"The ability to focus attention on important things is a defining characteristic of intelligence." ....Robert J. Shiller.

Commentary of the Day - August 11, 2012: The SAT That Isn't (The Death of Aptitude).  Guest commentary by Edward Carney.

When I took the SAT in the early 2000s, I thought I was taking something called the "Scholastic Aptitude Test."  Apparently I was mistaken and the A in SAT hadn't stood for "aptitude" for ten years.  Starting in 1993, the SATs were collectively known as Scholastic Assessment Tests, and in 1997 the College Board said that SAT didn't stand for anything, making it an empty acronym.  Perhaps that is most fitting now, since it may be that such testing has in and of itself become an empty practice.

It used to be that the SAT was distinguished from its competitor the ACT by the fact that the former was seen as measuring aptitude and being effectively un-coachable, while the latter was a gauge of achievement in learning.  In reality, the difference between the two was never that pronounced and has leveled off over time, as is implied by the fact that the College Board took pains to strip the word "aptitude" from its product.

The common wisdom about the SAT seemed to be changing around the time that I was approaching the adventure of college admissions.  I saw evidence everywhere of two contradictory approaches to the test.  It may be that I was personally one of the last heirs to the older sentiment, which said that the once-so-called aptitude test was something a student couldn't study for.  I remained under the impression that it was aimed at measuring each student's natural reasoning abilities and the extent of their mental development in the wake of a dozen years of schooling.  So I tried to make the process of studying for the SAT a years-long endeavor, consisting of building my vocabulary while simply working hard at all my classes.  Meanwhile, many of my peers scrambled in the weeks and months prior to the test, in order to acclimate themselves to its format and content.

At the risk of sounding pejorative, I'd say that I was expecting the test to be a measure of who I was, while some of my fellow students and their parents treated it more as a test of how they could present themselves to admissions officers.  And while I wouldn't suggest that people tend to think of it in these terms, I believe that the latter perception relies on the academically damaging belief that an individual student's capabilities need not matter to what goals he sets for himself.  That perception leads people to believe that there is something inherently unfair about a test that you can't study for.

In other words, we want to believe that we or our children can accomplish anything.  And if after four years of high school they haven't developed much skill for reasoning, that's okay they can take preparatory courses to learn how to fake it for an exam, and let that be their stepping stone toward academic accomplishment.  As a society that values the promise of formal education more than the satisfaction of actual learning, we have precipitated the death of aptitude.  We are afraid to acknowledge that it exists, because aptitude, whether the product of inborn talent or effective rearing, makes some people better suited than others for certain goals.

I don't know when the bifurcation of test-taking strategies that I witnessed in my high school days began, but I'm sure that the side that has acquired greater support is the one that says, "Everyone can accomplish the same things if they set their minds to it."  That sentiment had taken hold to at least some extend amidst my generation, and it has persisted and deepened since then.

Lori Gottlieb, writing in The Atlantic last year, claimed that child-rearing in the current generation has been excessively focused on preserving self-esteem.  As an illustration of one symptom of this, Gottlieb quoted clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel as saying that parents are actually relieved to be told that their struggling children are learning disabled, so that today "every child is either learning disabled, gifted, or both there's no curve left, no average."  To claim a learning disability is the only way to set legitimate lower benchmarks for performance.  Kids are never just bad at anything anymore, because that's seen as being more harmful to self-esteem.

If it's never the case that someone just doesn't have the aptitude to be, for instance, an engineer, or a lawyer, then children are endlessly told that they can make up the gap between their performance and that of their peers.  Through the noble goal of "college for all" we have made a habit of pushing young people towards higher education and towards challenging professional fields regardless of their academic abilities and their personal level of interest.

Gottlieb also connected the cult of self-esteem to a blurring of the lines between parental selfishness and genuine concern for the well-being of the child.  She quoted social scientist Barry Schwartz as saying that parents want their children to be happy in lucrative careers even if those are not the sorts of careers that were likely to make the children happy.

I recognize this all too well in the social landscape in which I live and work.  I have encountered people from my past who were pushing themselves through graduate or law school despite having never demonstrated much passion for learning when they were teenagers.  And while it's possible that some of them had had intellectually awakening experiences in the interim, I'm sure that some of them have done it on purely the basis of social pressure and the promise of monetary reward.  In those cases I wonder whether such people would have been happier as service employees.  And after all, with the economy as it is and the higher education system as productive as it is, that's what some of them are becoming anyway.

But my worries about the individual effects of the death of aptitude are dwarfed by my concern for its effect on the institutions of higher learning that those individuals are entering.  College is not a one-directional relationship of dispensing knowledge to young people.  The entire institution gains or loses value on the basis of what its students put into it.  By telling students with low aptitude and low interest that they can, should, and must strive to accomplish the same things as their higher-achieving peers, I fear that we're saturating higher education with people who subtract value from their institutions by committing minimum effort and lowering whatever curve still exists for the measurement of performance.

One never need look very far to find a critic of education decrying the American collegiate system for being too easy and failing to teach students what they ought to be learning.  But it seems to me that we generally fail to question what kind of outcomes can reasonably be expected of such an inclusive student body.  We all seem to agree that standards for college readiness need to improve, but you'll hear virtually no one asserting that when those standards are not met, the student ought to leave off college altogether, or to defer it until they have acquired, by sheer will or by natural intellectual growth, the aptitude to be successful at the proper level.  Indeed, just as common in criticism of education is the sentiment that we must see to it that more children enter and complete college.  But if those children don't have the aptitude to do so, the goal of improving college curriculum contradicts the goal of college-for-all.

A while ago, I was appalled to find out about a policy that had been in place at a certain for-profit college with campuses in my region.  Prospective students without high school diplomas or GEDs could still gain admittance if they passed a placement test.  That in itself is not so bad, as it provides the opportunity for an alternative demonstration of genuine aptitude.  What bothered me was that prospective students were permitted to take that test as many times as they wanted, as long as they could pay the fee for each one.  Such accommodating alternatives for students make admission standards practically meaningless.  They make getting into college a matter almost entirely of luck and stubbornness, and not, as they should be, a matter of demonstrable intelligence.

My understanding is that that policy has since been dropped, but only because of changes to the law regarding qualifications for federal financial aid.  We could delude ourselves into thinking the problem thus solved, but the real problem is the artificially egalitarian impulse motivating it, and that remains very much in place.  We might also be tempted to explain this case away as an anomaly because it comes from a for-profit college, which is not representative of the real academic landscape.  But there is a clear parallel between that defunct policy and the College Board's latest change to the empty-acronym SAT.  In 2009, they introduced ScoreChoice, which gives students who take the test multiple times the option to submit only their best scores to prospective colleges.  The nation's most common college-readiness assessment tacitly admits that all you really need is to get lucky and make yourself look smart once.

Whether the SAT was ever an accurate gauge of aptitude is a matter for separate debate.  But I consider it a genuine problem that for many years the test hasn't even been intended that way.  Even "assessment" was apparently considered too scary a word.  Both of them suggest that the exam gives a definitive picture of the quality of the student.  And while it may be that no measure has yet provided that, such a picture should at least be something that we strive to obtain in determining who is properly suited to higher education or professional advancement.  We can't keep pretending that there is no such thing as aptitude and that every child has equal cause to vie for the topmost positions of intellectual esteem.  It does a disservice to the student and the school in kind.

2012, Edward Carney.
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Edward Carney is a freelance writer who lives in Buffalo, NY.  He holds a degree in philosophy from New York University, and he publishes the Breaking Point Blog.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP expects that Mr. Carney's article will cause some consternation among those who promote the idea that every child should go to college, and that college these days should be student-centered in the sense that faculty members, student-support professionals, and administrators should do all in their power to tailor the college experience so that every student can graduate regardless of how little or how much the student is capable of learning or has learned.  Intellectual ability seems to have been taken out of the equation, at least in the academic side of the institution.  Nowadays it seems that the only segment of the college experience where ability remains important is in athletics.

The IP does have one minor point of disagreement with Edward.  ScoreChoice may not be as bad as Mr. Carney makes it out to be.  Even the ablest student can have a bad day owing to illness or other such factor.  For that reason, it might not be such a bad idea to give a student some leeway when it comes to submitting test scores.


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