May 16, 2009


The SAT and Its Enemies: Fear and loathing in college admissions (Andrew Ferguson, 05/04/2009, Weekly Standard)

[P]latitudes--truisms--are everywhere in the anti-SAT literature. Truisms lull the reader so reassuringly that you might miss other stuff that isn't true at all. Martha Allman, Wake Forest's admissions director, announced the school's decision to drop its SAT requirement with self-flattering banalities. "After months of discussion and study and reflection," she said, "we decided it was time to stand up on the side of fairness." Meanwhile, the material Wake Forest issued to support its new test-optional policy was a series of statements that are demonstrably untrue: that SATs aren't good predictors of college success, that they're merely an indicator of socioeconomic status rather than aptitude, that they're a barrier to college for "many well-qualified students," that they're crippled with cultural and racial bias, and so on. Each of these is contradicted by mountains of data and common sense.

The banality and misstatement obscure one truth so obvious that hardly anyone mentions it: If test-optional schools like Wake Forest truly want to admit those "well-qualified students" with low SAT scores, they could just choose to admit them. Admissions officers have access to a vast, multimillion-dollar industry of direct mailers and enrollment management consultants that do nothing all day but help schools find the kinds of applicants they want. And the school could admit them without depriving itself, as a matter of policy, of the valuable information that the SAT provides.

Instead the war on the SAT continues and intensifies. But why?

In addition to the obvious political reasons, there are compelling institutional ones as well. The deans may be progressives, but they're also bureaucrats. A test-optional admissions policy boosts department budgets and staff, since the personal interviews and graded essays used in place of test scores require much more manpower. It also gives a boost in the infamous college rankings published each year by U.S. News and World Report. When a school no longer requires the SAT, the number of applications typically increases, but the number of available slots stays the same. So the percentage of acceptances drops. The school suddenly looks more selective, pushing it up the U.S. News charts. The incoming class's "average SAT score"--another important measure for U.S. News--rises too, since low scorers usually don't submit their scores, leaving the average to be calculated from only the high-scoring applicants.

Best of all, without SAT scores, a dean's discretion is greatly enlarged. He is released from the tyranny of objective numbers. For the progressive admissions director, aching to make his school a gorgeous mosaic of multiculturalism, the SAT must chafe like a manacle. It offers a datum with which outsiders can second-guess his judgment: Why'd you accept Billy with a 1200 SAT and deny Jane with a 1500? He'll face no more questions like that if he can persuade his school to drop the SAT.

Inevitably, I suppose, the demotion of the SAT and what it represents begins to carry a whiff of the same postmodernism that has overtaken the humanities in most elite colleges. We shouldn't be surprised if it's seeped through the ventilators and under the door jambs into the admissions office next door. An attack on the traditional notion of aptitude is also an attack on one long-standing and widely accepted notion of what higher education is for, as a place where academic excellence is pursued both for its own sake and as a preparation for life. If higher ed is not defined this way it's hard to see what it will be defined by--beyond the whims of school presidents and progressive deans. But maybe that's the whole idea.

Where it used to be that whatever grades you got, no matter how subjective and how--literally--incomparable, standardized tests were waiting to objectively expose you and measure you against the universe of your fellows.

It seems likely that the enormous explosion in cheating we've seen in schools over the past couple decades is directly tied--though not exclusively--to the manner in which grades are becoming the be-all and end-all. The ever increasing emphasis on an instrumentality that you can easily shape via misconduct creates the incentives to do so.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2009 7:31 AM
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