The Magazine

Put to the Test

Andrew Ferguson takes the SAT.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It was a bright, breezy morning of drifting sunlight and chorusing birds, so I decided to ruin it by taking the SAT. The SAT used to be the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In the early 1990s, at the height of political correctness, the name was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test, "aptitude" having been suddenly revealed as a culturally conditioned construct, hence exclusionary, hence unacceptable.

Still the three letters can make the blood of a high school senior run cold-make the blood run cold of anyone who ever was a high school senior and had hopes of moving on to college one day, to a life of beer and oversleeping. SAT was the final snare to be got through. Escape it with a good showing, and you could enroll in a nice school, maybe bag a little scholarship money, and earn the right forever after to lie about your score.

So fearsome is the SAT that an opportunistic "test prep" industry has formed around it, including practice books that contain old tests, where I found the one I took the other day. I was moved to do this by paternal fellow-feeling-one of my kids was taking the test that morning, too-but also by a suspicion that several decades of watching TV news, rearing children, drinking Scotch, and writing for newspapers had caused an irreversible decline in my own aptitude, if you'll pardon the expression. I was curious to see if the decline could be quantified.

And so I set my timer and opened the book.

The pages looked unpleasantly familiar, as though I were encountering a neighborhood bully I hadn't seen in 20 years. The answer sheet looked just the same: still the tidy rows of little ovals, beckoning me to fill them in wrong. The block arrows were still stamped at the foot of the test page, still demanding: "GO ON TO THE NEXT PAGE," until you reached the even more forbidding: "STOP: DO NOT TURN TO ANY OTHER SECTION IN THE TEST."

Can we talk about exclusionary? SAT math is exclusionary. Here was nothing so straightforward as long division or multiplication. Page after page was strewn with x's and y's in weird combinations, bunched into equations and wrapped in parentheses, crouched under slash marks, sneaking around the corners of triangles, every hieroglyph laid out in a line and marching straight into a question mark, as if to say, "Well?" As I gazed at the problems I felt excluded, objectified, condemned to second-class citizenship in a patriarchal old boys' network of people who were much, much smarter than me. When the timer chimed I had finished 11 of the 20 problems.

I felt better about "Critical Reading," once known as the "verbal" section of the test. But it was with the "essay" section that I regained a scholastic toehold. The essay is a new and controversial part of the SAT. Studies have shown that students can make gross errors of fact and logic in their essays and still get a splendid score (and then a job at the New Yorker). My test required that I write an essay in 20 minutes on the question, "Do small events lead to catastrophes or are great events initiated by other causes?"

You'll notice that on the master list of the world's most thoughtful questions, this one does not rank incredibly high. It is, in fact, dumb, since the two alternatives the question presents as mutually exclusive could both easily be true. Even so, I filled both sides of the sheet with muscular prose, impish quips, and a learned allusion to the advent of the First World War. My closing lines cut to the very heart of historical causation: "Great oaks come from the smallest seeds. But where do the seeds come from?"

I waited for my son to return from taking his SAT. We graded my test together. My math score was a disaster-in layman's terms, lower than lobotomy patient, higher than Yankees fan. Critical Reading was totally solid. As for the essay, it was graded on a one-to-six scale. I knocked a point off for modesty's sake and gave myself a score of five. I tried not to watch my son as he read.

"Three," he said at last.

"Three?"

"Maybe two."

"Two?"

"The prep booklets all say the same thing," he said. "You need three supporting examples. You've got that one thing about the First World War. And you end with a question. Why would you end with a question? You're supposed to be making a point."

I could see he was trying not to roll his eyes.

"Maybe that's okay for a magazine or a book," he went on. "But this is the SAT. You can't get away with that stuff on the SAT."

I toted up my score. The decline could indeed be quantified. He clapped me on the shoulder in commiseration.

"It's a long time since you've been tested, isn't it?"

ANDREW FERGUSON