The tyranny of non-objectivity

Posted: Jul 20, 2000 12:00 AM
The New York Times is cheering the decision of Mount Holyoke College to stop requiring that students submit their SAT scores for admission, ending what the Times calls "the tyranny of the big test." While conceding that the SAT measures "mental dexterity," the editorial complains that the test does not capture qualities such as "motivation" or what the student "learned in high school."

The SAT also doesn't measure compassion, speed or good looks. It does, however, measure something more than the ability to suck up to your high school teachers and guidance counselors.

I'd say dropping the SAT is going to have unintended consequences, except the consequences are so blindingly obvious that it's hard to pass them off as unintended. In the absence of an objective national test, Mount Holyoke will have to rely exclusively on high school transcripts, graded papers and letters of recommendation.

So instead of a color-blind, class-blind, looks-blind, personality-blind computer determining a child's entire future (as the anti-testing crowd grandiosely puts it), a student's entire future will be determined by his high school teachers.

Whatever dropping standardized tests is supposed to accomplish, it will double as affirmative action for chipper pep club members from good families with sensible clothes and nice manners. Even parents sometimes play favorites with their own children; teachers often do so blatantly. Eliminating standardized tests may be a great help to the rare smart student who doesn't test well, but it will create new unfairnesses for the smart student who doesn't play well with his teachers.

To say the SAT doesn't measure motivation is contradicted by the other claim made by SAT opponents that the results are suspect because coaching courses can improve SAT scores. If so, wouldn't taking such a class demonstrate motivation? (As for the alternative class-bias attack, it's not as if preparatory classes are in the price range of the Hope diamond, and old tests are available to anyone.)

In fact, studying for the SAT doesn't help much, anyway. According to a study of SAT preparatory courses conducted by Samuel Messick and Ann Jungeblut, 300 hours of study will lead to an average increase in combined SAT scores of only about 70 points. That's an hour a night for an entire school year plus one month of summer vacation. (For a lousy 70 points, that's motivation.)

It's hard to imagine that a student wouldn't be better served by doing an hour's worth of homework every night during high school than taking the most well-regarded and expensive SAT-preparation classes.

In addition to making high school teachers the judge and jury of a student's college prospects, Mount Holyoke will continue to rely on "an evaluation scheme that rates high schools in terms of academic rigor." Is Mount Holyoke going to send auditors to every high school in the nation each year to determine their comparative "academic rigor"? The only plausible method of comparing the academic rigor of high schools across the nation is, of course, by comparing student scores on the exact same test. The SAT, for example.

More to the heart of the matter, it is plainly nonsense that there is some vast, inscrutable intelligence that is impervious to standardized testing. If intelligent people can't express their intelligence verbally or mathematically, how exactly do we know they're so intelligent?

It is true that some percentage of bright people really do not test well, but most of the time the only thing about "common man's intelligence" that is indubitably true is that it is common. The concept of some ephemeral, elusive nonverbal intelligence simply allows one to impute intelligence to anyone who strikes your fancy.

The SAT was originally conceived of as a way to replace class with merit, to give the smart poor students an equal chance with the Locust Valley Lockjaw set. But now the new elite -- the high SAT-scoring elite -- is trying to make itself hereditary. Accidents do happen and there really is such a thing as regression toward the mean, so the child of two Harvard Law School graduates might only be able to get in to the Kennedy School, which is a fearful comedown in the new class structure.

That's why the last decade has been witness to an amazing uptick in fancy "learning disabilities" (so oddly prevalent among dumb children of the rich). And that's also why there has been a sudden offensive against standardized tests on the basis of the lunatic complaint that the SATs are incapable of calibrating important but completely unmeasurable characteristics like "motivation."

Eliminating standardized tests allows the cognitive elite to manipulate the soft stuff in ways the less-often-washed cannot. Mount Holyoke has accomplished nothing more than replacing a tyranny of merit with a tyranny of privilege.