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Testing The Testers  
Ever wondered whether the lessons of life—not to mention advancing age—would boost your SAT scores? Our intrepid columnist boldly retakes the controversial exam  

    Dec. 17 —  Well, mom, I still can’t get into Harvard, but I might be able to get wait-listed at Williams. Those conclusions are inescapable, thanks to my less-than-sterling performance on the SAT earlier this month. Yes, two Saturdays ago, I got out my trusty Number 2 pencil and joined 1,000 nervous teenagers at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn to delve straight into the heart of the heart of darkness for generations of American kids: The dreaded Scholastic Aptitude Test.  

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  MY GOAL WAS, of course, journalistic. Once again, the 75-year-old SAT is under fire from college administrators, who believe that the test is a worthless evaluator of a student’s past academic performance and an uneven predictor of future collegiate achievement.
        The University of California system—one of the biggest customers for the College Board’s SAT—is even thinking of abandoning the test altogether. Students should be judged on the basis of their actual achievements, not on ill-defined notions of aptitude,” said Richard Atkinson, president of the Cal system, who also complained that the SAT “sends a confusing message to students, teachers, and schools...that students will be tested on material that is unrelated to what they study in their classes.”
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       Atkinson, like many educators, prefers exams that test students on what they’ve actually learned—like the subject-oriented SAT II, which sounds more like a 1970s missile treaty than an achievement test—because such tests tell educators how good a student a student actually is.
        What California is considering is positively earth-shaking in the education community, but my desire to take the SAT was more than just good journalism. Like most of you, I often wish I could revisit crucial moments in my life and figure out what went wrong. And the SAT, the defining test of my pre-adult life, certainly fit that category.
        Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some middle-aged loser who sits around moaning that “youth is wasted on the young.” But I do have a deep conviction that middle age is wasted on the middle-aged. In other words, what good are my thirty-something years of knowledge and experience now that I’m too old to do anything with them? But if I could only beam my accumulated knowledge to my naive, careless, awkward, 16-year-old self, I could avoid some critical professional blunders. (Some examples: Why didn’t I take that radio job? Why didn’t I do that internship? Why didn’t I order porterhouse that night at Sparks?)
        Not that I did badly on the SAT the first time around, earning a parent-pleasing 710 (out of 800) on the math section and 650 on the verbal. But back then, I was just a kid. This time around, I had several major advantages in my favor:
       1: A college education, which I estimated would be worth 25-50 points on my combined score.
       2: A life spent learning how to recognize shortcuts and avoid hard work (25 points.)
       3. A recent discovery of caffeine (100 points.)
        But I didn’t want to go into the test blind, so I perused the practice exam that the College Board sent over in return for my $25 registration. Checking out the math section, I could immediately sympathize with Atkinson and the other SAT detractors. One question asked, “Which of the following numbers can never be the units digit of 3 to the x power?” What the hell is a “units digit”? Hey, perhaps I’m not Yale material, but isn’t it more important to find out if a kid knows how to calculate 3 to the x power than whether he knows what a units digit is?
        And do we really want to live in a country where kids are supposed to know what the “mode” (the most common entry) of a series of numbers is? I mean, say I have set of numbers (and how often do I have a set of numbers anyway?) 1, 5, 7, 8, 15, 15 and 23. Do I care that the mode is 15? You could argue that teaching kids averages is important because they determine everything from how much a ballplayer should get paid next year to a particular assembly line’s productivity. But “modes” are ultimately useless.
        Of course, there are real-world uses for questions such as, “If Train A is traveling east at 50 miles per hour and Train B is traveling west at 30 miles an hour and they start out 1,200 miles apart, when will they collide?” I mean, if you ever find yourself at a railroad crossing, a simple calculation could save your life (provided you take into account Amtrak’s notorious tardiness, which is not tested on the SAT, by the way).
Once again, the 75-year-old SAT is under fire from college administrators, who believe that the test is a worthless evaluator of a student’s past academic performance and an uneven predictor of future collegiate achievement.

       By contrast, the verbal section is a complete joke. Sure, they’ve made the reading comprehension passages a bit more sophisticated (one passage even told me about “the carnal stench of the great Euripides”), but how difficult can reading comprehension be if you can refer back to the passage as many times as you need? The reading section is notorious among the people who design test-prep courses, who claim they can flawlessly pick the correct answers even if they haven’t read the passage just by the way they’re worded.
        As I prepared for the SAT, I increasingly realized that it’s not a test of knowledge or aptitude at all, but a test of how well you take tests like this. My friend Kate Miller, who, just for fun, took the SAT every year from seventh grade through 11th grade and ended up with a combined score of 1480, said she earned her high scores not because she’s smart, but because she decoded the test’s inner structure. “Basically, my strategy was to visualize the pinhead who wrote the exam,” she said. “All you have to do is think, ‘What is the pinhead testing me on in this question?’ Once you decipher the code, the test is easy.”
        Although he apparently has never met Kate Miller, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell summed up her argument in last week’s story about the SAT. “The SAT was a test devised by a particular kind of person,” Gladwell wrote. “It had an ideology, and...anyone who understood that ideology would have a tremendous advantage.” In other words, visualize the pinhead, pinhead!
        On the day of the test, my visualization skills served me well on the verbal section, only once stopping me to wonder what the pinhead wanted me to make of the analogy, “Prophet is to insight as ____ is to ______.” To me, the answer to the question depends on whether you think that prophets have genuine insight or whether you think they are charlatans. I visualized the pinhead as an earnest, semi-religious suburban man, so I went with “prodigy is to talent” rather than “rumormonger is to gossip.”
        The math sections were far trickier. One question concerning the number of parking lot spaces was clearly biased against urbanites. Another, involving sets of positive and negative integers, was clearly biased against anyone who has not used the word “integer” in 20 years.
        Two weeks later, I was able to get my scores by phone for an additional expense of $13 (clearly biased against geeks who can’t wait another week to get the scores in the mail). My math score was 630, an embarrassing decline of 80 points that I attributed to my wife taking over the checkbook duties, and my verbal score was 760, which put me in the seemingly impressive 99th percentile.
        I say “seemingly” because being in the 99th percentile meant there were hundreds, if not thousands, of kids out there who have better language and verbal skills than I (or is that “me”?). For all I know, at this very moment, NEWSWEEK is thinking of tossing me aside for one of these wunderkinds. Fortunately, I’m old enough to know that the kid will make the wrong career move, opting to mow lawns this summer instead of taking the job.
        Hey, if I couldn’t learn from my mistakes, why should he?

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at http://www.gersh.tv/
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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