Bad Scores, Good Company
Analysts and Achievers Say SAT Results Don't Dictate Success
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page B01
The Rev. Bob Edgar remembers his SAT score all too well -- 730 out of a possible 1600. He also remembers what his high school counselor told him: "You are not going to get into college, and if you do get in, you're going to flunk out."
"That was helpful," said Edgar, indulging in sarcasm because the prediction proved to be so untrue. After graduating from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and becoming a prominent Methodist minister, he served six terms in Congress and now is general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
As millions of teenagers agonize over the latest round of SAT and ACT results, some former test takers are speaking out about what their low scores meant -- and did not mean -- to them. "I am convinced I never would have received my doctorate if I had taken the results of standardized tests too seriously," the late Minnesota Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D) had written in an article published in 2000. His SAT score reportedly was below 900.
Many analysts say there often is a disconnect between good lives and good scores. "People forget that these tests are supposed to predict which high school students are going to be successful as college freshmen," said Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist with RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "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."
According to the College Board and ACT Inc., owners of the two primary college-entrance tests, last year at least 2 million American high-schoolers got SAT scores below 1200 or ACT scores below 26, usually putting them out of the running for admission to the most selective colleges. At least 1.2 million of the total 2.6 million test-takers scored below 1000 on the SAT, or below 22 on the ACT.
But history suggests that those students are in good company. A survey of 1,371 millionaires by Thomas J. Stanley, author of "The Millionaire Mind," found that many had SAT scores below 1200, and they averaged 1190. Many of them were told by high school teachers that they were mediocre students but had engaging personalities, Stanley said.
That was the message Edgar got in school in Springfield Township, Pa. "I majored in football, wrestling and track," he said in a recent interview. He was a leader of youth groups and a 138-pound fullback on the football team, but he got C's in classes.
Lycoming College took him, Edgar said, only because it had promised to accept any student studying for the ministry. By his second year of college, he had so impressed the local Methodist leaders that they gave him a small church to run, the start of a long career in his church and in politics.
Wellstone attended Yorktown High School in Arlington. He went on to become a political science professor at Minnesota's Carleton College and served 12 years in the Senate. He died in a plane crash while campaigning in 2002. A spokesman for Wellstone Action, a St. Paul, Minn.-based group dedicated to his ideas, said he often spoke about his miserable record on standardized tests.
Some educators said that, unlike Edgar's counselor, they are very careful when speaking to a student who has just gotten a low score. "I tell them that the SAT is not a test of intelligence and is not the be-all and end-all," said Robin Roth, a career center specialist at Annandale High School. "I also tell them that I don't know of a single job interview where I was asked what my SAT scores were." Roth said the emotional trauma of a low SAT score is such that, at age 53, she is still embarrassed to say she scored about 950.
Jim Parent, retiring this year as principal of the Calvert Career Center in the county's public schools, said his SAT score was so low that his teachers refused to tell him the figure. "James, I don't think you should even consider college," he recalls a priest at his Catholic high school telling him. "Your best bet is to go directly into the workforce when, and if, you get a diploma." Instead, Parent earned a doctorate in education and worked 42 years in public schools, including 25 years as a principal.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said, "No test can measure the skills that matter most in life: creativity, perseverance, collaboration, vision, self-discipline and the like."
Many educators anticipate even more focus on the SAT next year as an essay section is introduced, increasing the length of the timed test from three to nearly four hours and raising the highest possible score from 1600 to 2400. The lowest score anyone can get on the new SAT will rise from 400 to 600.
The two major-party presidential candidates in 2000 had above-average SAT scores: 1206 for George W. Bush and 1355 for Al Gore. Many public officials decline to reveal their scores. Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (D), a Princeton University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, declined to comment on widespread reports during the 2000 primary election season that his verbal score on the SAT was 485. Verbal and math scores, each with a possible high of 800, are combined to get the overall SAT score. Because of a scoring readjustment, SAT scores before 1995 were somewhat lower for the same number of right answers.
Novelist Amy Tan is reported to have scored below 1200. Actress Drea de Matteo, who gained stardom through her role in "The Sopranos," said she did much worse than that: 800 for the entire test. She told Playboy magazine that she filled in the spaces on the math section without looking at the questions -- just to make a diagram -- and thinks she must have gotten several of them right. "If I didn't, that means I got a perfect 800 on my English section," she told the magazine.
Edgar said he does not bear emotional scars from his early testing failures, but he urges school counselors to be more encouraging than his was. "We need to give young people hope and stop classifying them because they didn't make the grade in their high school years," he said. "We do too much in our society of telling young people they are going to be failures because they can't take tests."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company