Scores affect college choice but not necessarily success

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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, July 8, 2010

I wrote a story several years ago about great people who got terrible SAT scores. If you are wallowing in shame over your score in May, and quiver at the thought of taking the SAT again in October, consider the case of Bob Edgar, who got 730 out of a possible 1600. (That would be a 1100 or so on this era's 2400-point scale.)

"You are not going to get into college," his high school counselor told him, "and if you do get in, you're going to flunk out."

He got into Lycoming College, a fine Williamsport, Penn., school started by Methodists, only because it had promised to admit anybody studying for the ministry. Once enrolled, Edgar immediately displayed leadership skills untested by the College Board. By his sophomore year, he was running a small church. He was later elected to Congress for six terms and is now president and chief executive of Common Cause, the nonpartisan government watchdog organization.

His story buttresses an important fact about the SAT and its equally worrisome counterpart, the ACT. The scores affect where you go to college but have much less influence over how successful you are in life.

Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, studying data on 23,572 students who entered college in 1976, concluded that the character traits students acquire long before they pay their SAT prep-course fees are what determine success in life. The four-digit (or for some three-digit) scores they get on the SAT don't mean much long term.

There are plenty of examples of this, although confirmation can be difficult. The late Minnesota senator Paul D. Wellstone (D) reportedly got less than 900 on a 1600-point scale. Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (D), a Rhodes Scholar, allegedly scored a 485 on his verbal.

So what? "I don't know of a single job interview where I was asked what my SAT scores were," Annandale High School career center specialist Robin Roth told me when I asked about Edgar's story. (Roth's street smarts have helped students for many years, even though she got only about a 950 on the old 1600 scale.)

Many colleges are catching on to this. They know that the SAT and the ACT are designed to do nothing more than predict first-year college grades. They also know that high school grade-point averages do that job about as well. So they are admitting students without any SAT or ACT scores at all. Bob Schaeffer 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."

But the SAT and the ACT serve one important function. They are useful guides to which colleges are most likely to take you. We don't need colleges listed by their states, or their academic strengths, or their ranks on the U.S. News list. We need them sorted out by the average SAT and ACT scores of their incoming freshmen. There are great schools at every SAT or ACT level, full of amazing people like Edgar. Check out those in your score zone, and pick the one you like best.

SAT scores should be treated no more seriously than golf handicaps. I am at that age where a once-a-week tour of the links would be good for me. I won't tell you my SAT score, but my average golf score is about 120. One number is useful for finding the right college. The other can get me placed with the right foursome. What I do with those opportunities is up to me.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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