The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"No one tests the depth of a river with both feet."....  ....African proverb.

Commentary of the Day - July 19, 2007: Dump the SAT!

In a remarkable about face Charles Alan Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, is calling upon elite colleges and universities in the United States to stop using basic SAT scores as part of the admissions process.  The College Board, which sponsors the SAT I verbal, math, and writing tests, long has touted these tests as valuable predictors of a student's potential for success in college.  However, as Murray admits in his recent article "Abolish the SAT" these tests do no better at predicting how successful an applicant will be in his or her first year of college than the student's performance on the SAT II subject matter tests, or for that matter the student's high school grades.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Murray or The Bell Curve, he is a libertarian scholar who with his now deceased co-author Richard Hernstein claimed that affirmative action and other liberal social policies were a waste of resources because of they could not overcome the inherent genetic inferiority of some minority groups.  Both Murray and Hernstein championed the notion common among some psychologists that there was a single number g that was a measure of a person's "intelligence", and that this number could be determined by appropriately constructed IQ tests.  Both of these notions have been challenged by other researchers on the grounds that no single number can appropriately describe a person's "intelligence", and because the cultural biases present in all so-called IQ tests would make an accurate determination of g impossible in any case.  The Mismeasure of Man by the noted biologist Steven Jay Gould is a well-written refutation of Hernstein and Murray's views on intelligence and race.

The IP generally agrees with Gould that human intelligence is complex and many-faceted, and that conventional IQ tests capture only a subset of the traits that comprise "intelligence".  We all know people who score high enough on IQ tests to be members of MENSA, but who are so lacking in common sense or "street smarts" that they might as well be members of DENSA.

As Murray correctly notes in his article, the basic SAT originally was promoted in the 1940s as way to open up the more elite of America's colleges and universities to highly-qualified students from more diverse social and geographical backgrounds than was then the case.  At that time the elite Ivy League campuses drew most of their students from the children of wealthy families mostly living in the northeast part of the county.  As these elite colleges and universities began to include SAT scores in their admissions criteria, they began to draw highly-qualified from throughout the country.  In addition, there were huge numbers of returning WWII veterans who were able to fund their educations with GI Bill grants so that if they were admitted to a school like Harvard or Yale, they were able to attend.  In the decade between 1945 and 1955 the composition of the undergraduate population at these institutions became remarkably more diverse, though many of these institutions still admitted relatively few Jewish students and relatively few minority students.

Murray notes that in the past decade or so the undergraduate population at the nation's elite colleges and universities has become remarkably less diverse than it had been in the previous two or three decades.  In fact, the vast majority of students at these institutions indeed do come from upper-middle class backgrounds.  There is far less economic diversity than once existed at these institutions, and fewer minority students than before even though these elite colleges and universities go out of their way to seek such students.

Murray attributes this situation to the fact that the heavily-relied-upon SAT is "g-loaded".  In other words only highly intelligent students do well on the SAT, and most highly intelligent students are the sons and daughters of the upper-middle class.  It's the old Catch-22 of IQ.  To be in the upper-middle class these days you have to have a very good job.  But most of the very good jobs these days require a lot of intelligence.  And, since - according to Hernstein and Murray - there is a high component of heritability in intelligence, it's going to be the children of the upper-middle class who are most intelligent.  In addition, the upper-middle class folks are the ones who have the wherewithal to see to it that their kids go to good high schools and to obtain SAT coaching if needed.  So it's the sons and daughters of the upper-middle class who get into the elite private colleges and universities.

This situation, Murray argues, leads to a sense of "intellectual entitlement" among these upper-middle class students.  High SAT I scores feed this sense of entitlement, and discourages those who do not do well on the SAT I tests.  Since college and university admissions officers can learn just as much from SAT II subject matter tests and high school grades, Murray concludes that we might as well abandon the SAT I tests.

The IP agrees with Murray that the SAT I tests might as well be dumped, or at least made optional.  They add little to what is learned from the SAT II subject matter tests combined with high school grades.  More importantly, the correlation between test scores, SAT I or SAT II, high school grades and success in college pretty much disappears after the freshman year.  The criteria used for admission to college simply don't predict success in college in the long run.  The reason for this ought to be obvious.  While a certain level of intelligence is needed to cope with college-level work, intelligence alone is not sufficient for success in college.  A host of other personal characteristics are needed.

Where the IP parts company with Murray is in his conclusion that the reason for the narrow socio-economic profile of students at elite colleges and universities is primarily one of superior intelligence being a property mostly of the upper-middle class.  What Murray conveniently neglects is the recent rapid rise in college costs together with the fluid nature of the American family.  While many of these elite institutions offer financial aid packages to help students from families that don't have as much disposable income as the upper-middle class families, much of that aid is now in the form of loans rather than scholarships.  Many students from poorer families simply cannot bear the long-term financial burden that these loans present.  The lower cost, less elite public colleges and universities simply are more affordable.  Here at decidedly less than elite Krispy Kreme U (aka Cal State Fullerton) we probably have three or four thousand students among our 30,000 plus student body who could compete easily with any of the students at Harvard or Yale.  But, they come from middle class, lower-middle class, and even poor families that could never hope to send their children to an elite college or university.

The notion that almost all the "smart" kids are sons and daughters of upper-middle class families simply is fallacious.  Apparently, Murray is completely unaware of the divorce rate in this country, and its economic consequences.  Children don't become less intelligent because their parents divorce, but they do become a lot less wealthy and a lot less likely to be admitted to an elite college or university.  And, for a variety of reasons not all highly intelligent people who do not get divorced make it into the upper-middle class.  Some choose service-oriented careers that may not pay as much, and others choose to live in areas that don't have as many high-paying jobs available.  Their children also are a lot less likely to attend an elite college or university.

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