Bill Bradley’s SAT Scores

When dumb things happen to smart people.

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}

The papers of the late Kingman Brewster Jr., who was president of Yale in the ‘60s and ‘70s, include a letter from one E. Alden Dunham III, a former director of admissions at Princeton. Dunham argued that Ivy League universities were overemphasizing the importance of SAT scores. For example, Dunham wrote, consider a recent Princeton graduate named Bill Bradley.

“Here is a guy who graduated Magna Cum Laude in history, the greatest basketball player in the Ivy Colleges, Rhodes Scholar, probably a governor of Missouri someday—and all with a 485 verbal SAT!”

Bill Bradley, the thinking presidential candidate, scored a 485 verbal on his SAT? That’s lower than George W. Bush, the allegedly slow-witted presidential candidate. As reported recently in The New Yorker, Bush got an SAT verbal score of 566.

So what conclusions should we draw? The important conclusions aren’t about whether Bradley is really smart or Bush is really dumb. They’re about ways in which these two are actually similar. Above all, both of them are beneficiaries of affirmative action. A 566 verbal would not have gotten you into the Yale Class of 1968, especially with mediocre prep-school grades, if you weren’t also the son—and grandson, for good measure—of a Yale alumnus. Likewise a 485 verbal wouldn’t get you into the Princeton Class of 1965, if you weren’t also a star basketball player.

By the time Bradley applied to college in the early ‘60s, selective schools such as Princeton and Yale viewed themselves as intellectual training grounds, not the clubby enclaves of previous times. In this new era, a score below 500 on either the verbal or math section of the SAT normally meant rejection. A 1960 New Yorker article described the case of an African-American applicant to Yale who was valedictorian and president of his high-school class and a stellar athlete to boot. His application was rejected—because his 488 SAT average “would certainly be the lowest in the entire Yale class.” But the cutoff point was more flexible for top athletes, for alumni “legacies,” and starting in the late ‘60s, for blacks and other minorities.

T his leads to the following non-multiple-choice question for Bradley and Bush: If you got into an Ivy League college for reasons other than “qualifications”—narrowly defined as grades and test scores—what is so terrible about bending the same rules on behalf of African-Americans? Bradley would probably have an easier time with this question than Bush, because as a Democrat he is not required to believe that “reverse discrimination” is necessarily a terrible thing, and because athletic talent can plausibly be seen as a legitimate aspect of “merit,” while choosing a father who went to Yale cannot. But both examples undercut the argument against affirmative action.

The examples of Bradley and Bush also illustrate the fallacy of taking the SAT as a measure of intelligence or much of anything else—let alone of qualification to be president of the United States. This is not because Bradley scored worse than Bush, but because both have led successful lives and are patently better qualified for the presidency than many citizens with higher scores.

Of course, any analysis of individual SAT results must be taken with a grain of salt. Bradley and Bush sat for the test in the days before score-raising courses like Kaplan and Princeton Review. The SAT has been “recentered” in recent years, boosting overall scores by up to a hundred points. Bradley, knowing he would be offered athletic scholarships at dozens of non-Ivy schools, may not have taken the test seriously. And in any case, Bush and Bradley actually scored quite respectably when considered apart from the lofty standards of Ivy Leaguers. Both were probably in the top third of all test-takers and would have been in the top quarter (at least) if the SAT had been administered to all high-school seniors.

All the SAT even purports to measure is likely first-year college grades. Indeed, the test admirably predicted the freshman year academic difficulties of both Bradley and Bush. While Bush remained mired in a “Gentleman’s C” groove for the duration of his undergraduate years, Bradley was able to pull himself out of his first-year struggles by dint of hard effort and went on to an honors degree and a Rhodes scholarship.

Judging from their undergraduate careers alone, you might well argue that the examples of Bill Bradley and George W. Bush illustrate a subtler point about affirmative action than mere thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That is, affirmative action is more likely to succeed when it takes into account personal qualities like drive and motivation, which may not be captured on the SAT. Affirmative action is likely to fail when it is merely a special preference bestowed upon those who have the right parents, whether “right” means educational pedigree or skin color.

Even four decades later, Bradley’s appeal as a presidential candidate—contrary to some of his own campaign slogans—is not that he was ever the epitome of effortless cerebral and athletic superiority but that he has made the most of his talents. No test, whether it takes the form of the SAT or a pop quiz on foreign affairs, is conclusive proof of a person’s potential. Scores alone cannot be the sole basis for making decisions about college admissions, hiring decisions, or presidential elections. Affirmative action (even for athletes and preppies) sometimes has a place in this land of second chances, where anyone can grow up to be president. Bill Bradley and George W. Bush ought to know.