Middle aged and looking to change jobs? Then you may have to dust off not just your resume but also your SAT scores.
While many employers have been asking entry-level hires for their scores on what we dinosaurs called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the Wall Street Journal reports that some companies are now doing the same of applicants in their 40s and 50s. Does anyone really think that what happened in a room 20 or 30 years earlier filled with sleep-deprived, over-hormoned teens with No. 2 pencils in hand has anything to do with professional competence today?
Nonetheless, some of the employers the Journal cited — a group including Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and Bain and Co. — said that the test scores helped them determine “whether someone has the raw brainpower required for the job.”
Some companies do set targets, particularly on the math section. Mark Rich, managing director of consulting-industry recruiting firm Whitehouse Pimms, says clients often tell him to screen for candidates whose SAT scores placed them in or above the 95th percentile.
Those in the hiring business justify this by saying that the SAT helps offset all the squishy information applicants submit. College records are subject to grade inflation; resumes are often works of fiction, exaggeration and omission; and personal references who know the rules are tight-lipped because courts have ruled that someone can be held liable if his or her comments sink someone’s job prospects.
But just what do companies really get out of reviewing SAT scores? Is it of any value, when for many workers so much time has passed since they took the test? The answer (and this isn’t a multiple-choice question): Whatever information there is to be gleaned from test scores, it’s so immeasurable that it’s meaningless.
No one really should expect otherwise, because the SAT itself predicts very little save first-year college performance. Even ETS, the nonprofit organization that administers the test, makes no other claims for the test. In other words, the test’s predictive validity is in the basement. (Disclosure: My SAT scores are painful to think about, so maybe I’m not objective. No, I won’t reveal them — and neither should you.)
Here’s what the research has found: Roughly one-fifth to one- sixth of the variation in academic performance of first-year college students is tied to SAT scores, and it diminishes with the passage of time. That means about 80 percent of whatever it is that determines freshman-year academic success can’t be determined by the SAT.
Here’s an idea. If employers are so interested in what candidates were like at age 17 or so, why don’t they ask for information that does a superior job of predicting college achievement: their high-school grade transcripts. Or how about inquiring about household income while the applicant was growing up? If it’s at the poverty level and the applicant thrived in college, that’s probably more meaningful than an SAT result from someone whose parents paid thousands of dollars for test-preparation courses, tutors and study guides.
Speaking of thriving in college, it might not hurt to have a standardized test for graduating seniors, which some schools are starting to administer to volunteers.
Hiring the right people is one of the hardest things a company does. Asking for SAT scores is a shortcut, a lazy way of screening for talent that has no proven value. Just drop it and try asking candidates what book they read last and why. Maybe they’ll say something interesting.
James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View’s editorial board.