Testing often loathed but sometimes essential

6 mins read


It is Sunday morning and I’ve just finished my brother-in-law’s memoir.

John Littlewood is married to my wife’s sister, Kathy. They live in Umbria. John is an artist owning a small gallery in Umbertide (near Perugia). We visit this couple every two or three years.

John grew up in post World War II Britain in very modest circumstances. His father was a caretaker for a Wolverhampton bank. His mother was the custodian for that same bank and also made and served tea for the bankers.

John had trouble concentrating; feared math; and failed what was then called the 11-plus examination.

In 1945 the United Kingdom had two parallel educational systems — schools funded by taxpayers and private, fee-funded schools. The former were coeducational day schools; the latter were single-sex boarding schools known, strangely, as “Public Schools.” The choice between these two was largely based on parental wealth.

Between the ages of 5 and 11 there was a single educational stream in the taxpayer funded schools. And when one turned 11 there was a national exam called the “11-plus test.”

If one passed, one went to what were called “grammar schools” and then on to college. If one failed one went into the “Secondary Modern” stream where it was extremely difficult to get into a college.

The 11-plus exam became a white collar/blue collar divide that determined whether you would earn your living with your hands, or with your head. The results were based entirely on the results of an IQ test, not requiring the regurgitation of acquired knowledge and with little if any relationship to the curriculum.

Students at the private, fee-funded schools were not required to take the 11-plus exam. They had their own “Common Entrance Exam” that determined if they were going to the “Public School” of their parent’s choice.

John failed the 11-plus exam and his formal education came to an end three years later. His father, a veteran who had fought at Gallipoli and the Somme, urged John to take up carpentry. John’s mother, Phyllis, disagreed.

I tell this story because the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in the US, does the same winnowing-out once done by the 11-plus in Britain. (The 11-plus was abandoned in 2008.) It is true that the SAT is usually taken at 18, and for the disappointed, there are community colleges, but a bad outcome on the SAT/ACT often ends hope of a degree-backed career.

That may be changing.

The SAT is being dropped by many colleges — 51 at last count. The reason given is that the test is not a reliable “predictor of success” in college. One also knows that kids can be expensively tutored, take it several times, and often improve their scores by more than 100 points.

But if the SAT goes away that leaves a student’s GPA — his or her “grades” — as the primary “predictor of success.” And this puts high schools, high school teachers in particular, in the role of deciding who will go to Harvard and who will not.

“Dropping a standard test requirement necessarily means that admissions committees must rely more heavily on high school grades. But if grades become the metric by which applicants are judged, high schools will have an incentive to hand out A’s like Halloween candy. Grade inflation of this sort could destroy high school GPA’s usefulness as an indicator of student aptitude,” says Forbes magazine.

The Forbes writer goes on to say that “even if admissions committees believe grades are the best measure, SAT scores can still be useful as a check against grade inflation.”

Phyllis Littlewood had watched John draw, knew he was gifted, and helped him get a job in a commercial art studio in Wolverhampton where he swept the floors, washed the windows and caught rats.

And while he was trapping rats he was given the opportunity to lay out advertising and compose pages of copy.

This inauspicious beginning led to design work for Goodyear Tire; then to night classes at Wolverhampton College of Art; and work at a small ad agency in London. After that he was off to Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborne in London, then to Milan (where he ran BBDO-Milan) and finally to the bright lights of New York City, where he his worked on the Dupont, Pepsi-Cola and Pan Am accounts.

Eventually John would become President of NWAyer (West Coast) handling the Toshiba and Yamaha accounts.

Testing is often loathed, or feared, but is sometimes essential. But we do love it when someone overcomes a bad day when one was 11.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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