In Praise of the Middling SAT Scorers

 In Praise of the Middling SAT ScorersRecently I’ve seen a number of students who have earned excellent grades in tough courses at good high schools but who can only muster middling scores on the SATs.  Despite extended tutoring, repetitive practice tests and sitting for multiple testing, these students continue to score in the 600 range on each of the three SAT sections.  They feel frustrated and less-than, resigned to seeing themselves as stupid when they observe less able students in the classroom earn much higher SAT scores in a seemingly effortless way.  Parents and teachers may also believe that these middling scorers are not as smart, despite curricular evidence to the contrary, which further diminishes their self-confidence.  One student’s teacher told her that there was something wrong with her brain.

The emperor has no clothes here, folks.

I have worked with standardized testing for more than three decades and I can tell you with all honesty that there are very few admissions officers in this country who actually know what these tests are testing.  We are familiar with the differential testing patterns within gender, race and socio-economic backgrounds.  We know about stereotype threat.  Yet everyone, it seems, thinks that someone who scores an 800 is intrinsically smarter than someone with a 700.  This is just not true.

As I spend time listening to students across all scoring ranges, I’ve come to observe something important.  I’m going to generalize like crazy here, so forgive me.  But I think that the higher scoring kids are more concrete thinkers, quickly capable of determining right and wrong, black and white.  They code and decode.  This is in keeping with their stage of adolescence where life seems to be a series of rather simple choices.  The students with the excellent grades and middling scores, however, are more likely to see life in a more nuanced way, open to the possibility that two of the four multiple choice answers could be right under certain circumstances.  They seem better able to see the grays in life, which is the hallmark of adulthood.  In a real way, I think the middlings are ahead of their more concrete peers in maturity of thought.

This being said, I’d like to argue for some serious changes in the private college admissions process.  I’d like to see more middlings admitted to top universities because of this intellectual maturity.  I would like to see colleges look for evidence of past failures and rebounding rather than to focus with zombie-like zeal on perfect grades and scores.

It’s well worth the experiment because it’s entirely possible that the middlings make better university students in the end.  They have experience dealing positively with frustration and they are more capable than most of seeing the textures of life.  Sounds like the kind of students faculty would want to teach.   Sounds like maturity to me.

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