Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

SAT Is an Imperfect Indicator of Students’ Merit

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, a newspaper publisher’s dutiful subordinates would never question the publisher’s authority. If he said, “Yokohama is the capital of Japan,” they would answer, “Up to a point, sir.” This democracy tolerates intellectual rigor up to the point when it threatens egalitarianism, which includes the universal “right” not to be offended, even when wrong. A recent permutation of this is a movement among some American universities to abolish the SAT I as a part of the admissions process.

Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, recently called for his university to drop the SAT as a criterion for acceptance. Atkinson believes the test unfairly discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities and has helped fuel a multi-million dollar test-preparation industry that benefits the wealthy and causes undue stress for students and parents of students. He suggests instead using the SAT II, which tests knowledge of particular subject areas covered in high school curricula. Atkinson’s statement is important because he presides over a university that helped cradle the SAT in the test’s infancy and currently enrolls roughly 132,000 students, or 1.3 percent of the nation’s 9.3 million undergraduates.

Of the 1,800 institutions of higher learning in the United States, most have “open” admissions, meaning they are essentially non-competitive. About 390 do not require SAT scores. The purpose of the SAT, then, is not to determine whether one goes to college but to help competitive colleges decide which students are fit to attend. The test establishes a national hierarchy based on intellectual merit. While the word hierarchy makes equality-minded academics squirm, it is a fact of government – any government – that someone, or some group, must rule. A ruling class based on merit is a considerable improvement over ones based on some accidental characteristic, like heredity or wealth.

Two Harvard University administrators, then-President James B. Conant and Henry Chauncy, had this in mind when they created the SAT in the 1950s. At the time, most students attending elite institutions were wealthy, white males from prestigious Northeastern families. The test’s purpose was to counter this trend by fostering equality of opportunity. Now, the test is being taken to task because statistically such equality does not benefit every racial and ethnic group equally.

This reasoning ignores the fact that the SAT allows intelligent young men and women with cultural or economic disadvantages to attend institutions where they previously were not accepted. It also ignores the fact that if colleges were to admit students solely on the basis of SAT score, Asian-Americans would outnumber those of every other racial category, including whites.

As it is, some colleges have instituted admissions policies that serve as “correctives” for demographic groups who do not typically perform as well. For example, at the University of ichigan, being a minority counts as 20 points toward admission while a perfect score on the SAT (perfect, mind you) is worth 12. Of this, University President Lee Bollinger has said: “The basic idea is that students learn better when they’re in an environment in which not everyone is just like them.” But if diversity in the name of democracy trumps academic excellence as the standard for college admissions, then the process becomes no less arbitrary than the one Conant and Chauncy sought to dispel.

Atkinson’s alternative, the use of subject tests to measure intellectual acumen, is problematic because there is no national standard on which to base individual high school classes. To say that students across the board would be better prepared to excel on these exams is to say, erroneously, that high schools across the board are of the same quality.

Atkinson’s complaint is that SAT preparation takes time away from classroom learning, but his remedy would turn the classroom itself into a test-preparation center. And courses like Kaplan and Princeton Review would not consequently disappear but merely change their focus. The SAT and the stress that preparation for it entails serve the beneficial purpose of teaching students diligence, discipline and dexterity, all of which are important qualities predictive of future success.

The story is told of a king whose minister asked whether or not a certain policy position was, in fact, the right one. He answered, “It is right because I said so.” The SAT encourages the creation of a society in which things are right because they are right, and the ones entrusted with decision-making responsibilities are the ones who get it right most.

In a world of imperfect men, there can be no perfect indicator of merit or ability, but this does not mean that the use of a good imperfect indicator should stop. The SAT is a decent yardstick for competitive colleges to gauge a particular student’s ability to succeed. As such, it should be utilized. That is, up to a point.

For What It’s Worth appears regularly in The Hoya.

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