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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


On Donald Trump's SAT Scores. (And Mine.)

Wondering why and if these things matter.

February 27, 2019

Because I am trying to pay less attention to the spectacle of politics (while still attempting to stay abreast of the substance), I did not exhaustively follow former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress yesterday, but I did see IHE’s Scott Jaschik’s article on Cohen threatening the College Board to not release President Trump’s grades or SAT scores.

Laws prevent their release, and personally, I couldn’t care less what President Trump’s SAT scores and grades were. They are beyond trivial. The most interesting part of the story is not the scores and grades themselves, but President Trump’s belief that the scores and grades would somehow be meaningful in the public’s estimation of him. 

I suppose this goes along with being a “brand,” which Trump was long before he entered politics. Of course, all politicians are brands by default. As Jaschik points out, finding out that George W. Bush had better grades than John Kerry was actually inconsistent with the GWB brand of being just a regular guy.

Practically, SAT scores have no currency beyond the effort to gain admission to college, and I can say with full-confidence that I’ve forgotten the specifics than my own beyond a vague sense of the combined score. Clearly, they were good enough. 

And yet, I would be lying if I hadn’t been part of adult conversations where SAT scores are trotted out as something meaningful, somewhere between one’s astrological sign and one’s Myers-Briggs profile on the great continuum of significance. 

Those in education know all the ways that the SAT is not meaningful. Higher scores are correlated with higher household incomes. Those that can afford tutoring and prep can game the test to at least some extent. There are biases by race, and whether or not English is a second language. Like a lot of these things they tend to measure prior access to educational resources, rather than specific student aptitude. 

We should find it distressing that something that seems to carry so much meaning is, in reality, so meaningless. 

For years, my mantra to students was that grades ultimately mattered much less than they seemed to during the college years when grades are the coin of the realm.

Once outside that realm, grades become less meaningful all the time, especially once a foot is in the door of graduate school or the workplace. Experience matters most. This is what I would tell students in an effort to reassure them, to try to get them to feel less stress and engage in less worry over their grades.

“Look at me!” I’d say. “B student, including a B in my first fiction writing course and yet…big success!” I wanted to exemplify an attitude that I thought was healthy and balanced, that put grades in their proper place.

Ultimately, though, I stopped with these little speeches. 

The truth was, because of the accident of my birth, and the advantages of my background, my grades really didn’t matter. I always knew I was going to be okay, that odds are, white kids of upper-middle class parents are going to find a decent outcome one way or another. I look at my high school contemporaries, whose grades and SAT scores ran the full gamut, now all grown-up, and just about everyone is doing really well.

The research of Jessica Calarco indicates that the grades of me and my upper-middle class brethren may not be wholly accurate to our achievement, as we were conditioned to engage in “negotiated advantage,” a kind of self-advocacy that results in increased grades, even when they are not necessarily deserved.[1]Under this theory, grades become even less meaningful.

People like me, or to an even greater degree, Donald Trump, were going to be secure no matter what. Donald Trump could’ve skipped higher education altogether. As the New York Times reported, he inherited the equivalent of $413 million in today’s dollars from his father, and benefitted from tax schemes that ranged from dubious to potentially illegal to shelter and build upon this wealth. 

I have given up trying to understand the psychology of our president, but perhaps his desire to shield his academic record from scrutiny is wrapped up in knowing that he was given such a significant head start. Appearing to be a “very stable genius” is possibly necessary to counter the charge that his success was handed to him. 

I feel only gratitude, not guilt for my own advantages, but I am also more aware that my admonition to students that “grades don’t really matter” was easy for me to say because for me, they really didn’t matter. But in truth, I cannot claim to know the circumstances of my students’ lives. I do not know if they have the same kind of safety net under which I worked.[2]

Neither am I wholly confident that the world in which I got my foot in the door is the same as the world today. It’s been a long time since I needed my first job. I don’t truly know what is confronting students today as they make their way into the world beyond school. If I want grades to matter less, I believe the best way to go is to confront the systems in which grades have currency, rather than asking students to engage in what may be a form of unilateral disarmament. 

It’s amazing to think that scores on a single test that most take only once, hold so much cultural currency that a man running for President of the United States will take the time to make sure his lawyer reminds education institutions of their legal obligations for fear of what might happen if they fail in those responsibilities.

I’m not sure exactly what this says about the country, but my hunch is it’s nothing good.


[1]Here’s a handy Twitter thread from Prof. Calarco, which discusses some how children of privilege are more likely to self-advocate for grade bumps or deadline leniency. It’s very interesting stuff.  

[2]It turns out that I did not have to make explicit use of the safety net, but even its very presence allowed for a greater chance of success. I could take risks not available to others knowing that I had a safety net. 


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