How to watch numbers on SAT scoreboard

April 29, 2001|By Susan Reimer

Discussing your child's SAT scores is simply not done in polite company. It is akin to telling people how much money you make, or how much you paid for your house. SAT scores, like paychecks, are a matter for great discretion.

Parents are willing to say vague things, such as "he did pretty well," or "we're pleased," or "SATs could be a problem." But nobody actually mentions any numbers.

The kids show no such restraint.

Their scores are often distributed in an assembly where their meaning is explained, and it is suggested that SAT scores are a private, personal matter. But before they are out of the auditorium, most of the kids have exchanged numbers, desperate as they are to know where they rank among their peers in this competition.

The kids have it right, I think.

When I was first the mother of a freshman, I worked my peers with all my reporter's skills to find out what the magic number was. Was it 1100? 1200? What score would it take to get my child into a college, any college? Finally, another parent bit. She told me her daughter got into the University of Maryland with a score of 1250.

At last! Something concrete to work with. My child had a shot at the state university if he could come up with 1250. Anything lower could be a problem. Anything higher would be gravy.

But 1300 isn't gravy. It is a new dynamic.

I learned that if you hit 1300, or go over it, the game changes. A new level of colleges and universities is open to you. If you hit 1400, it changes again. More options, more possibilities.

And more responsibility. The higher the child's score, the greater the pressure on the parent to be the good steward of all that ability, all that promise. Suddenly, you feel like settling for the state university would be settling for too little. A bunch of new, more selective, schools appear on your list of possibilities.

In the current debate over the role of SATs in college admissions, we are hearing from the colleges, who complain of grade inflation and the uneven quality of high schools and curricula. We are hearing from students, who complain that a standardized test score should be the smallest part of their resume, or no part at all.

But we aren't hearing from the constituency first affected by those scores: the parents.

I am not talking about cocktail party bragging rights. I am talking about sorting through 3,500 colleges and universities. The SAT score is one of the first levels in that winnowing process, right after warm or cold climate, urban or rural location, small or large student body.

Trust me, you don't get much direction from the kids in this process. Their eyes are big and they are overwhelmed. My son, after much prodding and many irritable responses, said at last: "Not urban, small and I don't care if it's cold."

I felt like I had a mountain of information to work with, compared to friends who can't even get their high school juniors to speak to them.

The SAT debate is taking place on a higher plane than it should. It is a number, and whether colleges give it more or less weight does not matter to parents who are simply trying to find a school or two to drive to, to apply to.

And for parents whose children have their hearts set on a certain school, that number is a target. "OK," we can say to them. "This is the score you need if you want that dream to come true. Go for it."

The SAT might be a poor predictor of academic success and it might be socially biased. But it is at least a place to start in the overwhelming task of setting children on the road to a life of their own.

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