I have dodged rockets fired at my army base in Vietnam. I have clutched the door handles tightly as my taxi driver sped 40 miles per hour in reverse to avoid an onrushing Chinese tank. I have been tear-gassed in Chicago, Manila, Beijing and (as part of basic training) Ft. Lewis, Wash.
But I have never been as frightened as I was that day my senior year of high school when I forgot to check the clock and realized I did not have enough time to read and answer all the questions that were left on my SAT test.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Accordingly, I understand the primordial panic that is rising in the brain stems of many high school juniors as they face the new, longer and harder 2005 version of America's most feared examination. Probably a million and a half college applicants will take the new test this year, beginning March 12, and they will be right in thinking there are more enjoyable ways of spending 3 hours and 45 minutes.
But do they need to be afraid of it? I don't think so. It will have for the first time an essay question, requiring 25 minutes of fast thinking and writing, and there will be grammar questions and more critical reading sections and algebra II problems that were not on the test before. But as far as getting a good education and having a good life is concerned, the new test is not the make-or-break moment that many students think it is. Here are seven reasons why:
1. A GOOD SAT SCORE WON'T GET YOU INTO THE IVY LEAGUE: Winning acceptance to a very selective college is no longer a rational or predictable process. There are so many high-scoring applicants to the most popular institutions that they could fill their entire freshman classes with students who were perfect or nearly perfect on the SAT, and still have many more such people on their reject list. The old joke in the admissions offices of such colleges was that they could have an entire class of people who got 1600 (the top score on the new SAT will be 2400), but at the first marking period half of them would discover they were in the bottom half of their class and the university mental health clinic could not handle the load. So a good score on the SAT only gets you into the maybe pile. What actually decides your fate are your activities, your grades, your recommendations, your ethnicity, your family's ties to that college and how many other good students at your high school want to attend the same institution.
2. A DISAPPOINTING SAT SCORE WON'T SEND YOU TO A BAD COLLEGE: It is difficult to tell exactly how the new 2400-point scale is going to play out in the messy mix of student lore and statistical analysis that produces popular perception of what is a good and a bad score. I suspect that for those seeking selective colleges, getting at least a 2000 will assume the mystical power in high school cafeteria conversations that getting at least a 1300 has in the past. But as millions of college students with less than 1300 scores can tell you, not making 2000 is not going to be that big a deal. The activities and recommendations and grades mentioned above will balance a bad day at the SAT testing center. More importantly, the quality of colleges that take students with sub-par scores has never been higher. All those kids with perfect SAT scores (and well as brilliant young professors) for whom there was no room at the Ivies had to go somewhere, so the level of teaching and learning at the top 300 schools -- including all the big state universities -- is now so high that new students quickly forget their disappointments.
3. SAT GUIDE BOOKS AND PRACTICE TESTS ARE ALL THE PREPARATION YOU NEED: The research shows that practice improves SAT performance. "No duh," you say, and you would be right. If you need to take an SAT prep course that costs your parents a lot of money so that you will not worry that your friends in the course are getting ahead of you like a certain young person of my acquaintance, then go ask mom or dad to write the check. But please remember that buying a practice SAT test book, or borrowing one from the school library, is likely to be all the preparation you need. The many SAT guide books are full of good tactical advice, when to guess, how to handle the tough questions, etc., so read them, and relax.
4. THE NEW ESSAY QUESTION WON'T BE THAT TOUGH: The new 25-minute essay, written by you and graded by human beings, is new for the SAT, but the very similar SAT-II writing test has been around a long time and college applicants have not found it that daunting. You have heard rumors that if you don't follow the new SAT essay scoring rubric to the letter, you're chop suey, but those reports are not true. All you have to do is answer the question with a few concrete examples and try to be as clear as possible. No need to worry about topic sentences or spelling or impressive vocabulary. The readers are being told to grade at a glance, with no more than a minute spent reading each essay, and letting their overall impression be the deciding factor. If you don't believe me, read my colleague Michael Dobbs's eye-opening article on what he saw and heard in a room full of SAT essay graders practicing recently in Iowa City.
5. YOU CAN ALWAYS TAKE THE ACT INSTEAD: The SAT's rival test had almost as many customers last year, 1.2 million to the SAT's 1.4 million. It is accepted by the same colleges and universities and has a few useful differences for those who might be spooked by the new SAT. There is, for instance, no required ACT essay question, although there is an optional essay for those who want it. And unlike the SAT, the ACT allows students to send to colleges only those scores they like best. I personally think this is not a big issue, since college admissions offices do indeed ignore your worst SAT scores and count only your best ones. But for people who can't stand to appear in public with their T-shirt wrinkled or their hair not right, the ACT score-choice option may provide some peace of mind.
6. PLENTY OF PEOPLE WITH TERRIBLE SAT SCORES HAVE HAD GREAT LIVES: Students usually don't learn this until they are well into adulthood, but character counts more than test-taking ability. The most happy and successful people are those who have the persistence and energy and good humor to find things they like to do and pursue them with passion and patience. Some of us acquire knowledge and skills faster than others, but the slow-pokes who understand the value of time eventually catch up. The Rev. Bob Edgar, a former congressman who is now general secretary of the National Council of Churches, had an SAT score of 730. Paul D. Wellstone, the late U.S. senator from Minnesota, scored below 900. A survey of 1,371 millionaires by Thomas Stanley found they averaged only 1190, with many of them scoring below 1000. Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., said SAT scores are designed only to predict first-year college grades. "They are not supposed to identify individuals with a strong will to succeed or otherwise seek out individuals who will do wonderful things in their lives." And if that isn't encouraging enough for you, remember that even if you are unconscious when you take the new SAT, your score is going to be 600, so much higher than last year's 400 minimum.
7. YOUR SCORE, WHATEVER IT IS, PROVIDES A USEFUL GUIDE TO WHICH COLLEGE SUITS YOU BEST: A major study of graduates from both selective and non-selective colleges by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger suggests that getting into a name brand school will not make much of a difference to your success in life. Students who had the character traits mentioned in reason 6 and went to colleges with lower average SAT scores were making just as much money 20 years later as those who went to the schools with the highest SAT averages. But your SAT score can help you decide which college suits you best. All the major college guides provide the mid-range of SAT scores for each school's freshman class. If your score falls in that range between the 25th and 75th percentile, or is above it, you have a good chance of getting in. No matter what your score, you are likely to find a college that suits you. And if the whole idea of dealing with the SAT or the ACT makes you feel like a psychometric galley slave, there is an escape hatch. Go to the Web site of FairTest, The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, and look at their list of fine colleges that de-emphasize or ignore the SAT and the ACT altogether.