Creativity: What The SAT Doesn’t Test



Every year, I hear of students spending hundreds if not thousands on SAT tutoring. I’m disappointed by how society has placed such a ludicrous importance on how well one can fill in a bubble.

When I was a high school junior, like any well-intentioned mother, mine enrolled me in a Kaplan SAT preparation course. To this day, I can think of no greater scam or bigger waste of money. I took a mock-exam on the first day while the “instructor” read the New York Times and placed his feet on the desk.

“You’re guaranteed to score better before the end of the course,” he said, as I submitted my answer sheet.

For the next several weeks, under the guise of valuable educational development, I learned to trick the exam. In many instances, I could find correct answers without ever understanding why they were correct. On the last day, my instructor gave us a final pep talk before distributing the final mock-exam—the same exact one we took on the first day.

This doesn’t stop the Kaplan site from misleading advertising: “Confidence is such an important part of your success on Test Day,” the company advertises on its site. “At Kaplan, we believe that it all starts with your confidence in our programs. That’s why we offer the most comprehensive guarantee in the industry.”

There’s nothing like inducing false confidence in scared kids, who, having scored well on a loaded Kaplan exam, are duped into believing they can perform just as great on the real thing.

How much Kaplan and like-minded companies charge also disgusts me. In a May 20, 2010 Christian Science Monitor article, reporter Alissa Figueroa does some scary number-crunching:

Kaplan offers a similar package at a slightly lower price. Its Complete SAT prep course – its most popular course – includes 10 sessions and four practice tests for $499, either in-classroom or online. The company’s College Prep Advantage course runs about $1,000, and includes the SAT prep course as well as PSAT prep and college admissions counseling.

Kaplan offers small-group tutoring, Figueroa reports, which can cost thousands. But if you can afford to burn a small hole in your pocket, there is a company “guarantee that you’ll score higher on the SAT after their course or get your money back.”

Well, I want my money back. I scored horribly on the exam, barely breaking 1,000. All the same, I magically managed to graduate summa cum laude from Brandeis University, among the finest places of higher learning in the entire country. Because of my developing reporting skills, I also managed a coveted freelancing-gig with The Boston Globe. Oh, and I earned a master’s degree in comparative history, also from Brandeis, while studying under Antony Polonsky, the world’s leading Polish historian and an eminent authority on the Holocaust.

How did I defy these odds? I embraced three qualities that no standardized test can ever hope to measure: creativity, adaptability and good old-fashioned work ethic. I’m dismayed at how many others aren’t afforded a better higher learning experience because of poor test scores. I’m hugely appreciative that Brandeis took a big risk on me, but I fear that I’m the kind of student that too many colleges pass over.

Several weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking with Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. I respect Ferguson to high-heaven, even though he holds a different view:

“I don’t know if I’d say I’m pro-SAT, I’m anti anti-SAT,” Ferguson says. “There is pretty good, established data now that the SAT is one fairly good predictor of how kids are going to do in the first year of college. The predictive capacity fades as the kid goes through school, but it is something that actually tells you something about how the kid is going to do. It’s simply a fact.”

I am always cautious of invoking anecdotal evidence, fearing that readers may perceive my own experiences are indicative of a larger truth. All the same, I imagine that people reading this article know of others, or perhaps themselves who support my assessment.

Ferguson and I disagree, but I find solace from Harvard Professor Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, and among our nation’s most eminent education reformers. I ask him if America has gone test crazy:

“I think that we sometimes talk about No Child Left Behind as being No Child Left Untested,” Wagner tells me. “It’s not just tests, it’s the fact that there are such high stakes on these tests that then generate a whole round of practice tests and test preparation. I think assessment and accountability is fine, but when it’s high stakes, you’ve really changed everything for people in terms of what’s at stake.”

Instead of testing kids on “who-cares” content-based knowledge, let’s test them on something that truly matters—creativity. As we prepare kids to succeed in the 21st century, I can think of no more coveted skill.

I search the Web and look for creativity tests. I stumble upon a fun but non-comprehensive quiz by Mind Tools, a nifty Web site.

I dig deeper and discover the Torrence Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Chicago, which, according to its web site, seeks to “investigate, implement, and evaluate techniques for enhancing creative thinking and to facilitate national and international systems that support creative development.”

I’m intrigued to learn of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a test typically given to “gifted” individuals. I find a few sample questions from The Daily Beast.

I’m glad that at least some students are being assessed on something that truly matters. I don’t know much about the Torrance test, including how it’s administered and evaluated, but it appears extremely subjective.

I enjoy listening to “More than 50 Years Of Putting Kids’ Creativity To The Test,” an insightful NPR podcast that first aired last week:

In comparison to the SAT, this certainly seems like a more worthwhile exam—but alas, it’s still an exam.

Still, I’m thankful that students aren’t going to Kaplan, paying huge amounts of money to fake being creative.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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