For the readers of this blog that know me personally, the following sentence will elicit a “Jason would do something like this,” response. Faced with the prospect of a 7-hour overnight flight from Toronto to London, I did what any logical individual might do; the previous day, I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble and picked up a book of “Extremely Challenging Vocabulary for the GRE” and a test-prep book for one of the most notoriously difficult standardized tests in existence: the Miller Analogies Test.
Consisting of 120 multiple-choice analogies in a number of different fields, from mathematics and philosophy to art and history to natural- and physical sciences to “nonsemantic” curveballs (Moor : _____ :: Room : Pin; Nip. Moor is Room spelled backward = Nip w/r/t Pin) to be completed in 60 minutes. Only 100 of the 120 questions are actually scored (20 are “experimental” beta-tests), and test-takers aren’t aware of which ones are not counted. Through a scoring mechanism in place since the 1990s, the test is scored out of 800, with the median being 400. Having no “Experimental” versus “Active” listed alongside answers, I used the old scoring method of using the “Raw Score”, which is out of 100 with a 50=median, modified such that Raw Score = (Total Score / Number of Tests Taken) * (100/120).
To up the ante even further, I decided it might make a neat experiment to measure my performance over a multiple-test marathon. So, in one brain-aching four hour session I worked through 480 analogies and was left with almost 40 minutes to spare. After dinner, a cup of coffee, and watching half of a BBC documentary I tallied my correct answers and scored myself.
Any performance on the exam above two standard deviations from the median is just a number. This is also my opinion of IQ. After a certain point, it’s just a pissing contest. What does it say about me that I asserted Keats : India :: Conrad : Congo but wasn’t able to see that Nip so clearly corresponds to Pin? What value is knowing Aristotle : Alexander :: Martin : Hannah?
This summer, my goal was to undergo the process of “overclocking” my brain. I moved farther out on the rarefaction curve that is mastery of obscure vocabulary. I learned the meanings of “Noesis” and “Sybarite” and realized I’m a combination of the two: the latter whose vice and extravagance is the former. Without the high levels of cortisol that inhibit the development of long-term memory during the academic year, I consumed, processed, and found meaning within well over a dozen books and countless more articles and blog posts, all in the quietude of humming conditioned air on hot summer’s days—not in the pre-finals adrenaline-fueled overstuffing. A post-finals brain, like another overstuffed organ, foie gras, seeks nothing more than to sear and brown on a skillet.
I did not “learn” much this summer. There was little information that presented itself as novel; my focus was instead to draw connections between the disparate subjects that form the body of what I can claim to know.
The MAT is not as viscously difficult as it’s made out to be. About 20% of the facts are beyond the ken of a bright high school student. There aren’t any questions involving terribly exotic vocabulary, or extremely obscure historical figures; any person who passed a rigorous broad-based college preparatory curriculum will find themselves fully “prepared” for the MAT. The test’s difficulty arises from having to recognize a general rule in the given Set 1 and extrapolate the rule through the “known” variable of Set 2 to complete the analogy. It’s harder than it sounds, despite being incredibly intuitive. Most children are drilled on analogies through elementary school, but the pedagogical focus shifts toward convincingly interpolating “meaning” into an extrapolated Theme or Thesis which may or may not actually exist within the single work being analyzed.
Through retrograding my thought processes to that simple “find and apply the rule” mantra instilled in young students prepping for state-mandated performance testing, I came upon an insight I’d never expected: that the MAT succeeds where the ACT/SAT Industrial Complex fails spectacularly; here is a test both of how much one knows and how well one can apply a priori knowledge to solve a problem. It’s about the Critical Thinking Abilities that ACT/SAT so ardently insist they test for, except, unlike the current standards in Standardized Testing, one cannot “game” the MAT. There are no nifty tricks for regurgitating reflexively what’s presented in the Critical Reading sections, there is no uniform pool of 1500 words from which vocabulary questions are drawn, nor are there cutesy conflations of popular culture and vague references to characters from The Classics and really pitiful attempts at wit and social commentary to boost one’s twenty-five minute long essay. There is no Critical Response on the MAT: it doesn’t mess around.
There are no perfect scores to happily report in tittering high school parents’ newsletters. “That’s real swell, Mrs. ____, that Timmy got a 36 on his ACT, and I’m real’ sure East Coast University will be better for his presence, but…” thousands of really well-prepared kids get perfect scores on the ACT. A raw score of 61 (I believe) qualifies Timmy for Mensa. Mensa claims to accept those in the rightmost 5% of the Gaussian curve. A raw score of 98-99 qualifies Timmy for the Mega Society, a high IQ society for which roughly 1 in 1 million people qualify. It is theoretically impossible to score 100s consistently (n > 5). If one scores 33-35 consistently on the ACT, the 36 might have just been a fluke.
In an almost comically competitive world of college applications, where standard outperformance of peer cohorts is the standard to which applicants are measured, might it be time to cut through the “Critical Thinking Testing Paradigm” currently in place and put ridiculously high ACT/SAT scores into perspective? Is it so difficult for people to realize that this high performance can be attributed to pricey prep courses that exclude the disadvantaged, or to amphetamines bought on the sly, or to plain dumb luck, as much as to possession of actual critical thinking skills? Will I be surprised to hear someday of an applicant to an undergraduate program submitting a score report for an exam relevant to graduate school? No.
One important consideration regards the fragile self-esteems of America’s young people, the ones enrolled in enrichment activities since the age of three, ones told by Tech Bubble-millionaire parents that they can achieve what they want to achieve. We can imagine a scene in a kitchen involving a mailed MAT score report: “But Momma, how will I ever get into college with a 61/100? I mean, that’s, like, a D-.”