High School Grades vs. The SAT vs. Family Income

My posts over the last two days compared how the SAT predicts college success against Emotional Intelligence scores. I received a lot of emails in response, and the vast majority of them were readers telling me their individual story through the statistics that defined their life.

People would list their SAT score, name the college they attended, and then state their college GPA. Often their stories continued into their adult years, as their GPA rose over time, or jumped dramatically when they hit graduate school and were finally studying a subject of genuine interest. Sometimes, in place of grad school GPAs, people told me their annual income.

I wasn't sure what to do with these stories, because they were sent to me as evidence of how the SAT does, or does not, predict the near future. However, while each anecdote is true and has integrity, no single anecdote proves or disproves the point. The statistics are cumulative of everyone's story.

So this brings up an interesting question: when science is offering normative statistics - when it tells us the mean or the average outcome - what role do individual stories play? People who don't conform to the average often feel insulted to hear about the statistical average, because it sorta feels like the science is denying the truth of their story.

I'm a good example of that myself - in high school I had a 200 point gap between my math score on the SAT and my verbal score. (My math score was roughly 200 points higher.) Yet here I am today, a writer. Supposedly, according to the SAT, I lacked verbal ability. At the time, it might have been true, but that verbal SAT number didn't describe me well over time, and certainly didn't predict my future.

The most interesting letter I received the last couple days on this topic was from a college president, Dr. Charles Flynn at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, which is located in the Bronx, NY. Flynn noted that "SAT scores correlate strongly - very strongly - to income." Children raised in affluent families by educated parents get dramatic benefits over their first eighteen years. He added, "Companies that offer expensive ($ 1500 or even more) prep courses for the SAT can show the added effect of those courses, compounding the general effect of income."

Flynn wasn't arguing that we should norm SAT scores against family income, using some handicapping system. Rather, his point was that there's a lot of kids from working-class cities and impoverished neighborhoods who work very hard in high school, and get good grades, but don't have commensurate SAT scores. They might find the jump to college really tough at first, but with the right scaffolding and academic supports, their ability to work hard will give them "a very good chance at excelling." Meanwhile, there are kids from affluent neighborhoods with high SAT scores but low grades; i.e., they're bright but don't work hard. These kids "stand a very good chance of doing poorly in college."

So now I'm interested in your personal stories on this dichotomy: in your experience, what really predicted, or drove, how well you did in college? Was the SAT a better or worse predictor than your high school GPA? Was your high school GPA indicative of your ability to work hard? Or did something else really matter - such as finally finding a subject major you were actually really interested in?