The dry grinding of a pencil sharpener. The imposingly thick test booklet, the strict margins of the Scantron. The ache in my restless legs. My recurring nightmare has come true: I'm taking the SAT again.
I'm writing an essay with a No. 2 pencil for the first time since I was 16 years old, and before my hand even has a chance to start cramping, my mind goes blank. The essay prompt is essentially an unanswerable question: "Do people accomplish more when they are allowed to do things in their own way?" Screw this question, I think. I don't know what "people" need to get their work done. I need structure, but who am I to say what a brilliant artist needs, or a coal miner for that matter? The writers of the SAT essay prompt are asking me to prescribe a work regimen for the entire race of man based on — I don't know — personal experience and salient anecdotes. Screw this question. Screw the SAT.
Ah yes, the sweet angst of high school. It's all coming back to me now.
My desire to retake the SAT goes back to March 2012, when Deadspin columnist Drew Magary took a free practice version of the test and published his hilarious diatribe "What Happens When A 35-Year-Old Man Retakes The SAT?" His account, laced as it was with profanity and vitriol, got me thinking: Seriously, how much SAT knowledge do we retain as adults? Does any of the stuff on that test matter in the real world? I decided to assemble a panel of local smart people and put the test to the test.
The idea wasn't to hold some academic pissing match and show which of us was the smartest. Hell, Lindsey Graham got an 800, and he's a U.S. Senator now. I was more interested in comparing each of the test takers to his or her high school self. In terms of the metrics measured on the SAT, are we getting better or worse as we age? More importantly, are those metrics even relevant outside of school?
It wasn't easy finding fellow masochists who were willing to spend four hours on a Saturday morning hunched over a bubble sheet, let alone ones who would let me publish their scores. "Nah," one gourmet chef told me, "I'm afraid to find out how much I forgot." Another memorable response: "I'd rather eat a pinecone." Completely understandable.
I wanted to gather a group of college-educated professionals who would stand a chance on either the verbal or the math side of the test. For those of you who haven't taken it in a while, there are now two verbal sections, Writing and Critical Reading, worth 800 points apiece. Both are tedious and awful; the Writing section includes the essay prompt I mentioned earlier.
Looking for a math heavyweight, I invited Matt Anderson, a motorsports engineer at Bosch whom I'd profiled previously for his interest in restoring exotic cars. He earned a strong, well-balanced score in high school, and, most importantly for the purposes of the experiment, he said he actually uses the math skills from the SAT in his day-to-day work. He also brought a unique perspective based on his interactions with engineers who started working straight out of high school.
"I know more people who have gotten low scores and are happy than high scorers who are satisfied with their professions," he said. "They generally lead lower-stress lives. If they can make enough money to not cause any burdens on themselves economically, they've got low-stress professions, they're happy, and they're relaxed."
So, with myself included, I had three wordsmiths and a mathlete onboard. As I was scrambling to find another left-brainer to balance out the team, I mentioned the project to my dad, who graduated from Georgia Tech in the early '80s and has spent most of his career working in information technology. "I'll do it," he said.
I felt uncomfortable welcoming my father into the test group. The whole experiment smacked of cynicism — about the SAT and about academia in general — and I knew he wasn't coming from the same mindset as someone like Junius Wright. He might have a slight proud-father bias; my brother and I both got strong scores on the SAT.
When the morning of the test finally came around and we all sat in the office conference room, cracking our necks and preparing for the long haul, my dad started stirring up conversation (as he does) and was emerging as the biggest SAT apologist in the room. While Wright spoke of the "danger of becoming a nation of great test takers" and lauded Finland's competition-free, no-standardized-test education system, Dad cited studies on the efficacy of the SAT and revealed something I didn't know before: Growing up, he wanted to be a journalist. One of his best friends went on to have a successful career in sportscasting, but my dad changed course after getting a lopsided score on the SAT: 710 Math, 480 Verbal."I wasn't a good test-taker or anything, but it was really clear to me," he said. "I ended up at Georgia Tech instead of pursuing liberal arts, and it pointed me well."
After the rematch was over, I asked my dad something I'd always wondered but never had the occasion to ask. In the seventh grade, through Duke's Talent Identification Program, I took the SAT — and I scored higher than my father had in high school. At the time, I felt oddly guilty about it, as if I was shaming the man who had been a constant source of stability and encouragement in my life.
So I finally asked: Did it bother him when I topped his score? No, he said, he didn't mind. Then he reasserted his belief in the power of the test.
"I think it is reflective, to some degree, of really bright people," he said. "I think when people look at you and Brian, if they'd never heard your SAT score, they would already know you're pretty darn bright."
I was one of those sick bastards who actually, on a certain level, enjoyed standardized tests. As an anal-retentive who obsessed over grades, nothing grated my nerves quite like a poorly worded assessment. In middle school, I sometimes melted down in tears because a teacher had written an ambiguous question about grammar or Egyptian history, with multiple interpretations of the question leading to multiple correct answers. Didn't she see that her careless word choice could mean the difference between my getting a 96 and a 92? Looking back, I realize I was a perfect hellion.
To me, the SAT was the ideal test (except for the essay section). The questions were meticulously worded and vetted by a series of experts, so I knew that every analogy, geometric puzzle, and reading comprehension question would hold up to the battery of my relentless teenage scrutiny. I knew the test was loaded with trick questions, but I was trickier.
Still, I was not immune to the gnawing terror that comes with high-stakes standardized testing. I took the SAT twice in high school, knowing full well that my score would determine much of my academic future. My school offered a semester-long SAT prep class, but I opted out because it would interfere with my Advanced Placement course load. I didn't lose sleep over it, but I did go into the testing room at Charleston Southern University with a tightness in my chest, a film of sweat on my palms.
I remember one afternoon when Summerville High School decided to bring in an SAT coach for a pre-test pep talk of some sort. The instructor's name was Tim Jantzi, and while I've forgotten the specific advice he gave us, I remember his tone was conspiratorial. The system was rigged, and he knew all the secrets. If we only followed a few key test strategies, we could beat the SAT into submission.
Jantzi is still around, managing a small SAT prep empire in Boston, Buffalo, Charleston, Indianapolis, and Nashville. He's part of an SAT prep industry, dominated by titans like Kaplan, that pulls in $4 billion a year, according to a 2009 Wired article. I called him up for a little pre-test pep talk and to try out a claim he made on his website: He can accurately predict your SAT score within 20 points immediately upon meeting you.
Jantzi was exactly as I remembered him. "I take it about once a year," he said. "I love the SAT. I love it. I. Love. It."
When I asked him to elaborate on that opinion, which set him apart from every other person I had ever known, he offered this explanation: "I tell everyone, it's in English, OK? We're done here," Jantzi said. "You don't have an excuse when you didn't do what the question said, because it's in English. It's amazing how many times kids get the question wrong because they didn't read the question."
Simple as that, I guess. He offered to give me a few test-prep pointers in advance of the rematch, but I declined. One of the rules of the experiment was that none of us could prepare or review in advance. We wanted to see how much school knowledge stuck, not how good we were at outsmarting a test writer.
At the end of our phone call, I asked Jantzi to predict my new SAT score. He told me that, based on my profession and time out of school, I would probably drop 40 points on the Math section and keep the same Critical Reading score I got in high school.
I was flattered by his prediction, but I knew I was going to do much, much worse on the math section. I took no math courses in college, and the basic principles of geometry are more or less lost on me by now.
In the end, my high school performance didn't get me accepted at my favorite school, the University of North Carolina, and I wasn't impressive enough to get a full ride to the University of Georgia or Mizzou's journalism schools. But my high SAT marks did get me over the threshold to attend the Honors College at USC, where I pulled in a boatload of scholarships. It wasn't my first choice, but it was my home for four years. I learned from a few great professors, landed some internships, and found a job doing what I love.
I've been dealt a strong hand in life, and as much as the SAT was instrumental in getting me where I am, I still regard it with skepticism. If the test is unfair, it's unfair in favor of people like me.
The morning of the big SAT rematch, we met in the conference room upstairs at the City Paper office, calculators and pencils unholstered. Our college acceptance wasn't on the line this time, but some of us were worried about our reputations.
"All my teacher friends told me this is the bravest thing I could possibly do," Wright said. "Someone called me an idiot." He shared a word of advice from his son: "Every five minutes, just get up and walk around." We probably should have taken his advice; my back ached and my head was swimming by the time we got to the third of the nine sections.
The proctor (my wife) asked us if we were ready to start the first section, the essay. When we had all settled in and sharpened our pencils, the proctor started a kitchen timer. Game on.
As I said before, the essay was a travesty. Partway through, I realized I didn't agree with what I was writing. Without meaning to, I had fallen into the old suck-up teacher's-pet mode of writing, and I didn't even know what I believed anymore. Have I mentioned that I don't miss high school?
"It's more difficult mechanically because I don't do things on paper anymore," Bobbie Rose said during an intermission. "If we had it on a computer, it would be faster." She raised a good point. Nursing board certification tests are done on a computer; why can't the College Board, the purveyor of the SAT, get its act together and digitize the test?
As soon as we moved on to the multiple-choice sections, I wished I had taken those pointers from Tim Jantzi. The test itself doesn't tell you how it will be graded, so unless your parents signed you up for an SAT prep class, you likely have no idea whether to guess on questions you're uncertain of or to leave them blank. (As it turns out, you only lose points for guessing wrong, so if you can't narrow down your choices, it's best to skip the question.)
Matt Anderson found himself in the same pickle as I did. "Any specifics to taking the test in terms of strategy were lost on me, so I'm sure I lost a few points there," he said.
Anderson and my father breathed sighs of relief every time we came to another math section, and while I was predictably lost on many of the math problems — I had forgotten, for instance, what an integer is — the reading sections were no picnic either. My eyes kept glazing over as I tried to plow through an essay selection that gunned down trite old opinions about television and the "dumbing down" of America. Whoever wrote this essay, Neil Postman he was not.
The test drained me. I wanted to take a nap, and I kept getting distracted by the comely proctor, who was giving me stern looks over her glasses while crocheting a hat in the corner of the room. I zoned out reading a speculative passage about extraterrestrial life. I found myself getting frustrated that the test writers didn't hyphenate compound modifiers.
"They're trying to trick you!" Wright announced at the end of Section 5, a multiple-choice writing section. "It's all coming together how messed up this whole thing is. It really is. There are so many things in there that I teach, but they're taken out of context ... So if I'm looking for a great writer, then this is sort of a nightmare for that great writer."
"So what's your opinion of the SAT, then?" my dad asked dryly.
And then there were questions like this one:
Pfffft, OK. Next question.
SAT doesn't mean anything anymore. What used to be the Scholastic Aptitude Test is now an empty acronym, according to the College Board. It's just the Essaytee, an opaque symbol for a nation's adolescent anxiety.
The test turns 88 years old in June, and the jury is still out on whether it's a good predictor of academic success. According to a list at fairtest.org, more than 800 American universities have SAT-optional and ACT-optional admissions. MIT professor Les Perelman famously critiqued the new writing section in 2005 after conducting a study that found one of the best ways to predict an essay score was to look at how long the essay was — regardless of factual accuracy or writing quality. "You're getting teachers to train students to be bad writers," Perelman told Slate in an interview.
The critics pile on. A March 2000 article in the APA quarterly journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law stated that "SAT scores not only have no statistical validity for tracking trends in the achievement of American students but actually show a perverse relationship to the trends in achievement as tracked by statistically valid scores."
Still, the SAT is the most widely used college admission test. The website of its creator, the College Board (which offers an Official SAT Online Course for just $69.95!) states that "the combination of high school grades and SAT scores is the best predictor of your academic success in college." Backing up that claim, a 2012 College Board study showed a correlation coefficient of 0.53 (that is, middling correlation) between SAT scores and college freshman GPAs. In fact, the study found that the essay section was "the most highly predictive" of the three sections when it comes to freshman GPAs.
The results of the SAT rematch surprised a few of the test takers. While Anderson and I took home the top scores, my dad turned out to be the most improved, gaining 120 points overall since his original test in 1977. He actually lost points in Math, but he credits his improved Critical Reading score to his time spent around my mom and me, the family bookworms.
"I think people dismiss the test because 'Oh, I'm not a good test taker,'" he told me during a car ride to dinner after I gave him the results. "Whether I'm a good test taker or a bad test taker — I'm probably not a good test taker — it's for the very reason that it revealed: I don't read large sections of text very well ... I can study scripture, but I can't read a novel and walk away with comprehension of it. But that is a handicap in my life and my career."
Bobbie Rose, the Mensa member, says she wasn't shocked by her low Math score. She took an accounting track in high school math, which she says didn't prepare her for upper-level mathematics. But she was surprised by how exhausting the test was. "When I got home, I was so mentally beat, I couldn't even carry on a conversation," she says, adding that the new SAT was more challenging for her than the IQ test that got her into Mensa.
"I think what I learned was that it doesn't necessarily apply to real life or a real career," Rose said. "It definitely can and many times does, but it doesn't necessarily."
Wright, the teacher, is still an SAT hater, even though he gained 60 points overall since high school. He says the test gave him a fresh perspective on the pressures his students face in the new academic landscape where standardized tests dictate everything. Wright got his colleague, a teacher who has graded SAT essays, to read over our essays for the Writing section, and he said one of her comments on his essay was particularly revealing.
"'More specifics, less philosophizing'?" he repeated to me over the phone. "That sums me up as a person, anyways."
Part of me still believes the SAT writers are a bunch of con artists. It baffles me that we've entrusted the entrance exam for most public universities to a private company. And I still remember the impotent rage I felt as a high school senior when the College Board gouged me with fees for sending my scores to colleges. Who charges an emailing fee?
But another part of me fears that the SAT knows me all too well. Jantzi was right: I lost exactly 40 points in Math. I actually gained 50 points in Critical Reading, though, and I lost 80 points in Writing.
Touché, SAT, touché.
* Since most of the participants did not take the Writing section their first time, the Writing score and the new total (out of 2400) are listed separately from Critical Reading (which is comparable to the old Verbal section) and Math.