What SAT Critics Miss


Jeffrey Aaron Snyder reviews Lani Guinier's The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America in Boston Review (Image: zaveqna):

“The world . . . provides us with more than one correct answer to most questions,” Guinier says, and nods to Bard College President Leon Botstein who tells us that no professional “pursues her vocation” by choosing the “right” answer from “a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.” Incisive points, to be sure, but there are alternatives to the multiple-choice format. Many standardized tests, for instance, now include “open-response” items, which require students to fashion their own answers rather than simply choosing the one “correct” answer from a ready-made list. In my view, however, the limitations of standardized testing with respect to prefabricated questions are far more important than the shortcomings associated with prefabricated answers. The ability to formulate a significant question is a hugely important skill, especially for college-level work, and one that no standardized test even attempts to measure. Standardized tests, then, too often reinforce the dreary lesson taught by many schools that it is the job of students to answer rather than to ask questions.

I never thought I would feel compelled to defend the integrity of the College Board or the number-crunchers at U.S. News and World Report, but a few corrections of the kind of fanciful exaggerations favored by anti-testing crusaders are in order. It has been over twenty years since the SAT ceased to be an acronym but it seems the SAT will always be known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the popular imagination, forever associated with the attempt to measure native intellectual ability. Guinier only reinforces this common misconception, stating that the SAT “doesn’t even pretend to measure achievement.” But as the College Board website explains, the SAT “doesn’t test logic or abstract reasoning.” Rather, “it tests the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math.” In other words, today’s SAT is meant to be an achievement rather than an aptitude test.

Guinier, like many critics of the SAT, is dismissive of the test’s predictive power, claiming that the correlation between SAT scores and first-year college grade-point-average is “very, very slight.” In fact, most studies put the figure in the neighborhood of .45, which is a shade higher than the correlation between rates of smoking and incidences of lung cancer. It is also only a tad lower than the correlation between cumulative high school GPA and first-year college GPA.

Finally, according to Guinier, the U.S. News annual college rankings “rely heavily on SAT scores for their calculations.” Admissions test scores actually account for just over 8 percent of a school’s ranking.

More here.