By Richard Vedder
I don't usually read the Weekly Standard, but someone yesterday told me I had to get the latest issue and read the piece by Andrew Ferguson "The SAT Test and Its Enemies." I have read the story, and it is absolutely superb, saying in much greater detail what I have said on several occasions in recent weeks.
The SAT was put in to add objectivity to the admissions process, and to stop discrimination against able students of the "wrong" social background -- Jews, poor kids, racial minorities, graduates of big city public high schools, etc. It was promoted by "progressives" to increase the role of merit and downgrade the importance of family background, religion and other factors, and to reduce the clout that admissions officers had by making highly subjective decisions. To be sure, as Dan Golden is forever pointing out, up to 40 percent of admits are given preferential treatment: legacies, superb athletes, rich kids whose parents are actual or potential donors, children of celebrities or politicians, and, not to be forgotten, affirmative action admits based on race. Read Jerome Krabel's The Chosen --one of the best books I have ever read.
Now the SAT bashers are winning wars. Good schools are going SAT optional, noting that high SAT scores are disproportionately earned by whites (Asians are never mentioned) and higher income kids. Too many of the "wrong" people are getting in, and, besides, the tests are racist. All of this is crazy and wrong, as Ferguson nicely points out.
What will be the end result if the SAT loses importance? Here are a few things:
1) The intellectual quality of students will decline, accelerating a decline in academic standards that large numbers of senior faculty like myself believe has been going on for years, manifested in such things as a decline in student reading, more time spent partying and less studying, and grade inflation.
2) The subjective judgment of admission officers will grow, and currently "good" groups (blacks, athletes, poor kids, etc.) will be granted admission to students of lesser academic promise. Statistical analysis indicates that, along with high school grades, SAT performance is an excellent predictor of college success. Also, eliminating the SAT would no doubt increase legacy admissions at some schools.
3) Either college retention rates will fall or standards will be further watered down.
Ironically, in other countries, admissions is even more test-based than in the U.S., and kids going to Oxford (and a few American schools like Cal Tech) are admitted solely on their prospects to succeed academically --no legacies, athletic scholarships, etc. I think a better than decent argument can be made to move in that direction in the U.S. in keeping with the democratic ideals of American society.
But aren't we keeping some poor kids out by using SAT testing (not to mention blacks and Hispanics? Sure. But Ferguson has a great quote from two prominent liberal sociologists, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, written in the 1960s, commenting on the "unfairness" of standardized tests to poor persons. "Life is unfair to the poor. Tests merely measure the results."