Searching for the Presidents’ Test Scores

Matt Larriva
Jan 18, 2020

Matt Larriva and Lauren Thompson

Why Do People Care About the Presidents’ SAT and ACT Scores? 

Since their introduction over 70 years ago, these tests have become integral components of the college admissions process. They offer a standardized point of comparison to a textured high school landscape and seek to predict the success of a student in college. But that’s all they were designed to do. Proponents argue the scores are far weightier, foretelling riches and career success for the perfect scorer. Detractors cite the test’s culture bias, socioeconomic disparity, and weak forecasting power. The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle.

Right or wrong, one thing both sides agree on is these tests’ perceived importance: what else could account for the perpetually escalating stakes of scandals, cheating, and bribery? Revered by parents and sacrosanct to students, these scores have become synonymous with IQ and are seen as the keys to the gates of the most selective colleges in the land.

But for all this gravitas, these scores lose their relevance after graduation. Few and far between is the employer who asks for high school test scores, and rarer still is the baby boomer who remembers his or her score. 

The case of politicians, especially those in the highest seats of power, is an exception to this natural relevancy decay. While public figures face intense scrutiny in all aspects of their lives, their test scores are often of special interest. Compared to the esoterica of campaign-funding receipts or tax returns, test scores are relatable, tangible, and succinct. They allow supporters to tout their leader’s intellect and give critics another point of criticism.

Despite the fact that the requirements of the presidency have little to do with a simple numerical score from a standardized test, people look to the SAT and ACT as a sign of the president’s intellectual competence. 

Far be it from us to deny this curiosity, we’ve compiled the SAT and ACT scores of the most recent leaders.

Desperate Efforts to Conceal Scores

            Surprisingly, no president has, to our research, volunteered his test scores. Our theory is that there’s no good answer: too high a score might make the leader seem erudite and out of touch; too low a score and, well, who wants an underperformer for a leader? Late last year, Michael Cohen (the former attorney of Donald J. Trump) pleaded guilty to financial crimes, campaign finance infringements, and more. As part of these proceedings, Cohen publicly testified to Congress on February 27 last year, alleging that President Trump “directed [him] to threaten his high school, his colleges, and the College Board to never release his grades or SAT scores.” 

Like many before President Trump, such as Presidents Obama and Clinton, Trump’s educational background and history have been questioned multiple times. And, like many before him, the public is left with more questions than answers.

The Only Official Presidential Score Brought to Light

George W. Bush is the only US President whose grades and SAT scores have been revealed to the general public. His case is unusual as his Yale school records were leaked without permission by an outside party. In his application to Yale, acquired and published by the November 8 1999 issue of The New Yorker, one finds the scores and grades of an average student. According to the application, president Bush (43rd) scored a 1206 on the SAT and received mostly Bs and Cs when he was in college. When he took the exam, the SAT was scored out of a 1600 scale, consisting of two parts: a verbal and math section, similar to the SAT that students take today, though the scaling was slightly different. Bush had a verbal score of 566 (out of 800) and a math score of 640 (out of 800) for a total of 1206. Although this score may not be impressive by today’s standards, his score was actually above average compared to the students of his time. It is estimated that George W. Bush probably took the SAT around 1964 when the average verbal score was 475, and the average math score was 498, totaling up to an average of 973 for college-bound seniors in 1964.

Speculation of Scores

Rumors and hypotheses often appear in the absence of truth. When the test scores of presidents are unknown, people sometimes form fabricated conclusions based on evidence such as the colleges that presidents attended or their demonstrated character. Worse yet, some organizations rely on dubious sources and publish supposed scores, which then get republished by others, creating an echo chamber. Numerous sources list President Lyndon Johnson’s score, William Faulkner’s score, and Merilyn Monroe’s score, though the ACT didn’t exist until Johnson was deep into his Senate career. The original source of those scores was a fictitious list posted in a satire section of a test prep book. For a detailed account, see our article Marilyn Monroe Never Took the ACT.

To illustrate this point, Powerful Prep has listed the supposed scores of several modern American presidents.

US Presidents’ SAT Scores (or absence)

The Confidentiality of the Scores 

            If the list looks disappointingly small, it is for a few reasons. First, as mentioned above, it doesn’t behoove a leader to disclose their score. It likely does little to ingratiate the leader to his electorate. Second, scores are not discussed actively. As one student said to us, “talking about your GPA or test score as a student is like talking about your salary as an adult.” It’s gauche. But the most pervasive reason for the limited information is confidentiality of the test makers.

ACT and SAT scores are extremely confidential. The CollegeBoard (the creator of the SAT), The ACT (the creator of the ACT), and colleges that receive test scores are not allowed to disclose student information to the public without the student’s consent. Many people have tried to access presidential SAT and ACT scores, but they often fail as strict regulations and rules ensure the privacy of past and current students’ grades and scores. In certain circumstances, one’s ACT and/or SAT score may be known to the general public by a skilled hacker or leaked by a close friend. But for now, it looks like we won’t be seeing any other official presidential SAT or ACT scores anytime soon.

So Who Is the Smartest President?

With a dearth of scores and a surfeit of curiosity, the public still wants to know: who is the smartest president? The BBC investigated this from a number of angles.

First they considered admission to the academically exclusive Phi Beta Kappa society as one measure. According to Phi Beta Kappa’s site, 17 presidents have been members:

US Presidents who were Phi Beta Kappa members

Second, the BBC sought IQ scores for the US leaders. And perhaps the best estimation of presidential intelligence available is from a psychology professor at UC Davis. In his work, published in a peer-reviewed journal article, he uses a variety of methods to estimate IQ scores for 42 presidents (from Washington to George W Bush). The article’s findings are reproduced below. Because it was compiled in 2006, subsequent leaders are omitted.

Simonton’s compilation and imputation of US Presidents’ IQ scores

Plotting this over time, the trend is stationary, with Grant as the lowest estimate and John Quincy Adams as the highest. 

The trend of US presidents’ IQs (reported or calculated) over time (Simonton)

But even this is only a well-regarded estimate. At present, we have little substantiated evidence of US presidents’ IQ or test scores.

While these scores remain elusive, perhaps there is a lesson in the opacity. In this time when students face record levels of anxiety brought on by an increasingly competitive academic landscape, it should be comforting to know that test scores do not dictate one’s future. A low score may preclude admission to a certain school, but beyond that, the effects are minimal. Not even the US presidency requires a top test score, or any score at all, for that matter.

For additional information, here are our sources not directly cited in the article:

https://www.erikthered.com/tutor/historical-average-SAT-scores.pdf
https://www.erikthered.com/tutor/historical-average-SAT-scores.pdf
https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/pdf/sat-terms-and-conditions.pdf
https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/rd-guide-release-data.pdf
https://www.act.org/content/act/en/privacy-policy.html