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« Quality of Life Linkage | Main | Elsewhere »

May 23, 2007

Grade Well or Test Well: Some Results

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There are those who consistently get top-notch grade averages in school or college. Then there are those who have a knack for doing very well on ability or achievement tests -- the SAT, GRE, etc. There can be overlap between these groups, but perhaps not as much as one might think.

Even more interesting is the question of how far people in each group progress in the degree-chase, one possible test of what smart people do with their abilities.

Well, I've got some evidence. It falls into the realm of anecdote rather than science, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

First, some background.

My 50th high school reunion is coming up in September and one of the projects related to the event was the publication of a 148-page book about the class by a retired Geography professor (a class member) with the help of several other interested members. Among the items it contains is a table with information on the 11 students with the highest grade averages and another table with information on the 13 Merit Scholarship finalists the class produced. That is, data on the two groups mentioned above.

By the way, 13 is a lot of Merit Scholarship finalists for one school. But for Seattle's Roosevelt High back in the pre-bussing 1950s it wasn't that big a deal: the classes of 1956 and 1957 jointly produced 20 or more finalists and because of that got a mention in Time magazine.

I should add that classes were in the 650-700 student range in those days. Plus, the school's attendance area took in some upper-middle or upper class neighborhoods where parents were college professors and business owners (think the Nordstrom family and the Gates family -- Bill's sisters attended Roosevelt many years after I graduated). In a word, lots of kids and lots of smart ones, too.

And what do the data show?

  • The overlap between the two groups was three people.

  • Seven of the 11 high-GPA people were female.

  • Ten of the 13 Merit Scholarship finalists were male.

  • Only one high-GPA student received a doctorate.

  • Five Merit Scholarship finalists got Ph.D. degrees.

  • The one high-GPA Ph.D. was also a Merit Scholarship finalist.

  • All in the high-GPA group graduated from college, but only five earned higher degrees (MA, MS, JD, etc.).

  • Five of the Merit Scholarship finalists completed their educations at the bachelors level.

  • One Merit Scholarship finalist did not graduate from college. He dropped out of Cal Tech to become a successful professional bridge player.

As I said, my evidence is anecdotal in the extreme. Moreover, it deals with a generation that got its higher education in the late 50s and the 1960s. I'm just passing this along for fun. But for what it's worth, I find it interesting that those in my class who earned doctorates clearly were more likely to come from the group that tested well rather than the group that got good grades.

Also note the differences that seem to be sex-related.



posted by Donald at May 23, 2007


Frankly I'm a little surprised at the results. My first thought was: it's fine to get a high grade on a test, but the ingredient that is central to achieving high grades in class (and in later endeavors) is hard slog, perseverance. I was a pretty good test taker as a kid and I was able to fake my way through a lot of courses on part knowledge, part BS. Until I hit Spanish. No way I could BS my way through a test of vocabulary, idioms and grammar. But I guess these great test takers who turned out to be great achievers were bright and industrious.

One of my favorite songs:

Oh it's fine to be a hero of course
But keep that old horse
Before the cart
All you really need is heart

Posted by: ricpic on May 23, 2007 6:06 PM

It's almost certainly the case that testing well is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for progressing far in highly technical subjects. Whereas diligence in high school, especially in English or history, can overcome lack of raw smarts.

In contrast, getting a Phd from a good program in Math, Physics, Econ, or another quantitative social science requires a certain G threshold. Of course, insufficient diligence could cause you to drop out. But the likelihood that someone who got a 600 on both the SAT Math and the GRE Quant (so that we know the low score was not a fluke) could finish a PhD in Physics from Caltech or a Phd in Finance from Chicago has got to be vanishingly small no matter how hard he's willing to work.

I've seen a study that suggests that in the top 5 econ departments, those PhD students admitted with GRE Q scores of 750 or below are more likely to drop out than those who score a 790 or 800. This is a remarkable finding since the grad admission process selects for other indications of math skills which would tend to offset (one would hope) the relatively poor showing on the GRE. Yet the effect of a lowish GRE still persists in the study.

Posted by: Not gandhi on May 23, 2007 6:27 PM

I have to say I am not surprised by these results. Grading is often part of a personal, face-to-face relationship, sometimes a rather intense one. Among the things that grades measure is the ability to impress and manipulate people into thinking that you are smart, interesting, promising, or whatever. This factor is completely absent in standardized testing. (I speak here as a teacher and grader who is painfully aware of his own fallibility!)

Posted by: Lester Hunt on May 23, 2007 8:30 PM

I graduated from high school in the 1970's in a city of 100,000. There were three public high schools, all in the 1,200 to 1,800 student range, and two sizeable Catholic high schools. There were zero Merit Scholars in the entire city that year.

Posted by: Peter on May 23, 2007 10:20 PM

One thing that you also need to think about is that in the 1950's it was possible for a smart guy to get a HS diploma, enter a good, often union, trade, and live a prosperous middle-class life. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of these guys might have tested as well or better on a true IQ test than the folks you describe, but they'd have never thought about college for themselves (later for their kids, of course, but not themselves), let alone a MS.

Posted by: D Flinchum on May 24, 2007 9:13 AM

I think the fifties might also have something to do with gender-related differences. It obviously would have been far less commonplace then for women to have had huge career ambitions which were related to high test scores and advanced degrees. In fact, there were some studies (I can't vouch for methodology)that said girls mathmatics test scores tended (in that era) to fall off right around junior high when they got interested in boys and perhaps figured out boys weren't that interested in girls who were math whizzes. There wasn't all that much "payoff" in those days for girls to be the smartest kid in class, or to bother to score high on standardized tests. As for the guys---I think D Flinchum has a point---college was not as "necessary" a choice for a solidly middle class life then, even for men. And then of course there is the one who may well have been the highest IQ of all, who made his living as a professional bridge player and bagged academics altogether---what were most of his professors really going to teach him?

But what I am wondering---what is the point of this project? If someone "underperformed" in life--i.e., had the highest GPA but ended up on welfare---why would they want to attend a reunion which pointed that out? And if someone "overperformed" by becoming a billionaire in spite of low grades, wouldn't people just shrug and say---"so much for GPA!" It just seems like a project like this might put a damper on the ole' social fun of the occasion!

Posted by: annette on May 24, 2007 11:08 AM

A lot of what determines whether a person persues postgraduate work involves being able to put up with the BS after getting your BS, IMHO. I got both of my Masters degrees after I had been in the workforce for a number of years and had gotten over the trauma, BA & AAS in 1976, ME in 1989, MS in 2004, the second under the auspices and encourgement of my employer. I also discovered that one does not have to produce anything in a real-world sense to earn an advanced degree.

Bob Durtschi

Posted by: Robert Durtschi on May 24, 2007 11:28 AM

I think the fifties might also have something to do with gender-related differences.

The percentage of female Nobel laureates in the objective categories is smaller post-Women's Liberation than before. So, women were excluded from the careers that they truly wanted (law, business, advertising, PR, medicine, etc.), forcing some to either do science / math / teaching or do nothing interesting at all.

As for the gap growing during puberty -- that's true for all traits with a partly biologically rooted sex gap, like height, muscularity, etc. Increased visuospatial skills are what guys use to try to succeed in the world (to track & hunt prey, to make & use tools, etc.), so it makes sense that a huge gap will appear in puberty. Increasing testosterone increases these skills, up to a point; super-high T guys have lower-than-male-avg spatial skills. Also, puberty is when guys start to get hyper-competitive, and persistance / competitiveness is necessary to master a bunch of math, regardless of how smart you are.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 24, 2007 12:25 PM

An observation from my high-school days (late 1970s, rural NE Arkansas) might bear on this, too. What I noticed was that some of the people who had the highest grades were working pretty much at the top of their abilities, sometimes under parental pressure.

Meanwhile, others who perhaps had more native mental horsepower didn't exert themselves as much just for the sake of high grades. They did well, but without flogging themselves any to move up from (say) the 94th percentile to the 99th. This latter group tended to perform better on standardized tests, which were less susceptible to brute-force studying.

Performance of these two groups in college is an interesting question, of course, but not one that I can answer from my data set. I graduated in a class of 88 people, but only about seven or eight of us went on to college.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 24, 2007 12:43 PM

There are a number of factors that probably affected the HS graduating class of 1957. I had the same experience as Donald (same size classes, same size school, just farther down the valley in Portland, OR) and vividly remember the USA being gob-smacked by Sputnik that fall, which made everyone abandon those nice easy-going humanities and push math & science. Also, the class of '57 was mostly born in 1939, the last pre-war year and therefore always just a jump ahead of those scuttling, beady-eyed Boomers who wanted to make their veteran dads proud -- whether or not they were living. The Atomic Bombs factor in there somewhere. We went to college WITH the older veterans, formidable competition. We were the first generation to have divorced parents in any number. The first to have TV in the home. Most of us a little too old to be hippies.

Lively times. The most memorable people (to me) in my college class (NU) were Paul Winter, whose Consort does the amazing services in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Ivan Doig, who left this village where I live now and made his reputation writing about it, but never returned. They expect him at the 50th reunion in a few weeks and hope to have the street repaved where the new sewer went in. Neither of these guys would have been necessarily National Merit Scholars, though probably Doig had pretty high verbal scores.

We had four NM finalists in my Portland cohort that year and two for the National Honor Society. I was in both groups. One of the finalists was in a car accident and brain-damaged. A single woman, she lives on welfare. Of the other two, both are male and both have done well, have Ph.D's for what that's worth.

The other NHS finalist was also a woman -- quite wealthy, drove us over to Reed for the last test in her sports car. Last I heard, she was running a marine food company for an Indian tribe on the Washington coast.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 24, 2007 2:36 PM

Sex related but very age related too because young high schoolers are before their intellectual primes of course. Interesting if college folk had the same results.

Posted by: Brian Hadd on May 24, 2007 2:39 PM

It seems to me that unusually high achievement (say, getting a Ph.D.) takes both smarts and work. If you make it to adulthood with only one or the other, then hard work is probably easier to learn than smarts.

Posted by: ptm on May 25, 2007 1:51 PM

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