When Will We Realize the SAT is Irrelevant and a Waste Of Time?

The eight Ivy League universities received 220,000 applications this winter. With the final admission decisions released in the last two weeks, only 11% awarded a student a coveted acceptance letter. More students than ever are applying to universities across the country. In the past five years the Ivies alone have experienced a 60% swell in applicants.

The time has long past when a perfect 2400 on the SAT was a shoo-in for college acceptance. Perfect GPAs, valedictorian status and perfect test scores are no longer treated as indicators of exceptional talent. Rather high tests scores are increasingly taken for granted: Great scores won’t cut it, but you must have great scores to be even considered.

The result: a ballooning and lucrative testing industry and a complementary test-crazed culture.

Kaplan, Princeton Review, The College Board, and more. SAT study books, on-line practice tests, and the SAT study courses, have together created an industry with a 2013 revenue of $840.4 million dollars. Private tutoring promise high scores if you hand over upwards of one grand in fees. 

Test tutoring schools are cropping up everywhere, but it’s not just SAT tutoring anymore. This week the New York Times highlighted the increase in “cram” schools, the kind once frequented solely by “Chinese-, Korean-, and Russian-American students.”

Now, these centers are not only peopled by pimply teens of all backgrounds, but increasingly by middle schoolers too. Nine and ten year olds are studying to secure spots in gift programs that in turn (they hope) will increase their chances in securing spots in college.  

I foresee a snowball effect: “I’m so upset!” bemoaned a mother in the 1987 comedy Baby Boom. “If she [the woman’s toddler] doesn’t get into the right preschool, she’s not going to get into the right kindergarten, if she doesn’t get into the right kindergarten, I can forget about a good prep school and any hope of an Ivy League college.”

The whole process has transformed into a ludicrous race to out-study and out-pay everyone else in an ever-swelling applicant pool. SATs are just one variable in an equation that no longer adds up.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test evolved out of IQ tests developed in WWI and took off with the influx of army vets after WWII.  The test’s original intention was to measure innate ability and aptitude. Cramming, the Education Testing Service (ETS) said was pointless, the SAT was “uncoachable.” Sixty years later it is easy to scoff at such platitudes. But what exactly is the SAT’s purpose in the modern culture?

Despite the increasing realization of parents and colleges (students knew all along) of the test’s inadequacies, they remained trapped by the aura of the SATs.

The cycle continues: more students apply, more students with perfect test scores get denied, the solution: study more, pay more, test sooner. The Baby Boom Mom’s worst nightmares are becoming true.

In China, an image leaked from a classroom shows students hooked up to IV drips dangling from the ceiling injecting amino acids to spur alertness as students studied around the clock for the gaokao, China’s SAT equivalent. How far off are we?

At what point do we collectively stop — take a deep breath — and decide that maybe these tests and the culture they have cultivated are not only irrelevant, but absurd?

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Jessica Lander

Jessica graduated from Princeton University with a major in Anthropology and a Certificate in African Studies. Her undergraduate thesis was based on an extended ethnographic study of a school for under-privilaged children in Arusha, Tanzania. Since graduating she has continued her focus in education. She has spent a year teaching college students at Chiang Mai University in Northern Thailand, and a year teaching 6th grade in the Boston inner-city with the non-profit Citizen Schools. Over the past two years she has worked in theater, teaching and directing Shakespeare both in Thailand and in Boston. When not teaching, Jessica writes - keeping an education focused blog: Chalk Dust (http://jessicalander.blogspot.com)

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