Brendan Mernin

Brendan Mernin

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 26 2000 6:00 PM

Brendan Mernin

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Monday was easier: three students. That's typical for a weekday during the school year. I rode my bike.

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Today I saw a girl who got about a 1200 last spring. Now she's getting 1450 on the practice tests. Then a girl who had been stuck at 590 on the verbal. Her timing was all wrong; we'll get her to 650 next week. Then a boy who's at 550 on the math IC and the writing. No problem.

So, now you know what I do. What does this all mean? That SAT scores are invalid for kids who can afford expensive tutors? Of course they are. But please don't be disappointed. Let go of your illusion that the SAT was ever much good to begin with. The fact is, you can  pay for higher SAT scores. Why? Because the test is so rigged that some directed study and strategy are worth a lot. In 1981, Princeton Review publicly destroyed the prevailing myth that SAT scores are a valid indicator of intelligence. What's amazing is that 20 years later, people still buy into that fantasy. SAT scores measure a few things: some basic math skills, some reading skills, vocabulary, and the ability to take standardized tests. It is claimed that they predict first-year college grades, but they're not very good at that. SAT scores, in my view, exist in order to create an artificial hierarchy of alleged merit, so that selective colleges have one more impersonal factor with which to choose some students and reject others. (For an interesting history of the SAT, read the first half of Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test.)

In case you haven't been looking, the whole scene has been intensifying lately: In the past few years, it's gotten much tougher to get into the top colleges. Put it this way: If Harvard (or Stanford or Duke or many other schools) were to reject the 1,200 or 1,500 kids that they accept and replace them with the next 1,200, no one would know the difference. These schools are flooded with kids with 1400s on the SATs, A's in school, 700s on the SAT IIs, 4s and 5s on the APs, and applications that mention study trips to Spain, the summer internship at a famous genetics lab, or whatever. So, colleges have to find some reason to reject kids. SAT scores make that job a little easier. And if those who don't get the joke think that they scored lower because of lower intelligence, well, so be it.

Why the increased pressure for high scores? Interestingly, all this panic of the rich is a reaction to an expansion of opportunity. There are many, many immigrants, particularly from East and South Asia and the former Soviet Union, who don't feel like waiting the traditional two or three generations to send their kids to U. Penn. They want it now. Years ago, these kids would have gone to Queens College or Holy Cross or Yeshiva. Some still do. Now they're competing for the spots at Columbia. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report publishes college rankings, determined partly by median SAT scores, and parents and students rank the schools by that number themselves. Well, the schools are competing with each other to be the most selective and thereby to confer on their students the greatest status. (It helps attract alumni contributions.) So, they're under pressure to keep up the median SAT and the ranking that goes with it. That makes it hard to admit kids who fall under the median, unless those kids bring something else to the table, such as varsity sports skills, diversity, or enough family money to build a new student center. (You need to show a lot of money for it to come into play. Just being plain old rich won't do it.) To top it off, the word on the street is that the top colleges are taking fewer kids from the traditional feeder schools in New York.

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The upshot? Affluent families are running scared. They've forked over 20 grand a year to send their kids to prep schools like Trinity or Dalton or Horace Mann. They've hired tutors to help them with physics and chemistry. (Scores of prep school science and math teachers supplement their incomes with this side work.) They've paid for the summer in China. And goddammit, they want the kid to go to Brown or Swarthmore. Good scores alone won't get you in, but bad scores sure as hell will keep you out. That's where I come in. Your kid's got an 1100, you say? She wants to go to Cornell? OK, with some hard work, we can get her to a 1400 by the spring. Does it work? I'm turning away students at $300 an hour. (I don't get all of that; the company gets its cut.) So, let's face it: SAT scores are a joke. (To me, score differences less than 300 points mean nothing. I've had kids go up almost 600 points.) Anybody who says otherwise is either lying or in denial. Every single kid at the top New York prep schools has a tutor, unless they're already at 1550. Can it last? I don't think so. More on that tomorrow …