By Richard Vedder
I have just attended a marvelous two day conference on college admissions at Wake Forest University, an absolute gem of a school with one of the most beautiful campuses in the Solar System. It had provocative and diverse speakers, and an audience that included high school guidance counselors, professional admission consultants, college admissions directors, academics, students, journalists, and a few townspeople.
Yet, in spite of numerous presentations arguing that requiring the SAT test is bad policy, I came away more convinced than ever that dropping that test is a big mistake. The charming and passionate Martha Allman gave a strong speech on Wake Forest's decision to make that school SAT optional, pointing out that it led to a big increase in applications and probably will result in a more diverse class at least as academically strong as the ones proceeding it.
I remain unconvinced. Before standardized testing began, in the early decades of the last century, admission officers arbitrarily excluded "undesirables" --very often Jews, persons from public (as opposed to elite private) schools, and even nerdy brainy students who might push academic standards up too much. "Leadership" was emphasized --meaning persons who were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The SAT evolved to bring objectivity to admissions, increasing diversity (e.g., more Jews and poorer public school kids), etc.
Now, ostensibly in the interest of diversity, the SAT is being overturned. Why? Too many minorities, especially blacks, get low scores. A Wake student asked a good question: if on average kids with high test scores do better academically, why sacrifice that? Answer, after correcting for double talk, etc.: we are NOT trying to maximize the academic prowess of our students --race (and maybe other criteria, such as the ability to throw a ball) often trumps academic excellence.
My intuitive view on this got some support from Scott Highhouse, an industrial psychologist at Bowling Green State University, who argued that in industrial evaluations, "holistic assessment" (subjective judgments of evaluators) usually worsens the predictive value arising from assessments based on objective criteria such as tests. Personally, I trust the predictive value of the SAT over the typical judgment of admission personnel.
We also had a good session on rankings. Persons expecting a battle between Bob Morse of US News ranking fame and me (Forbes rankings) were mostly disappointed, I suspect, although Jeff Brenzel, Yale's admission director, had some pointed and generally responsible criticism of rankings, most of which I agreed with. By contrast, Lloyd Thacker who runs something called the Education Conservancy issued an ideological, hysterical, theatrical attack on rankings in general and US News in particular, a presentation that lowered the otherwise civil but spirited nature of discourse at the conference. He made all sorts of unsubstantiated and very likely inaccurate claims, such as claiming student attrition has risen because of rankings, and that rankings have led student work effort to decline (he could be right, but there is no evidence supporting his claim).