The SAT and the American dream

I’ve received some useful comments about my post on the dumbing down of the SAT. A long-time college professor suggests that the changes will have very little impact. Scores will rise, so colleges will adjust their evaluations accordingly. He adds, however, that the changes will make it harder to identify the truly exceptional, which will impact the top schools. And, of course, making the test easier will help mask the decline in the pre-college education Americans receive.

Clark Griffith offered his take on the changes to the SAT here. I was pleased that we see the matter similarly.

I’d like to add one more thought on the subject. These days, the main criticism of the SAT goes something like this:

The test was originally designed to address the fact that socioeconomic status played much too significant a role in admission to elite schools. With the help of a test that measured aptitude, outstanding students from non-wealthy families who didn’t attend prep schools in the East and whose parents, grandparents, and uncles hadn’t attended top colleges would have a fair chance to compete.

But, the critique continues, decades later we find that SAT results mirror socioeconomic status to a very significant degree. Thus, the test does not serve its original purpose and should be modified or discontinued.

There’s another way of looking at it, though. Maybe America has become more of a meritocracy all around since the SAT was instituted. That is, maybe high socio-economic status is now more closely tied than before to intellectual aptitude, good habits, and individual drive, as opposed to advantages that are external to the individual, such as inherited wealth. And maybe intellectual aptitude, good habits, and the drive to succeed are passed down from parents to their children.

Note that the first “maybe” (which I think probably reflects reality) would represent an American success story, or at least would once have been regarded as such. The American Dream didn’t always consist simply of having lots of “stuff,” including free stuff. Once, the American Dream was to rise as far as one’s abilities and hard work would take one.

The fact (if it is a fact) that the SAT demonstrates an American success story doesn’t mean that the test should be preserved in its current form. If socio-economic status were a perfect predictor of college success, no one would need the SAT. But it isn’t, so a place remains for the SAT, and no good argument that I can see exists for dumbing it down. How much weight the SAT should receive from admissions officers is another matter.

Finally, there is an important objection to my claim that the SAT demonstrates American success. It may be that SAT scores reflect socio-economic status not because parents are passing along to their children intellectual aptitude, good habits, and the drive to succeed, but instead because they are able to send their children to better schools and provide them with good SAT prep courses.

In this scenario, “external advantages” are still driving college admissions, just as they did when the SAT was instituted, and the “American success story” must be heavily footnoted.

Given the large amount of resources poured into the public schools attended by children of relatively low socio-economic status, there’s probably a relationship between students’ personal habits/individual drive and what transpires in these schools. But this doesn’t eliminate the unfairness to particular students of being trapped — thanks in no small part to teachers unions and liberal politicians — in failing schools.

In any event, the “failing schools” argument doesn’t militate in favor of eliminating or changing the SAT. To the extent that the deck is still stacked against certain kinds of students — as it was when the SAT was instituted — then a challenging standardized exam can still serve the original purpose of helping to identify “diamonds in the rough.”

Assuming that colleges still are interested in finding them, and not just in filling quotas.

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