Why the SAT can’t be fixed
Friday, September 27, 2019
Your dear mom has fallen down a flight of stairs. She has severe skin cuts, several broken bones and a concussion. Rather than hospitalize her, you buy her a better pair of walking shoes. Will that work?
For similar reasons, various attempts to reform the SAT tests that many colleges use to evaluate potential students are unlikely to help. The damage has already been done. Attempting to tidy things up by “improving” the SAT, which notoriously favors the wealthiest students and further disadvantages the poorest, is like responding to your mom’s injuries by buying her a better pair of shoes.
Let’s Just Blame the SAT — We’ll All Feel Better
For several years now, critics have slammed the SAT test for its elitism and irrelevance. It favors the richest and best educated families (The Washington Post); it really doesn’t evaluate a student’s intelligence at all (Esquire); and various attempts to make things better have generally made things worse.
The most recent of these failed reforms was the widely reviled (and now discontinued) adversity score that tried to account for the differences in students’ social and economic circumstances by including the kind of handicap you might find in golf. The student comes from a bad neighborhood with bad schools — no problem, we’ll just toss in some extra points to make up the difference.
I’ve written about the general lameness of the adversity score before, but just to review: The particulars of this failure were that the score was only optional to begin with — no college needed to use it.
Also, and predictably, it provoked howls of outrage from some of the same wealthier and whiter parents and their institutional supporters that have made “affirmative action” fighting words and the subject of current lawsuits. But even some African American parents hated it.
All earlier attempts to fix the SAT have been equally scorned. Finally, something that every race and class in our highly divided country can agree on: the SAT is just a bad thing. Now, don’t we all feel better?
What’s Really Wrong Here
I’m not defending the SAT tests, either as they used to be or in their current attenuated and ever-so-slightly politically correct form. But by pointing out specific aspects of the test that are wrong, we’re also implying that the problems are fixable or that the owner of the SAT, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), can come up with an alternative test that won’t have the same problem, which is that it disadvantages some students (read: “poor and of color”), while increasing the advantage for others (read “white” and upper-middle class).
A brilliant, flawed and unconventional analysis of the problem by Daniel Markovitz, the current Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale, suggests otherwise. While I don’t entirely agree with everything he’s written in his September 2019 book “The Meritocracy Trap,”my belief is that he’s essentially right about where the problem lies.
When you hear what it is, you’ll probably conclude, as I did, that few persons with a commitment to an examination approach to determining who gets into college (and where) would be likely to agree with it. “The Meritocracy Trap” is not a critique of specific exams or even of an examination approach in general. It’s far broader and asserts that the entire meritocratic approach to qualifying for college is one of the fundamental reasons for our increasing economic inequality.
Why the Current System Can’t Be Fixed
Markovitz’s argument is detailed and carefully constructed. A short article like this one can’t do it justice. If you’re a parent with children soon to enter college, I hope you’ll read it.
But here’s the essence of Markovitz’s argument: Universities, and particularly America’s top universities, are the essential drivers of the hiring system that creates an American elite who populates the upper ranks of law, tech and finance.
That elite has resources less affluent parents cannot possibly have. Understandably, because they’re only trying to create the best possible outcomes for their children, they’ve fully accepted the meritocratic approach to qualifying for college.
They prepare their children for it from kindergarten to prep school, amplifying the advantage of the most expensive schooling available with private tutors and classes devoted specifically to increasing SAT and ACT (American College Testing) scores. Unsurprisingly, this approach works and enables the next generation of elite students to similarly prepare their own children.
Markovitz concludes that it’s “a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth, privilege and caste across generations.” No amount of fiddling with test approaches is going to change this. Elite parents, in fact, have the resources to respond to any changes faster and with more efficiency than less advantaged parents. Trying to make things better will more likely make them worse.
What’s the Real Solution?
The most obvious solution to the problem is to create a robust educational system that offers a great education for every American child. This would mean up-to-date classroom facilities, abundant and probably largely digital study aids, small class sizes and a well-paid and secure teaching force from kindergarten through K-12.
Yes, elite parents can still top this with tutoring, test prep, etc., but the advantage diminishes the better the basic education available to every child becomes.
Currently, however, the country and its schools are going in the other direction. One of the saddest and most memorable observations in Markovitz’s book is that in 2019 “the academic gap between rich and poor students now exceeds the gap between white and black students in 1954,” the era of the rightly rejected “separate but equal” education.
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