, I found the test more difficult than I had as a teen and, at the same time, more disappointing. Many of the questions were tricky; some were genuinely hard. But, even at its most challenging, the exercise struck me as superficial. Critical thinking was never called for, let alone curiosity or imagination. Ironically--or was it defensively?--this was most apparent to me while I was blathering on about the Manhattan Project. A study by an instructor at M.I.T. has shown that success on the SAT essay is closely correlated with length: the more words pile up, the higher the score. When, at Advantage Testing, Stier is shown essays that have received top marks, she is horrified. They are, she writes, "terrible."

Whatever is at the center of the SAT--call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition--the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended. Itâs not just high-school seniors who are in its thrall; colleges are, too. How do you know how good a school is? Well, by the SAT scores of the students it accepts. (A couple of years ago, the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had inflated students' scores to boost the school's ranking.) As befits an exam named for itself, the SAT measures those skills--and really only those skills--necessary for the SATs. â¦

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