Erasing the SAT Stigma

"Pencil Eraser + Paper Pad" flickr photo by mujalifah shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license


“Happiness depends on your mindset and attitude.” - Roy T. Bennett

I have never been a good test-taker. Ever since I was in elementary school, tests have always been difficult for me.  Especially multiple-choice tests. I think it's because I have always believed that there is more than one answer to a question, and more than one solution to a problem.  Looking back, I often found myself choosing the wrong answers on tests, as I would tend to overthink the questions. I remember finding something plausible with each answer choice for every question, and wishing I could provide an explanation to my teacher for my final selections.  Let's just say, this type of assessment did not play to my strengths. 

Because of this, I grew up thinking that I wasn’t smart.  I couldn't understand why tests were so difficult for me, especially when I had worked hard in class to learn the material. Not only did I struggle with selecting the correct answers, I would always be the last person to finish the test.  For every test, I would have to reread each question multiple times before selecting an answer. I would even overthink the questions to the point where I would convince myself to change some of my original answers. When I finished the test, I would go back and check all of my answers, and persuade myself to change a few more. This left me with anxiety, frustration, and a test full of eraser marks.

When it was time for me to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), I was so nervous I could barely stand it.  I studied every night, completed practice tests, and tried to prepare for the test as best as I could. When I took the test the first time, do you know what I got? I scored a 1000 out of a possible 1600.  It was like getting a 63% on the most important test I had ever taken. I was crushed, because I knew how important this test was to get into college.

So, after talking it over with my parents, I decided to get a tutor to improve my score. I worked with my tutor twice a week for a few months.  She helped me with test-taking strategies, provided me with feedback on answer choices, and would conduct mini-lessons in areas where I needed improvement.  I eventually took the test a second time and then anxiously waited for weeks until my score came back.  When I finally got my score back, guess what I got—a 980. Even with all of my tutoring and additional studying, I did worse than I did on the first test. I was absolutely devastated and I felt defeated.

I was so upset not only because I worked extremely hard to improve my score, but because I knew how important my score on the SAT would be in determining where I went to college.  For example, the schools that I was looking at wanted scores with an average of around 1250 in order to be considered as a competitive candidate, and I was way off the mark.  What's more, I knew that the school that I ended up going to could significantly impact my future success in life. 

Professor of Psychology in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, Dr. Robert Sternberg even says if you don't do well on the SAT, everywhere you turn the access routes to success in our society are blocked (Pink, 2005).  The stigma of the SAT is a psychological stain that stayed with me for many years, and spawned a negative view of my intelligence that interfered with my learning.  And whether you did well on the SAT or not, it's likely that you still associate your score with your intelligence. This is what I refer to as the SAT stigma. It is a number—that some believe—defines your intellectual ability, and it stays with you for the rest of your life.

I have thought a lot about my test-taking experience over the years, and I have gathered a few insights.  As I look back, I think that—based on my negative experience with taking multiple-choice tests early on as a child—I convinced myself that I was a bad test-taker.  From a psychological lens, I developed a fixed mindset with a self-fulfilling prophecy of performing poorly on tests.  In other words, I knew deep down that I wasn't good at tests, so I subconsciously created a mental barrier that prevented me from doing my best.

However, I was still able to get good grades in my classes for a couple of reasons. One, I worked extremely hard to make up for my lower test grades by doing exceptionally well on homework, classwork assignments, essays, and projects.  And two, I would retake tests as many times as I was allowed to in order to improve my average test score grades.  This required me to stay in from recess, or even stay after school in order to retake tests—which totally sucked by the way.  But by thinking that my test-taking ability had peaked, coupled with my hard work and determination to succeed, I exhibited what I call, stubborn tenacity

Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Looking back, I really do think I was driving myself insane with the amount of effort that I was putting into studying for the SAT.  I wasn't doing anything differently, other than studying longer and practicing harder.  I had tenacityI was bound and determined to raise my test scores. But I was also stubbornI was headstrong on the idea that my intelligence was limited, and was represented by my final score.

It wasn’t until I read the book, Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck that I realized I had the power to increase my intelligence, as well as other abilities.  After reading the book, I discovered that "human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort" (Dweck, 2006).  This concept is what Dr. Dweck refers to as having a “growth mindset." I learned three valuable lessons from reading this book:

        1. Anyone can get smarter from education and practice.
        2. My natural, intellectual strength is divergent, creative thinking.
        3. We should think of difficulties in life as challenges and opportunities for growth.

From that point on, I had an entirely different outlook on life.  I started to believe that I could actually get smarter, and enhance my abilities in anything if I worked hard enough and long enough.  And I realized that I wasn't able to increase my score on the SAT, because I had what Carol Dweck calls, a "fixed mindset" and I thought of my intelligence as a finished product. This was truly an aha moment for me that completely reshaped my thinking around learning.

The good news was that I had already developed a deep respect for hard work and dedication.  So, the only thing that I had to change—in order to make progress—was my mindset. Even at an early age I learned values such as persistence, commitment, and self-control by taking lessons in Tae Kwan Do. By the time I was five years old, I had earned a blue belt, learned dozens of katas (forms and routines) and earned trophies in competitions. I had—and still have to this day—what Angela Duckworth refers to as "grit" or "self-discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal" (Duckworth, 2017).

In her research for her book, Grit, Duckworth analyzed GPA and standardized-test scores among middle-school and high-school students, and found that standardized-test scores were predicted by scores on pure IQ tests, and that GPA was predicted by scores on tests of self-control (Tough, 2004).  Whereas, other studies have suggested that standardized-test scores, such as the SAT, are more indicative of the effectiveness of a student's academic experience, not their intelligence (Tough, 2014).  What this tells us is that students who obtain qualities of a high work ethicsuch as grit, motivation, and perseveranceas well as good study habits and time management skills, were more likely to be successful in college and in the workplace (Tough, 2004).

After learning more about mindset and grit, my experience with taking the SAT started to make more sense.  I began to draw the conclusion that my SAT score did not accurately reflect my intelligence, and that I could apply qualities such as grit and determination, along with a growth mindset to increase my abilities in lifea combination of what I call persistent improvement.  If you happen to be a huge music geek like me, you might remember the song, "1000 Hours" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.  Here are a few lines in this song that really resonate with me:

        I will not be a statistic, just let me be
        No child left behind, that's the American scheme
        I make my living off of words
        And do what I love for work
        And got around 980 on my SATs

As you can probably tell—simply because it's so painfully obvious—I completely identify with Macklemore's lyrics in this verse.  Even though he got the same score as I did on the SAT, he was able to overcome this stigma from his passion for making music, and his drive for success. In this example, Macklemore is demonstrating persistent improvement based on his grit and growth mindset.  At other points in the song, he goes on to rap about other examples that illuminate the dedication and hard work that it takes in order to achieve greatness, such as famous painters like Basquiat and Keith Haring. In fact, the title of the song stems from a section in the book, Outliers, where author, Malcolm Gladwell reveals that ten-thousand hours is the magic number that researchers have found to attain expertise in any field.  Stay tuned, you will learn more about this in the Time is Relevant to Learning section of this book. 

Figure 1: Duckworth-Dweck Diagram

If we were to take Angela Duckworth's concept of grit, and pair it with Carol Dweck's research in mindset, we begin to see a relationship between failure and success. By using a punnett square diagram that is used for predicting genotypes, we can look at possible combinations of one's perceived ability and conscious effort to forecast potential outcomes for achievement.  Let's take a closer look.

In the Perceived Ability category in Figure 1, we have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.  And in the Conscious Effort category, we have either quit or grit.  By matching these four individual traits in their respective categories, we create four unique combinations of predetermined failure, wasted talent, stubborn tenacity, and persistent improvement.  What I find particularly interesting is that we can all probably think of a time when we have experienced each one of these psychological states at some point in our lives.  There have certainly been times when I have given up on something, and there have been times when I have fought my way to success.  In order to learn more about these frames of mind, I will explain each one individually, and identify a movie character that accurately portrays them.

Predetermined Failure

In predetermined failure, one has a fixed mindset and doesn't make the effort to achieve a goal.  This means that their perceived ability to reach the goal is minimal and unchangeable, and they lack any real motivation for success.  People sometimes refer to this situation as "slacker syndrome" which can have serious or dangerous consequences to a person's mental and physical health.

Whenever I think of a slacker with predetermined failure, I think of Peter from the movie Office Space.  In the movie, Ron Livingston plays the character, Peter Gibbons who is a computer programmer that becomes completely jaded and unmotivated at work.  One day, he decides to stop working—he doesn't quit per se—he just doesn't go to work anymore. His friends and coworkers try to convince him to keep working, but he has already made up his mind. This is a classic example of "slacker syndrome" where Peter is destined for failure from his fixed mindset and his unwillingness to work.

Wasted Talent

In wasted talent, one has a growth mindset, but doesn't put forth the required effort that is needed to reach success.  This means that their perceived ability to pursue a passion is limitless, but they let other factors get in the way, which prevents them from embarking or continuing on their journey.  Famous actor, Chazz Palminteri plays mafia ringleader, Sonny in the movie A Bronx Tale, who says at one point, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices that you make will shape your life forever.” In this scene, Sonny is referring to young kids who either end up going to jail, or getting murdered—never getting a chance to show the world their talents.  

A great example of a character with wasted talent is in my all-time favorite movie, Good Will Hunting. In the movie, Will Hunting—who is played by Matt Damongets a job as a janitor at Harvard University and begins finishing mathematical proofs on chalk boards that were originally started by a highly revered math professor.  When people finally found out that it was Will who was completing the proofs, he is offered an opportunity to decipher mathematical codes for the government.  Not only does he turn down this opportunity, he continues to decline other opportunities in life that would allow him to apply his gift of mathematics to make a living.  As we later find out in the movie, Will is dealing with a lot of emotional and psychological trauma that is preventing him from unleashing his genius into the world, thereby wasting his talent.  In my opinion, this is such an iconic account of someone who has a growth mindset in their abilities, but chooses to do nothing about it, until the end of the movie.

Stubborn Tenacity

We learned earlier in this section that stubborn tenacity occurs when one has grit, but has a fixed mindset in their thinking, or their ability.  This means that they have a strong drive for success, but they are unwilling to change their core belief system.  As I think about stubborn tenacity, I am reminded of a movie that was based on a true story about the unconventional leadership of a principal at an inner city high school.

When newly hired principal, Joe Louis Clark set out to raise student test scores at Eastside High school back in the 1980s, he knew he had to do something drastically different in order to be successful.  Played by actor, Morgan Freeman in the movie Lean on Me, Mr. Clark used unorthodox methods of leadership and discipline that were not received well by the high school community. Mr. Clark did not tolerate any form of disobedience from students, nor insubordination from faculty members.  He was quick to expel students from school for minor infractions, as well as firing teachers who disagreed with his policies.  Teachers, administrators, and board members all tried to tell him that his methods were dehumanizing and ineffective, but he was not at all receptive to their feedback and would often ridicule them for criticizing his decisions. 

While Mr. Clark's methods were cruel and unusual, they were ultimately effective because his students were able to improve their test scores on the state standardized test, which allowed their school to remain open.  Everyone in the community doubted his efforts, but they were proven wrong.  Earlier in the movie, Mr. Clark shared that he had one objective and one objective only—to pass the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test requirements—and he would do whatever it takes in order to meet that objective. In this particular case, stubborn tenacity seemed to be effective for Mr. Clark even though he had a fixed mindset. However, it is generally more advantageous to have a growth mindset in order to tackle complex challenges like this one.

Persistent Improvement

We also learned earlier in this section that persistent improvement is the outcome of a growth mindset coupled with grit and determination.  This means that one has both the confidence to enhance their abilities, and the determination to work long and hard enough in order to achieve success.  Persistent improvement is the optimal psychological condition that is needed for significant learning and growing in any endeavor. 

When I think of persistent improvement, I immediately picture Anne Hathaway's character, Andy Sachs in the movie The Devil Wears Prada.  Fresh out of college, Andy moves to New York City with her boyfriend to become an aspiring journalist, but ends up landing a highly sought after job as an assistant to the famous fashion designer, Miranda Priestly.  Andy knows absolutely nothing about fashion, but she is willing to learn and work hard in order to succeed in her new role.  Throughout the movie, Andy is scrutinized by the company, judged by her colleagues, and berated by her boss.  However, as determined as she is, Andy spends nearly all of her time learning the ropes of the industry and begins to do surprisingly well.  She does so well, in fact, that she receives multiple offers to climb the ladder in the fashion industry.  While she doesn't end up accepting any of these offers, she acknowledges her incredible accomplishments and decides to leave the industry.  She had proven to Miranda—and to herself—that she has what it takes to succeed in the city that never sleeps.

Classroom Connection

What I learned from watching these movies is that we all experience these mental states at different points in our lives. Sometimes we feel like giving up, whereas other times we feel like nothing can stop us. Andy Sachs showed the world that she had the grit and growth mindset to flourish in the face of adversity. These are the abilities that we want our students to develop in school—both mental and physical staminaso that they can learn to thrive in any environment, and overcome any obstacle. But we need to help them get there.

Some of our students are currently slacking off, and many of our students are either wasting their talent, or bulldozing a path to nowhere. We need to create the kind of relationships with our students that allow them to build confidence in their abilities, and take creative risks that require them to work hard in order to achieve their goals. If we can do thismove our students to the state of persistent improvement—then we will be setting them up for success in the workplace and in life.

As I look back, it took me a long time to come to terms with my SAT score.  I was even ashamed to tell close family and friends because I didn't want them to think that I wasn't smart.  But after learning more about how the brain works, and how certain character traits can help you to learn more effectively, I was able to accept my score, and I was able to move past it.  I was finally able to reach the state of persistent improvement, and I try to apply this philosophy to every new challenge that I encounter.

If you are a teacher, a parent, a friend, or loved one of a child, I challenge you to share this message with them, and let them know that you believe in them.  Help them to identify their strengths and improve their weaknesses.  Help them to be proud of who they are, and remind them that they can always improve their abilities with education, practice, and hard work.

  1. Duckworth, Angela. Grit: Why Passion and Resilience Are the Secrets to Success. Vermilion, 2017. 
  2. Dweck, C. (2006, February 28). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
  3. Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co..
  4. Ten Thousand Hours. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The Heist. Macklemore LLC. 2012.
  5. Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
  6. Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed. Arrow Books, 2014.