Monday, June 02, 2008

Ignorance is Bliss

By Richard Vedder

Although colleges are loathed to learn whether their students actually learn anything while in school, they usually do want to test and evaluate applicants and students on their knowledge --for many good reasons. Now, rather than moving to increasing the information we have about college applicants and graduates, some schools are moving to REDUCE that information, presumably thinking less is best, or ignorance is bliss.

Today I read in INSIDE HIGHER ED that Stanford is eliminating grades at its law school, going to a less informative, more cumbersome system of evaluation --with four levels of distinction. Presumably this will eliminate ranks in class. Some of the arguments were the same used during the 1970s when Flower Children and Hippie Professors argued that grades raise student anxiety, potentially hurt their self-esteem, etc. Evaluations are hurtful, so let us largely do away with them. Yale and Berkeley have done similar things.

A five grade scale with pluses and minuses provides precise ordinal rankings of student performance -- a student with a 3.706 GPA is likely to be superior in a purely academic sense to one with a 3.274 GPA. Firms looking to hire good lawyers are going to want those who excel in class (and, in some types of law, have other positive characteristics, like good acting abilities). Stanford wants to deny future employers that information. I hope some employers start shunning Stanford Law as a consequence. Some at Stanford probably take the snobbish, arrogant, complacent view that "all Stanford grads" are good so we do not need such pristine grading. Time will tell whether employers will react positively or negatively to this.


Another development that frankly puzzles me is the abandonment of the SAT by good schools. Now Wake Forest has bit the dust, no longer requiring the test. The test is a darn good predictor of academic performance, a useful supplement to high school grades (which, in the era of grade inflation, are increasingly dubious as an indicator of performance). At mediocre schools (which Wake is not), the SAT or ACT are marvelous predictors of academic success --not perfect, not infallible, but still good. Where everyone is very bright, variations in composite scores (ignoring the writing component, as I do) from, say, 1380 to 1520 may not be as good at predicting success. Maybe Wake will expand the applicant pool --but in a good way or not? Again, I suspect there is a dimension of political correctness here. Without the SAT, schools can justify taking in members of less qualified favored groups (on the basis of race, sports talent, gender, or, God forbid, sexual preference) that otherwise would be excluded because of low test scores. Is ignorance bliss? I think not; I think these schools are making a mistake.

Schools will not provide us information on what students are learning ("value added") in college; increasingly, they will not tell us how good they are academically relative to other students. I think this is shameful, and should be the basis of removal of favored tax treatment for colleges and universities, not to mention a loss of accreditation. But accreditors have never in modern times put a major school out of business, and the Accreditation Cartel would have a fit if they did. Shame. Shame. Shame.


F said...

One of the arguments being used to justify abandoning the SAT is that it is a poor predictor of college academic performance supported by extensive studies from the University of California, and some unpublished analysis of Wake Forest's own student body.
Do you have contrary evidence, i.e., showing that the SAT does predict college performance well?

Daniel said...

The argument that I often here is that some people are not good test takers. If not a good test taker, then college may not be the right choice for someone. Let us not forget that the only quantitative display of what a student learned in the classroom is the grade they received. The SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc, are standardized tests that measure how well a student has prepared. If someone is unable to adequately prepare for such an important exam, then it is probably a good indicator that this trend will continue in college.

I do not believe that standardized test scores should be THE decisive factor when considering a student for admission, but it definitely should be one of the factors. Some students may be exceptionally talented in writing or language, but be horrible mathematicians. Others may be the polar opposite. Depending on the field that one chooses, one skill may be more important than the other. For instance, one doesn't need much math ability to become a journalist or musician. On the other hand, a mathematician doesn't necessarily need to be a gifted writing to solve complex formulas. One possible solution is for colleges to evalaute student test scores based on the respective field that they wish to pursue.