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Elizabeth Kolbert: 'When Mom Takes The SATs'


Standardized tests: a good or bad thing? Some argue the tests remain a useful tool in the college admissions process. Others contend tests do not predict future success or failure for college students. Elizabeth Kolbert recently took the test as a grownup and wrote about the experience for The New Yorker.

Good Morning.


WERTHEIMER: So what did you learn?

KOLBERT: Well, one of the things I learned is that it's really quite a grueling test. You sit there for four hours and you have to have really, really intense concentration. And, in fact, at one point, I made what is known in the business as a bubbling error and began bubbling in answers for different section of the answer sheets. So I really have a lot more sympathy now for high school juniors across the country.


WERTHEIMER: The test, especially the math test, is very different from the one that I took a thousand years ago. Also, there was no such thing as an essay question when I took the test. I gather that they've updated it all along the way, trying to make it a more serious test.

KOLBERT: Yes, I think the idea is that, you know, do you really want a kid's future, I suppose - if you consider college admissions your future - to be based solely on multiple choice questions. So they've added, as you say, an essay; although a complaint is that the essay has become extremely formulaic - that there's a formula for doing well as opposed to, you know, really using creativity. And they've also added open response math questions so that you're not just bubbling in an answer, you have to give the answer.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you mean when you write: Whatever is at the center of the SAT - that is to say the A - aptitude, assessment, assiduousness or ambition, the exam at this point represents an accident, you write.

KOLBERT: Accident, in that case, I thought it referred to the fact that the SAT was originally designed for very different purpose from the one that it is now being put to. It was designed to be used after kids got into college to help counsel them. This is way back in the '20s. And then it was adopted actually by the president of Harvard, at the time in the '30s, to hand out these scholarships to kids he thought traditionally wouldn't go to Harvard - Midwestern boys. They were all boys at that point.

Now it's become, you know, the standard college admissions here. And it's used in a very, I think a lot of people would say, in a way that it shouldn't be because of the statistical differences between, you know, let's say, 720 and 730 are really trivial. But they can be used in college admissions to make these fine distinctions that are really just impossible to make.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I think college admissions - deans and folks who do this work - would say that there are thousands of children in each cache of applications they get, who would be fine.

KOLBERT: Yes, absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: And they have to have some reason to take some and not others.

KOLBERT: Yes, I think though that the sort of tyranny of the test really has come, now, from colleges own rankings. They have a significant impact on your own schools rankings. So, for example, a couple of years ago, there was a scandal when Claremont McKenna College was revealed to having overstating its SATs, in attempt to sort of boost its rankings, with the person who did that had to resign, of course. So I think the colleges also feel like a little bit tyrannized by this test at this point.

WERTHEIMER: Well, after your own experience with this very important test, where do you stand on whether or not this should be used to determine the future education of high school students?

KOLBERT: I guess I came out on the side that it probably wasn't the best way to be measured college students. Certainly, you know, four hours out of your whole life is probably not the best measure. There's just a study that came out very recently comparing kids who didn't submit SATs. Now, some schools consider SATs optional, and they compared a cohort of kids who hadn't submitted scores and a cohort of kids who had. And they found very, very trivial differences between their performances.

WERTHEIMER: We actually reported on that on this program not too long ago. It's a very interesting notion that it makes almost no difference in performance.

KOLBERT: Yeah, one of the interesting points that the authors of that study made was if you have a kid who actually didn't do well on the SATs, but had good grades and was clearly working very hard to overcome whatever, you know, may be deficits in their own high school education, that that kid was quite possibly a better bet as a college student than a kid who had maybe, potentially more advantages in high school.

WERTHEIMER: Elizabeth Kolbert's article appears in this week's issue of The New Yorker. It's called "Big Score When Mom Takes The SATs."

Thank you very much.

KOLBERT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.