SAT: Why Do We Let a Number Take On so Much Meaning?

We’re well past binkies and boppies and deep into “how much should I freak out about the SATs?” stage of parenting.

Who would’ve thought there could be so much meaning in a number? 

When their PSAT scores were released, my daughter and her friends immediately compared results. Hers were a little better than average, but hundreds of points lower than her best friend’s. Ouch. 

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Grades and test scores rule

Remember when our kids were little and we told them the most important things in life, like love, kindness and friendship, cannot be measured? Well, high school is just like that, only exactly the opposite. Grades and SAT test scores rule.

This is despite the fact that nearly 2,000 colleges and universities–more than 75% of all degree-granting institutions–announced that test scores are now optional for admission. And there are good reasons for that. Critics point to data that shows the test favors well-off white and Asian students. Paying expensive tutors tends to help.  

“Test optional” may have lessened the pressure somewhat, but it certainly increased the confusion. Because the scores are optional, but not prohibited. 

In fact, most test-optional schools still have the majority of applicants submit SAT or ACT scores,” according to the Princeton Review, a test prep company around for more than 40 years. And many schools with a test-optional policy still require the test scores for scholarships. 

So, test optional? Um. Not really. 

Teens are smart. They know the test is unfair and doesn’t show all they can do, but they also understand how much those results can affect their future. Maybe that is because the test is nearly 100 years old, maybe it’s because “test optional” in comparison, is very new. Maybe it’s because the test actually matters.

Your test score is just a number but not really

A number is a number. It shows where you stand against others nationwide. And while it’s not an I.Q. test, it is said to measure the reading and math skills needed for college. 

A low number, in other words, is no good.

And an excellent score can help students get into competitive schools. So, it’s still better to do well than not to do well. And also, doing exceptionally well is advised. At least that is my understanding of the college admissions process, so far. 

And even if the importance of the test in the admissions process starts to fade, the emotions attached to the SAT experience might never go away. Ever.

Anderson Cooper, who has reported from dozens of war zones once said,

I still wake up in a cold sweat thinking I have to get up and go take the SAT. Having to figure out those math problems, I don’t think I’d be up for it again. There was something so strange about the process. You go to a different school. You’re in some cavernous room with a bunch of strangers. It added to the foreign nature of it all.

Anderson cooper

Cooper says he still has nightmares about the SAT and he’s now reporting from Ukraine. Go figure.

It just goes to show “test optional” may be a step in the right direction.

Tests don’t measure what’s important

There is only so much a college can determine based on a timed test.

My daughter memorized all of Goodnight Moon when she was two and she can recite the lyrics in time to “Rap God.” She can beat anyone at concentration. In fact, she’s an “extraordinary child” according to her grandparents. [If only SATs scores could be replaced with notes from students’ grandparents, colleges would really know what’s what and who’s who.]

But, for now, sadly there is still so much meaning in that number.

More Great Reading:

Why Our Family Didn’t Let College Take Over the High School Experience

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