Justin Westengaard remembers gripping his sharpened No. 2 pencil ever tighter on the fateful Saturday morning. He remembers the sweaty, nauseous feeling as he looked at math questions that might have well been written in Swahili and wished he would have paid more attention in Mr. Haller’s algebra class.
Weeks later, Justin got his ACT score back: 23 out of 36. It was good enough to squeak into Hastings College, especially after he retook the test and bumped his score a point or two. But, by any other measure — entrance into an elite school, a merit-based scholarship, future success in, say, the medical profession — Justin’s ACT score felt like the cold, hard slap of reality. Good luck in college and life, kid. You’re going to need it.
Except a funny thing happened on the way to the real world.
Justin Westengaard graduated from college, destroyed the medical school entrance exam, battled his way through med school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and donned a white coat.
It’s not Justin anymore. That’s Dr. Westengaard to you.
“It’s a little bizarre,” Westengaard says of his path from ACT mediocrity to a medical degree. “But I think people who have insight into their own condition, can be brutally honest about their own limitations, know how to deal with people … they can do well.”
“How do you test that?”
This Saturday, thousands of Omaha and Nebraska high schoolers will take that time-honored trip to ACT testing sites, where they will nervously darken multiple-choice ovals during what is often regarded as the most important test of their lives.
They will do so even though a growing body of evidence shows that the ACT and the SAT, the tests we have long viewed as all-important predictors of future success, tell us precious little about how a teenager will do in college.
They tell us even less about how a teenager will do in life.
In recent years, hundreds of colleges and universities have simply stopped using the exams, responding to researchers and anti-test advocates who decry the ACT and SAT as fatally flawed and biased against women, minorities and working-class whites. Even the leaders of the ACT and SAT now minimize the tests’ importance, arguing that they should be used to accurately predict only one thing — how students will do their freshman year of college.
Both sides agree on this eyebrow-raising fact: Your ACT/SAT score isn’t even the best predictor of how you will do in your first year of college. The number that best predicts your freshman year grade-point average?
Your high school GPA.
“We’re using a bogus number,” says professor Joseph Soares of SAT and ACT scores. Soares chairs Wake Forest University’s sociology department and has authored several books on the SAT. “We’re using a bogus number simply because it makes things easier.”
The criticism of the tests is deeply ironic, since the SAT and its close cousin, the ACT, were conceived as a way to judge teenagers objectively — a way to move past the college admissions policies of previous eras, when who your parents knew often determined where you went to college.
That laudable ideal has run, forehead-first, into sharp corner after sharp corner.
If these tests are so important, than why do studies show a fairly weak connection between a student’s SAT score and how he or she performs as a college freshman?
If they are so fair, why do women consistently underperform on the test when compared to men with identical grades? (Put another way, the SAT and ACT have long been underrating how well women will do as college freshmen.)
If these tests are so accurate, how did an MIT writing professor prove, quite devastatingly, that you could game the writing section the SAT added in 2005 simply by using important-sounding words and long paragraphs, even if your actual answers to the essay questions made no sense whatsoever?
And, once we recognize these flaws, why do we continue to give the tests so much weight in determining who gets a National Merit Scholarship and who gets into Harvard?
“You have to get a good score!” says Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor who got a ho-hum 25 on his ACT and then somehow managed to win a Pulitzer Prize and become one of the country’s leading experts on drones. “If you don’t, you won’t get into the best college! And if you don’t get into the best college you are screwed!
“That thinking is absolutely drilled into our heads,” Waite says. “And it can’t help but scar your soul in some ways.”
To be sure, the tests are still crucial to many parents and students. They are crucial because these tests are gatekeepers to college entrance and scholarships, and they are so crucial that many families spend hundreds of dollars on test prep courses that may bump a child’s score by an all-important two or three points.
Which might lead us to the real problem. It’s not the SAT or the ACT. The problem might be us.
More specifically, the problem might be that all of us — parents, students and, most important, colleges still using the ACT or SAT — are placing an importance on these tests that not even the tests’ overseers think they deserve.
The College Board, the organization that oversees the SAT, has overhauled the test twice in the past decade, responding to criticism and its own reams of data. The goal: Make it as fair and as valuable as possible, says Leslie Hawley, a UNL professor who studies educational measurement and has worked for Educational Testing Services, which administers the GRE and other widely known tests.
And, at this point, the College Board fully admits that a score shouldn’t be used by itself. In fact, the board’s own publicly released data urges universities to use both the test score and high school GPA when choosing students, she says.
The SAT and ACT aren’t perfect, Hawley says, but they are also the best we have.
“It’s a cognitive measure,” she says. “There’s a right answer and a wrong answer. But testing companies are also aware of noncognitive skills, how big a role they play in life. And those skills, noncognitive things like grit, are what we’re trying to get a better handle on to measure.”
Which brings us back to Westengaard.
He and I happen to both be proud graduates of Red Cloud High School, where he was two years ahead of me. I never pegged Justin as the next Einstein, but even as a teenager I could see he had some talents that his peers didn’t.
He could read people and understand situations quickly. He could identify your strong spot and offer a quick insight. He could probe your soft spot and exploit it with a punch line.
In short, he had serious interpersonal skills. And after he graduated from Hastings College, worked in human resources and then at a fiberglass plant, he decided to ignore his earlier testing failures and try something audacious.
Justin went back to school. He tackled chemistry and biochemistry. And then he lived and breathed MCAT preparation for a year, studying flash cards and listening to an audio prep course as he jogged around midtown Omaha.
The MCAT is to the ACT as a Monet is to a second-grader’s finger painting. Justin Westengaard got a 23 on the ACT. And then, on the MCAT, he got a solid 30 out of 45.
He’s now wrapping up his final year of residency at a family medical clinic in Kearney. In July, he will start work as a family physician at the hospital in Falls City.
“I guess it was one of those deals where I just decided I didn’t want to be one of those guys sitting on the park bench in Red Cloud, saying ‘I could have been a doctor if I would have tried,’ ” he says, explaining what drove him to succeed.
Until we can test that — whatever that is — colleges who fixate on the ACT and SAT are bound to whiff on the Justin Westengaards of the world. And until we all stop fixating on the tests, we’re bound to short-change them, too.
Then they put on white doctor’s coats and we realize something important: Fixating on a number is a dopey thing to do.