One morning last week, my phone dinged. It was our 15-year-old son texting me.
He had snapped a photo at school of his ACT results and sent it to his mom and me by text. As a ninth-grader, he recently got to take the test for practice. He did fairly well — scoring in the top quartile for his age group.
"Good job, buddy," I texted him back.
"Thanks," he responded. "So can I get a four-wheeler?"
"Yes," I typed, "any one you want from the Walmart toy department. But, like I said, good work. You scored high enough already to get the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship. That's worth about $16,000 over four years if you go to college in Tennessee!"
"OK, so, could I spend like $15,000 on a four-wheeler?"
This kid. He was born trying to cut a deal.
I've read that many American colleges have started making ACT and SAT scores optional for students applying for admission. I have mixed emotions about that.
I know from being a part-time college teacher that some of my top students have not done well on standardized texts. And some who have high scores have below-average emotional intelligence. Test scores are certainly not a foolproof indicator of success.
Still, there is something to be said for measuring students against national norms. I trust high-school GPAs even less than ACT results. I interviewed a student once who was the valedictorian of a local high school. She admitted that she wasn't sure she would get into a state university because of her relatively low ACT score. Something about that seems wrong.
As a manager who was involved with hiring for years, I do think that intelligence is the best baseline indicator of job success. It's not foolproof, but its much better than the trendy modern recipe for success: demonstrated passion. Passion is a measure of energy and emotion, not competency.
I remember taking the ACT in the 1970s and scoring higher in math and science than in reading and English. My punctuation skills were especially bad. But I had a chamber of my brain that was medium good at knitting together sentences, which gave me a shot at a career involving writing. And I read a lot and enjoyed listening to people talk, which turned out to be two of the more important skills in a journalist's toolkit. So, in a way, the meritocracy did work for me on a couple of soft skills.
Success requires a combination of good fortune and merit. So, while the ACT score of a high school freshman is little more than a conversation starter, it is also an arrow pointing up or down. It's said that the average ACT score increases by 5 points between ninth and 11th grade, so the foundation is important. And there's always a chance for an even bigger improvement.
"If I make a 36 on the ACT someday, will you send me to a fancy college?" our son asked.
"Son, if you make a 36 on the ACT, we won't have to send you anywhere. A good college will come and get you."
Yet, given the choice between a ticket to MIT or the keys to an ATV, I have no doubt which one he would pick.
That's just the way he rolls.
Email Mark Kennedy at email@example.com.