What did you talk about during your first few weeks of freshman year? If you were as lucky as me, the politics, sex, and religion of Columbia were broached: Where are you from, what are you studying, and, if you wouldn’t mind telling me a little bit more about yourself, how did you score on your AP tests?
Such conversations only take place between people who have nothing to say to each other—imagine trying to get laid at a bar, any bar below 108th and Broadway, bringing up your 5 on AP Chemistry—but there is one topic that transcends them in social wretchedness. It is worse than grades, worse than money, and worse than family pedigree. It is standardized test scores.
It was therefore hilarious when it came to light, after a week of classes and silent games of Super Smash Bros., that one of my suitemates had gotten a 2400 on the SAT. His attempts to suppress the information were all the funnier because he was obviously the one who let the cat out of the bag. I have fond memories of printing fliers that proclaimed, in 48-point font, that “[REDACTED] GOT A 2400 ON HIS SAT,” and posting these all around my dorm floor. My suitemate blushed and puffed out his big chest. I think he was happy that everyone knew, but social decorum and an inbred sense of shame demanded that he try to prove otherwise. Kind of like when people ask you where you go to college: the only appropriate response is to shuffle your feet, stare down at the ground, and mumble something vague about “New York,” then “uptown,” then, if pressed, “Columbia.” Your eyes are ground-bound, but your heart is skyward—doing well on a standardized test is kind of embarrassing and exhilarating in the same way.
My first point is that standardized testing obviously doesn’t measure all types of intelligence; my friend’s apposite yet bumbling and awkward response is enough for this. How do you show someone that you’re stupid? By telling them that you’re smart—but even so much as hinting at having gotten a 2400 would go over as well as Truman Capote drawing attention to his Bergdorf’s wardrobe in Kansas.
Capote was nothing if not natty, though, and as the semester progressed it became clear that my suitemate was indeed brilliant, at least in some ways. This brings me to my second point, which is that standardized testing, though an abysmal topic of conversation, is unfairly stigmatized in comparison to other “objective” measures of intelligence, like grades. If anything, I think grades should be more stigmatized. To get a good grade can be effortless, but to get good grades—grades on the level of my suitemate’s pseudo-achievement—requires that one try really hard, really consistently, while getting really lucky. Trying to draw attention to this effort is thus doubly unattractive.
My third point is that Columbia students, as always, ruin everything by trying too hard on something that doesn’t matter. If this is indeed the most selective institution in the nation, then we probably have the highest proportion of children whose parents bleed money to increase their scores. Standardized tests, ideally a metric of intrinsic aptitude, become as bad as grades when effort and money and circumstance become confounding factors. The playing field is level in the same way it was for Major League Baseball during the steroid era; cheating is the norm; everyone is commodified. If your kid does well enough, he will be able to teach the very class at Kaplan that he is taking. I’m sure the MCAT is the same way, if not worse.
None of this means we should get rid of standardized tests. There is only so much one can hide from them. They are certainly broken in the ways above, and they are broken because they predict success poorly. Essays have been written about how the LSAT is a bad measure of lawyerly ability, but these have advocated amending it rather than abolishing it; I agree. The other day I received a Gchat from my former suitemate – now my roommate – asking me to guess his LSAT score. It was higher than I’d thought. He is not planning to become a lawyer. Some things never change.
My last point is that this all might not be such a big deal. Think of all the great artists who were forced into being self-directed and independent by bad exam results. I will take the LSAT in December. I will not study. I have already incriminated myself by bringing up the subject in the first place. Maybe I will do poorly; maybe I will do as well as I did on the SAT. Whatever I get, I won’t tell you – I’ll have someone else do it for me.
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