The Books on My Desk: Why Data is Better than Intuition, and Why Hamilton Education Has So Many Perfect Scores

by | Feb 12, 2020

A friend of mine in the Bay Area is a partner in a competing test prep company.  He’s a smart, talented person who’s worked with thousands of students, and a few weeks ago we were discussing trends in test prep, as well as perfect scores.  How many perfect scores has he seen in the past fifteen years? 

“Well…we’ve had one,” he told me.  “They’re pretty rare, you know.” 

They are rare—only one tenth of one percent will be perfect on the ACT.  Even more rare are perfect SAT scores—about one hundredth of one percent will be perfect on the SAT.  

That’s why it’s significant that we’ve had 158 perfect scores on the ACT/SAT in the past five years at Hamilton Education.

There are many reasons for this fact, I think.  The most important is that the students, families, and schools in San Diego are extraordinary.  Another is that we have an incredible faculty at Hamilton Education—some of the best teachers you’ll find anywhere. 

But perhaps another reason is that at every turn we do things differently.  And the reason for that, I suppose, has to do with the books on my desk.

In my offices I have stacks of books on my desks— a “touchable” reading list, of sorts, with topics ranging widely from medicine, physics, history, literature, and economics. People often ask about them—why are they there?  What do they have in common? 

One commonality is that I’ve enjoyed them and think that others might enjoy them.  But they’re also on my desk because nearly all of them privilege data and empirical observation over received wisdom.

For instance, it was once simply a matter of common sense that diseases were caused by “miasmas,” by vapors and smells—at least until scientists proved that things we couldn’t see or smell were the real culprits—a story well told in Steven Johnson’s compelling The Ghost Map

Or take Economics and Psychology.  In his marvelous Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that while most of us think we are rational, empirical experiments suggest we are constantly engaging in thinking and behaviors that are anything but rational.  This insight launched the discipline called Behavioral Economics and inspired many Nobel-prize-winning economists—whose books are also on my desks.

In 2016, I borrowed these counter-intuitive insights to create the H3 program in test prep.  The common wisdom at the time was that the SAT was the preferred test on the West Coast—why not just stick with that? 

What many people didn’t notice—perhaps because most test-prep companies are run by businessmen, rather than educators who actually teach the tests—was that the new SAT (radically revised in 2016) was purposefully created to mimic the ACT. 

In fact, the new SAT is nearly 95% similar to the ACT—a fact that most test prep companies have simply ignored.  At Hamilton Education, we didn’t ignore this insight.  Instead, we completely revised our summer curriculum and our program, teaching three tests—the SAT, ACT, and PSAT—in a single effort.

In the early days of H3, parents and students were skeptical.  Why not just focus on one test?  Why add the ACT into the mix?

One reason is that the ACT—a test originally designed for Midwest students—hasn’t been statistically “recentered” for many years.  Perfect scores on the ACT were once quite rare; in San Diego there were only five students who earned a perfect score on the ACT in 2015.

I reasoned that, since the ACT is now equally considered by all colleges but was originally “calibrated” for Midwest students who take fewer APs, our Hamilton Education students would essentially “break” the scale.  And that’s what has happened.  Rather than five perfect ACT scores in a year, Hamilton Education students now earn 30 to 40 perfect scores each year—an increase in perfect scores of about 500% to 700%!

Still, many parents and students want to know, “But which one should I take?”  Our answer is to look at the data.  And we collect that data by having students take BOTH tests during summer.  If we discover that one test is a better fit, we encourage students to take that test.  But we privilege the data, rather than a student’s subjective impression. 

In fact, a meeting just last week with a father and daughter perfectly illustrates the advantages of our approach.  Reviewing his daughter’s resume and scores, the father pointed out to her, “Last summer you told me you didn’t like the ACT—you didn’t know why you were practicing it alongside the SAT.  But Mr. Hamilton reviewed your practice scores and said, ‘You may not like the ACT, but the data says it likes you.’  You ended up getting a perfect 36 on the ACT in September, and you weren’t even planning on taking it!”

Nearly two dozen of our perfect ACT score students weren’t planning on taking the ACT at all!  Last summer more than 40% of our students received SAT/ACT scores in the top 1% of the nation, perhaps because we are giving the vast majority of our students more chances to do their best.  It’s like giving a batter an extra strike, or a basketball player an extra free-throw. 

And even when students do intuitively feel that the ACT is a better fit, we still want them to practice the SAT—not only because it’s so similar, but because the SAT is excellent preparation for the PSAT, the exam that confers National Merit awards.

Last year San Diego had 212 National Merit Finalists.  112 of them were Hamilton Education students—perhaps because our approach ensures that nearly everyone is prepared for all three exams, rather than just one.

At Hamilton Education, we’re often swimming upstream, against common industry practices and in some regards, as the books on my desk often urge, against common sense.  But we have the data—and the results—on our side.