Monday, February 2, 2015

The Ivy Testocracy and the Unfortunate Misuse of the SAT

Salon brings us an article by Lani Guinier Ivy League’s meritocracy lie: How Harvard and Yale cook the books for the 1 percent, which is an excerpt from her book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America.

First of all, let me be clear: I have nothing against elite schools, but ....

Ahh, for the days when elite schools were filled with people who inherited their privilege. Back then, most students at elite schools knew they were fortunate to have been born into "good" families, while those who didn't get in could rest easy that they were simply less fortunate.

Now, those at elite schools believe they deserve their good fortune while those who don't get in think they are less deserving. It's really too bad on both sides. I'm not saying that people at elite schools aren't smart. I'm simply agreeing with Dr. Guinier that a student's socioeconomic status is an excellent predictor of their aptitude as measured by the SAT.

Guinier's article reminded me of something I read in Atlantic Quarterly back in the mid-90's, Nicholas Lemann's The Great Sorting. One quote from Lemann's article stands out to me:
"Broad-scale testing in America was intended to be two things at once: a system for selecting an elite and a way of providing universal opportunity.... An irony of the American meritocracy, now that it has been in operation long enough to produce not just future leaders but present ones, is that the leaders chosen by a mechanism designed to be perfectly open and fair are widely regarded as a pampered, out-of-touch, undemocratic in-group...."
Also, SAT scores are not a particularly good predictor of later success. As Guinier says,
"... college admissions officers at elite universities today ... when asked what predicts life success—[say] that, above a minimum level of competence, “initiative” or “hunger” are the best predictors."
Organizations such as schools and businesses are not looking for people with high IQs or great SAT scores. What they want are people who are driven. People with grit. The problem is that we don't know how to measure "grittiness" well. We're great at measuring IQ and "aptitude," but those traits are much less helpful.

Much of this criticism of the SAT is mirrored by Todd Balf's article in the New York Times Magazine, The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, which uses much of the same information to explain why David Coleman is overhauling the SAT. I hope Coleman's work is effective at changing the dynamic between the SAT, colleges, and students of every stripe. We need to move away from this testocracy.

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