Some things the SAT can't measure

The Baltimore Sun

The high-decibel chatter that occasionally typified the start of my 12th-grade English class was suddenly silenced.

"I want this noise to stop!" our teacher roared, accentuating her words by slapping her palm on the desk. As we sat stunned, wondering what had we done to derail her normally genteel disposition, she lashed out again: Our daily horseplay, she insisted, indicated how we rarely took classwork seriously.

And that, she said, was why we and other South Carolina students were making headlines for performing poorly on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), leaving the state's teachers as targets for criticism.

That was nearly 30 ago, yet from that moment, I no longer viewed the SAT as merely an exam that would help determine which college I would attend.

In fact, I would discover that in the minds of many, the SAT had other uses. It was, for example, a telltale measure of how smart and dedicated a student was.

Or how good his parents were at parenting.

Or how proficient his teachers were.

Or whether his state truly cared about education.

Or how he and others of his race stacked up intellectually against those of other races.

I've often reflected on that moment at Hannah-Pamplico High School, particularly as Maryland students' standardized test results have also been scrutinized.

In 2006, Maryland seniors' SAT math scores dropped for the second consecutive year, falling 13 points lower than the national average. Many state educators decried the drop as troubling; they said it was due in part to more students taking the test and the math portion being harder than before.

They also pointed to the fact that more minorities, who historically score lower than whites, had taken the test. What followed were widespread discussions about the disparities between blacks and whites, the quality of teachers, the commitment from parents and the shortcomings of the Maryland's education system.

Regardless of where one stands on the validity of standardized tests as a measure for aptitude, here's one irrefutable fact: For any student trying to get into the college of his or her choice, those tests are emotionally taxing without the stigmas attached.

In fact, I doubt whether those who argue the implications of students' results have any idea of how it feels to a be judged by a score.

But I remember it well.

I grew up in Pamplico, S.C., a sleepy, working-class, farming-and-factory town an hour west of Myrtle Beach with a population of 1,200. Our public high school was (and still is) regarded as exceptional. Yet only students who were recognized as gifted drew considerable interest from teachers. I was fortunate to be one of them; most of us were steered to college-preparatory courses.

Many others received scant interest at best, including some who clearly had talents that simply required extra work in cultivating. Most of them received a basic, vocation-oriented schooling, which often meant just enough to earn a diploma.

For too many of them, education was a ritual, not a pursuit. Some were promoted to higher grades despite having failed courses.

This went on for years, presumably without questioning, until South Carolina drew headlines for its students' poor SAT performances.

I recall state officials bemoaning our place on the SAT landscape, like parents of a wayward child wondering where they had gone wrong.

Then came the fingerpointing: The legislators criticized the school district heads, who blamed the teachers, who chided the students. They said we all cared too little. We watched too much television. We lacked priorities or a sound work ethic.

My white English teacher said we African-Americans - even those of us who posted good scores - were the root of the problem, for bringing down the state's overall average.

A's, B's or GPAs suddenly paled in comparison. So did the joy one had for literature class, the pride one took when rigorous study yielded a better-than-expected grade in chemistry. Or the fact that, unlike our state, many others limited their test-takers to those in college preparatory programs and had offered SAT workshops.

No one bothered to ask the students about their sense of the test. Nothing explained how one exam had come to be considered such a great measure of intellect. None of it made sense. And now, more than a generation later, I cannot believe how little has changed regarding the test's emphasis.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for implementing and maintaining high academic standards. And I believe in holding all parties responsible for ensuring that students meet those standards - especially the students themselves.

Yet even the New York-based College Board, which administers the SAT, often discourages state-by-state comparisons. Surely, more needs to be done to prevent such widespread conclusions from being drawn from one exam.

Perhaps the College Board could examine the quality of life of its test-takers 10 to 20 years after college. Surely, those findings would suggest no link between any test score and success or failure, courage or cowardice, wisdom or ignorance, benevolence or cold-heartedness.

Until then, I empathize with Maryland students, as well as current South Carolina students, who were recently scrutinized for their performances as my class was back then.

That goes double for those who posted high marks only to have the joy of their individual achievements overshadowed by the shortcomings of a larger group. They got a taste of real-world unfairness that, if handled well, might prepare them for similar trials on the horizon.

Too bad there's no standardized test for perseverance.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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