CONTRIBUTORS

Standardized college entrance tests: A lost love affair?

Posted Nov. 15, 2013, at 9:26 a.m.
Howard P. Segal is Adelaide and Alan Bird professor of history at the University of Maine.
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Howard P. Segal is Adelaide and Alan Bird professor of history at the University of Maine.

More and more prestigious American liberal arts colleges are making it voluntary for applicants to submit standardized test scores, without, they claim, favoring students with high scores who do submit them. These institutions hardly lack for excellent applicants. What’s up?

Nearly all American college applicants take either the Scholastic Assessment Test or the American College Test. The ACT is more popular in the Midwest, where most colleges that have downplayed the SAT are in the East.

The SAT gospel has always been that it provides a level playing field in which the enormous socio-economic variations among applicants can be offset, even eliminated. On this view, students rejected from prestigious institutions despite excellent high school grades, high class rankings, substantial extracurricular activities, and wonderful recommendation letters but less than stellar SAT scores have no reason to complain. Yet some leading liberal arts colleges have reconsidered this gospel.

To be sure, Americans’ overall love affair with standardized tests has hardly diminished, and today even some preschool and elementary schools, plus many private and specialized public high schools, require these tests for applicants. Meanwhile, standardized tests for graduate and professional schools remain the norm.

Until 1999, debates about the SAT or the far less controversial ACT were generally oblivious to their roots. Then came Nicolas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.” After passage of the 1944 GI Bill, which enabled millions of veterans to attend colleges they otherwise could never afford, Harvard University’s President James Bryant Conant sought to diversify the undergraduate body of America’s most prestigious university. He wanted objective tests to identify talented students outside of East Coast prep schools — Harvard’s usual feeder institutions — in order to give them a shot at getting in.

Ironically, Conant’s immediate predecessor, A. Lawrence Lowell, had proudly imposed quotas on Jewish students in the early 1920s because they had become too numerous for his aristocratic taste.

As Lemann details, Conant enlisted Harvard assistant dean Henry Chauncey to create what eventually became the SAT. Yet the SAT triumphed only after Conant and Chauncey successfully competed with other post-war proposals for standardized tests. Their dream was to establish what Thomas Jefferson called an American “natural aristocracy among men,” with “virtues and talents” antithetical to Europe’s aristocracy of inherited privilege. Opportunities for women were not considered.

The SAT became institutionalized with the establishment of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., in 1947. The initial purpose of the SAT was limited to indicating collegians’ probable first-year performance. Over time, though, it became a supposedly objective measure of students’ overall college promise and, for some, an indicator of students’ supposed basic worth as people! Meanwhile, the ETS empire grew into an enormously profitable and powerful enterprise.

Yet what began, as Lemann recounts, as a means of creating a genuine American meritocracy eventually became the site of endless conflicts over the SAT’s apparent bias against minority students from inferior schools. Moreover, ETS’ relentless insistence on students’ inability to prepare for the SAT has been steadily undermined by examples of precisely that ability for those who can afford private test preparation. Hence, the decision by ever more prestigious liberal arts colleges (though no Ivy League universities) to make the SAT optional.

However, many less selective American colleges and universities nowadays purchase the names of students with high SAT scores in order to interest them in applying. Increased applications with higher SAT numbers figure importantly in the influential annual rankings that have become a new gospel. (To be sure, the liberal arts colleges that make the SAT optional themselves benefit from having higher SAT scores than otherwise.)

This renewed embrace of the SAT would have delighted Chauncey, who never lost faith in standardized testing as the measure of all things. Indeed, he worked on expanding ETS’ empire to other areas of American life and dreamed of mounting a “Census of Abilities” to categorize and sort out all Americans, whatever the moral consequences. As an associate described him, “Despite his patriotism and Christianity, one can imagine him going to work for Hitler as easily as for the President of Harvard.”

It’s a shame that Chauncey himself never took the SAT!

Howard P. Segal is Adelaide and Alan Bird professor of history at the University of Maine and the author of “Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). The OpEd first appeared in London’s The Times Higher Education on Oct. 17.

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