So, some guy from a local newspaper calls me up a few years back. "Mind if I ask you some questions?" he asks so chipperly I can almost picture him all Drudge-d up with fedora, suspenders and tape recorder. Yes, I think. Argh! Whose mom spilled the beans to the press about my school's 3 1600s?

"No. Go right ahead."

You haven't lived until you've had the opportunity to field questions from the fourth branch of government. Reporters usually don't ask questions unless they're pretty sure what you're going to say, especially a feel-good story like this. They don't care about carrying on real conversation; they're just waiting for you to drop a quote or two they can throw into the story outline they've put together. It's not necessarily bad; it's just the way things work. In high school, you found a few quotes about a subject and built a paper of bullshit on top of those quotes. Reporters work backwards, starting with a skeleton of bullshit and dropping quotes and stats in where they fit to give some weight to their claims.

The normal stuff. "What are your interests?" "Play any sports?" "Do you get good grades?" "Were you always smart?" "Do you have siblings?" I give disiniterested factual answers and stare at the clock, hoping to get back to my game of Close Combat before the Nazis can bring their Panzershreck unit down on my poor little half-track. Then: "How did you react when you heard the news?"

I'm not too excitable, especially about something like this. Sure, I was happy that I lived up to my academic potential and pleased my family and all, but I can't put any value in a test that doesn't measure honesty, integrity, work ethic, intelligence, reliability, and other factors that truly affect college and job performance. It certainly doesn't make me a better person. By observation, I've noticed two types of student obsessed with the SAT.

For some people, the SAT is a culmination of a lifetime spent trying to live up to the dreams of sick parents. You know the people. Though devoid of independent thought, they study six hours a night and have been memorizing SAT flashcards since age 3. These students, the ones who ran for student council, who got all A+s through sheer will power and parental threat, who attended five "leadership conferences" in their junior year, generally bomb the SATs. And they cry when no one's looking because they've been taught their entire life that their worth is measured by a multiple of 10. Yet these are the people who will succeed in college, since they actually know how to study and haven't coasted by on intelligence. They might be annoying, impossible to talk to intelligently, and very messed-up psychologically by mom and/or dad, but these people know their goals and work feverishly toward them.

There is another group which has a big interest in SATs: arrogant smart kids looking for some confirmation of their mighty intelligence. It's like a dick-measuring contest for honor students. The psychology of this very common type goes back to the worth issue again. Schools and parents subconsciously teach that the SAT measures intelligence, and colleges use the number to determine your "worth" in a very real way. So obviously, there's going to be feelings of superiority over those with lower numbers. I've always had confidence in both my intelligence and my penis length, so the only kick I ever got out of being #1 was knowing that one of these egotistic jerks wasn't on top of the heap.

As someone who doesn't fit too well in either one of those groups, my interest in the SATs was limited to a realist's view of the test. It's unfair, based a great deal on chance, and poorly designed. Despite what some advertisements might tell you, the test is made such that any amount of preparation can't increase your score by much more than 100 points. So while it might measure some aspect of the way your brain works, it doesn't measure how much you give a damn. And in real life, someone who works their ass off will always triumph over a lazy genius. Plus, filling in circles does not determine intelligence; most people recognized as geniuses have achieved that status by not following directions. The SAT is not based on intelligence or knowledge, but some third mental characteristic, a mix of the two that some people have and some people don't.

Unfortunately, there is such a disparity in the quality of high schools that the SAT is necessary for the colleges to evaluate the student's true academic potential. I think the time is fast approaching for a rethinking of the entire educational system. The only problem is that many people are profiting from our schools being a wreck, so politicians' palms are being filled with green so frequently that they don't have any time to write meaningful education bills. Anyway, back to my "conversation".

"Oh, I was thrilled."

Then Clark Kent asks me a question I can't toss off with a clear conscience: "What would be your advice for other students looking to get a 1600?"

I could give the textbook "sleep right, good breakfast" shit (compare: I was up to 2am drinking, and had Pop Tarts before the test). I could tell them to study vocab words or to stay calm or to take practice tests. I could tell them a myriad of parent-pleasing lies, but why make the kids suffer? Either the kid has it, or he doesn't. Some poor geek is going to have his parents throw this article in his face and try to force him to learn from it. Shouldn't I try to give him something he can point to and say "Ha!" about? And maybe teach him something real?

"My advice would be to not care about the test at all. It's not an indication of worth or success, it's just a silly color-by-letter game made up by people who should know better."

Silence on the other end of the phone. He's not happy with that, but I'm done talking.

I get back to my computer just in time to see those fucking Germans blow up my half-track. I never did bother to read the article.

The one and only time I took the SAT was in a time of considerable panic. A few months earlier -- September of my senior year -- I mentally blanked for about five minutes, and when I snapped out of it, I turned to my dad and said that I wanted to go to a certain major California university. I'm still not entirely sure what passed through my mind in those fateful five minutes, but I'm guessing it was some sort of realization that if I didn't take this opportunity to get the hell out of Columbia, Missouri, I probably never would. My dad nodded and said, "I think you can make it."

My enthusiasm for my education had been inconsistent, to say the least, and my grades reflected this. I had, I reassured myself, other things going for me, but I wondered how well my fondness for long walks on the beach at sunset would show up on paper. I marked on my application that no, I hadn't taken the SAT, but I will on such-and-such a date: to wit, the latest possible. A few days after the actual application deadline, my ethical misgivings about spending valuable hours preparing for such cruel and arbitrary beasts as standardized tests having long since evaporated, I got my hands on an SAT prep book. The questions, I could see, were never really that difficult; I took a deep breath and decided I wouldn't stop drilling myself on practice exams until 1600. I ignored the advice given in the book and did my own post mortems, diagnosing my errors and coming up with ways to transform the test from a contemplative to a purely mechanical process. I hit the caffeine, hard. "Unhealthy" doesn't begin to describe the passionate flings I have with coffee, tea, and Mountain Dew while under stress; these two weeks were an ulcer-inducing honeymoon. A few days before the test, I saw that my score had risen from a worrying (but, in retrospect, very respectable and probably sufficient) first attempt of 1440 to not only my goal of 1600 but consistent 1600s. Saturday morning came, and Saturday morning went. I drove home, slowly, and let my eyes glaze over.

At the earliest available opportunity -- from a pay phone at my high school -- I called the ETS 1-800 number to check my score. 1590. "Fuck!" I yelled, no doubt audible to the administrative offices next to me; to this day I can’t say whether my full thoughts were "Fuck yeah!" or "Fuck no!" I had worked my ass off, and I had succeeded fantastically. I had nearly killed myself pursuing perfection, and I was being mocked by my own mistakes. A few weeks later the hard copy of my score report arrived: in the entire exam, I had missed all of one question. Make that "mistake," singular. I have no fewer than three friends from my high school with 1600s to call their own, all of them having missed more than a few questions. "Statistically speaking, our scores are indistinguishable," I consoled myself, "and in the end, what does it really matter?" A few weeks later, against expectation, the fat envelope came in the mail. I had been accepted to my College of Choice. A motor spun, a laser fired, and a Beethoven CD I had cued up in hopeful anticipation was finally permitted to rattle my windows with the finale to his Fifth Symphony. What does it really matter? It’s all right now.

That one missed math question still bothers me. I know it doesn’t matter. I know it’s crass to argue with a cashier over that penny they accidentally shortchanged me, I know it’s anorexic to skip another meal because, by god, I can be thinner, and I know that it’s unspeakably shallow to wonder whether I would be a better person if it weren’t for that one question. The SAT is artificial and error-prone in its attempt to assign a number to something as fuzzy, ill defined, and human as "intelligence," and as such, was never intended to be, at its best, more than an educated guess. At its worst, the SAT is nothing less than everything wrong with modern education.

But it may well have been my one good shot at perfection. Artificial and error-prone, perhaps, but doing something, anything, not just well but perfectly carries with it an almost supernatural power. To err is human, they say. Had a single neuron, perhaps, fired differently, I would be the proud owner of some small piece of perfection, a fragment of the secret map that shows the way to the playground of the gods. It didn’t, of course, and I am instead reminded that I am inescapably human, and that to think otherwise, no matter what the circumstances, is self-delusion. I am reminded that the quest for perfection misses the point entirely, and that a universe of right answers can never get me what I really want. Humbled, I thank the test, and my one mistake, for robbing me of a few illusions. At its best, the SAT is able to point out flaws in our reasoning far subtler than forgetting to carry the one, if only we bother to look.

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