Education and the SAT

Often in this space I recall my wonderful childhood experiences growing up in my parent’s home in rural South Carolina where faith, family, friendship, work, and education were the cornerstones of our household. It is the last of these values that I would like to discuss today.

From as early as I can remember, my parents emphasized the importance of education. They expected us to attend and graduate college, knowing full well that a college degree would allow us to achieve the things they could not. My mom and dad were forced to drop out of school in the 6th and 7th grade to work on the sharecropper’s farm and they didn’t want the same dead-end fate for their children. They always reminded me and my siblings that education created opportunities for a better life. And they were right – a good education has allowed me to pursue every avenue I ever desired in life.
I first learned about the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT, before entering grade school. My parents sat my siblings and I down for a conversation (lecture) about the test. They told us that although good grades were important, the underlying factor of getting into the best universities was how well we scored on the SAT. Although this may seem like added pressure for young children, looking back, the perspective my parents gave me allowed me to focus my energies during school. Every hour studying was about more than just good grades and improving knowledge – it was about preparing for the SAT. My entire educational experience became centered on preparing for and scoring well on this test. 

Throughout the years, the SAT has survived harsh criticism, overhauls, racial bias debates, and various other issues. But nobody was prepared for this one. Two weeks ago, the College Board disclosed that it had found scoring problems on the October SAT after two students requested that their tests be re-scored by hand. During the review, the board became aware of a more serious problem and asked Pearson Educational Measurement, the testing company responsible for scoring the exam, to rescore the October exams. As of today, the board is reporting that 4,400 students received understated scores and 613 received overstated scores. U.S. News & World Report recently reported that Amanda Hellerman, a senior at Yorktown High School outside New York City, says her score went up 320 points. Hellerman, near the top of her class with a 4.1 GPA, decided not to apply to Brown University because of her false SAT score. "I was relieved to know the score was wrong," she says, "but frustrated to find out now."
Like my siblings and I did, high school students around the world put a tremendous amount of time and energy into preparing for the SATs because of the heavy weight colleges place on the test. A difference of a hundred points could mean getting into a dream school or settling for a “safety” school. Moreover, I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be for students who have worked so hard to prepare for this test to receive a low score, not because of carelessness on their part, but because of the carelessness of the board entrusted with administering the test. Such carelessness begs numerous questions: How could a board that has so much responsibility be so incompetent? If these two students had not requested a re-score, would this issue have ever been brought to light? And finally, has this ever happened before?

The fact that the board only spotted a problem after two students asked for a recount lets me know that incompetence is running rapid at the College Board, they would not have caught this error by themselves, and there is good possibility that such a mistake has occurred in the past. Because the administering of the SAT has now been shown to be less than perfect, colleges must reevaluate the importance they place upon it. I have never been one to be critical of the heavy emphasis colleges place on the SAT, but this latest fiasco has forced me to reconsider my opinions of the test. I will now question the validity and value of the test – and perhaps that is a good thing.

While test scores may be a good indicator of how well a student will perform in school, there are numerous other factors that should be given just as much attention, such as the student’s grades in school, his involvement in the community, and his overall drive and determination. Perhaps this debacle is what was needed for colleges and universities to realize that it is time to reform the system that places too much weight on a test score. And perhaps in a few years after changes to the test occur my parents and I can have another conversation about the SAT – this time discussing its important history, but insignificant future.