SATs don’t always mark a successful path

03/19/2014 4:43 PM

03/19/2014 4:43 PM

I just experienced the thrill of being invited back to my alma mater to speak to undergraduate students. The invitation came from Jack Lule, journalism chair at Lehigh University, from which I graduated in 1984. That someone in Lule’s position would think students could benefit from listening to me for an hour gave me a measure of pride.

Why was I invited? Well, I’ve been writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, hosting a nationwide radio program on SiriusXM, I’ve written five books and now host a Saturday program on CNN. There’s just one problem: My SATs said I wasn’t Lehigh material.

In high school, my grades were mostly B’s with an occasional A or C; well, more of the latter than the former. I also played sports and was the newspaper editor, but I had some liabilities – such as when I was disciplined for selling fake IDs to classmates. What can I say? I was always entrepreneurial.

My SATs never matched my grades. I took the test several times, and never broke into four figures. I still hate seeing the number 990. Lucky for me, my father got his master’s from Lehigh and my brother was president of his Lehigh class the year I applied. Otherwise, my SATs would have sunk my application.

Driving back to Lehigh, I felt like George Bailey on the bridge toward the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bailey’s angel was named Clarence. Mine was Samuel Missimer, then Lehigh’s dean of admissions, who admitted me despite my mediocre SATs.

What if he had judged me only by that test? A rejection would have meant I’d have never met a faculty mentor named Dave Amidon, who sparked an academic fire I never knew existed. Missing from the Lehigh campus in the fall of 1980, I would not have met George H.W. Bush when he toured Bethlehem Steel, an event that led to my working for Vice President Bush and a string of extraordinary political experiences, which in turn caused media outlets to solicit my commentary. No Lehigh? No Amidon. No Amidon? No double major and no Phi Beta Kappa. No Phi Beta Kappa, no admission to Penn Law.

The intervening years haven’t softened my antipathy toward the SAT. I’m encouraged the College Board is attempting to change the exam in a way that will recognize evidence-based thinking. Perhaps if I’d had an exam like the board now envisions, I’d have scored more respectably. But maybe not. Better for students, parents, and colleges to scrap it altogether.

A recent study by William Hiss, a former dean of admissions at Bates College, and Valerie Wilson Franks, the study’s lead investigator, found that there is a negligible difference in the performance of students who submit test results and those who do not. They looked at 123,000 student and alumni records and found only a 0.05 differential between the GPAs of applicants who submitted a test score and those who did not – and graduation rates for submitters were only 0.6 percent higher than those of non-submitters.

When I shared my experience, Hiss told me the disconnect between my SAT scores and later success is “strikingly common.”

“In our one study, there were tens of thousands of students whom any statistician would call ‘false negatives.’ That is, these students’ SAT scores suggest they could not do strong work in college, when in fact they can. Simply put, our country cannot afford to throw away up to 30 percent of its talent.”

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