The Moral Vacuity of High SAT Scores

Driving with my father through Chevy Chase, Maryland, when I was young, I once asked him, “What do people in a country club do?”

My Dad, never having been a member, evoked F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

“From what I’m told, they play polo and are ‘rich together.'”

A decade later, I finally understand what he meant. Some of these intermingling rich people drink scotch together, play a few leisurely rounds of golf every Sunday, and otherwise revel in their common membership in an elite institution.

But I know about another club.

As a twelfth grader living in the shadows of numerous prestigious high schools, I encounter peers who are not only smart but actively smart together, basking in the glory of their exclusive intellectual status.

The qualifications for admission to this club are neither money nor social connections (although these certainly don’t hurt). You’re a full member of the club, endowed with unrestricted privileges to boast freely and judge smugly, only if you have a high SAT score.

Members of the club take as gospel the premise of the SAT: that real, valuable intelligence is reducible to a few objectively measurable skills. They brag about their grades and swoon over J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein and Richard Dawkins—not for their contributions to humanity but for their high IQ scores. The problem is that whatever academic attributes the SAT assesses, nobody claims that it measures our morality or our commitment to others, qualities for which Kaplan offers no preparation. It distinguishes neither the sociopaths from the do-gooders, nor the apathetic from the culturally engaged.

Even if the SAT is an accurate prognosis of academic capabilities (which, as we know, is a highly contested view), it is merely an indicator of how advanced our literary essays or mathematical analyses could be, if only we ever choose to create them. For the same reason that having the ability to compose a symphony isn’t praiseworthy if you don’t actually produce and perform a musical number for eager listeners, your high SAT score means nothing if you never make creative use of your mind and heart.

When I did well on my SAT as an eleventh grader, I tried not to take pride in my score, feeling that accomplishment must precede pride. The commonplace message that “you should be proud of your high SAT score” broadcasts a false notion of success, conflating academic possibilities with real achievements.

When all of the propaganda about test-taking is circulated, too many bright students inhale. Believing that they’ve actually done something valuable by scoring big, they start mingling among themselves and themselves alone, sealing their specialness with the experience of “being smart together.” It may be an understandably defensive response to the exclusivity of rich kids or the anti-intellectual thrust of high-school hierarchies, but it can be hurtful to everyone else.

Students like me should be asked to use what are perceived as our gifts for society’s betterment. When Dr. King preached, “everybody can be great,” he didn’t mean that we’re all destined to get high test scores or that greatness only belongs to those who score highest. Whatever our aptitudes are, “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

I saw the truth in this claim while tutoring a struggling tenth grader who was unfairly berated by his teacher for “being a menace.” When one of his peers rose to the boy’s defense, standing up to ask the teacher to “please treat us politely,” the adults in the room were clearly taken aback. To think—a non-Honors student who actually practiced and expected civility! It was one of my best moments in high school.

I recently overheard one of the “high achievers” call all the “ghetto kids” at our school “retarded.” He got a near-perfect SAT score, but never participated in any of our school-wide community work projects. In my mind, his comment illustrated the moral vacuity of test-obsessive culture and the absurdity of deifying kids who are too selfish to share their gifts with people around them. Instead, we should encourage our “brainiacs,” as well as our talented artists, athletes, thespians, programmers and musicians, to elevate their communities—and themselves— by helping struggling students.

I am only 18, but I have already seen too much snobbery, if not abject meanness, from some of Charles Murray’s “cognitive elites” to believe that the world would be a better place if only they were running it. If students today must emulate an elite body, let it be the anti-elitist moral elite, the folks who refuse to crassly “pull rank” with their various gifts and instead use them to improve society for everyone.

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