Excerpting Freddie de Boer’s defense of the SAT

Just read the whole thing here, but I’m disposed to agree with much of it. (Though check the bottom of the post for a research piece that makes me doubt my instincts here.)

The SAT does not enjoy a good reputation among progressives. Arguments against the use of the test, as well as its analog, the ACT, abound. Both are widely derided as tools of elitism, rejected as culturally biased, and denounced for dehumanizing test takers.

I understand the intuitive feeling that we should not reduce human potential to a test score. And the major testing companies (and nonprofit organizations like the Educational Testing Service, which basically function like companies) are not particularly sympathetic entities. But if you believe in equality and a more level playing field in college admissions, you should defend the SAT.

Coaching doesn’t work so well:

Critics of standardized tests often complain that affluent students have greater access to test prep materials and coaching. This is indeed a concern, but the research here is clear: coaching services produce far smaller gains than those advertised by the big test prep companies, which routinely claim triple-digit improvements.

2006 meta-analysis found that students retaking the SAT after coaching resulted in, on average, an increase of about 50 points on a 1600 scale. That’s not an insignificant number. However, as the researchers point out, we can expect some of that gain to occur simply through increased familiarity with the test and, for lower-scoring students — the type most likely to retake the test — regression to the mean. More recent research found that, after using statistical controls to compare similar students, the combined effect of coaching on a 1600 point scale was about 20 points.

Other metrics for judging admissions are easier for the well-off to game:

Detractors of entrance exams often argue for more “holistic” methods of evaluating students than tests, pushing for greater emphasis on student activities, college essays, and letters of recommendation. They argue that these things allow them to select students that are more than just grades and test scores and build a diverse student body. As Jennifer Finney Boylan put it in a piece decrying the SAT, the only way to fairly choose between applicants is “to look at the complex portrait of their lives.”

But this reasoning goes directly against the stated goal of equality. It should be obvious: affluent parents have far greater ability to provide opportunities for extracurricular (and frequently out-of-school) activities than less affluent parents do.

According to this Malcolm Gladwell piece (caveat lector) extra-curriculars were brought in to college precisely to exclude groups (like Jews) who were academically high-performing but not the ideal candidates for admission:

The difficult part, however, was coming up with a way of keeping Jews out, because as a group they were academically superior to everyone else. Lowell’s first idea—a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body—was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowell—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit. Karabel argues that it was at this moment that the history and nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn.

The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph.

And to provide evidence that grades can be gamed, Freddie cites this:

Research by Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee found that, from 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA rose from 3.27 to 3.38. That may not sound like much, but distributed over millions of students, it’s a large increase. What’s more, the phenomenon is concentrated at the top.

That said, maybe Freddie is wrong. I was talking to researchers on Twitter who found that grades are superior to the SAT for predicting success in college, precisely because they measure more than the SAT, like the ability to ask for help, etc.

So, I don’t know if Freddie is right on this. I need to think more and try to put the pieces together.