Monday, March 24, 2014

SAT winners and losers

One thing I've noticed about the recent calls to end the SAT is that the test is framed entirely as an obstacle. At no point is there any suggestion that some students might have more educational opportunity because of the test. Obviously that can't be true. There is clearly a zero sum aspect to this. When someone bombs their SAT, Harvard does not reduce its admissions by one.

This pool of those likely to gain is quite large. Having gone to a perfectly good but not outstanding public high school in the middle of the country, I can tell you that the best and often the only feasible way for most students to catch the eye of an elite college recruiter (with the possible exception of athletic accomplishment) is through high SAT scores. It is possible for a valedictorian from a no-name high school to get in to an Ivy League school without killer test scores, but they won't be pursued the way students who have broken 700 across the board on the SAT will. For a a lot of middle-class students, the SAT and ACT represent their best chances at a really prestigious school, not to mention the scholarships most Americans need to attend those schools.

This suggest an interesting framework for looking at the likely winners and losers under the current SAT system. Let's define winners as those for whom the potential benefits of a very high score are larger than the potential downside from an average or below score and losers as the opposite.

What would these two groups tend to look like? We have already partially answered this question for the winners. They would come from no name public high schools. They would tend not live near a major academic center such as the Northeast or Central or Southern California (since proximity increases the chance of networking). They would be middle or lower income (or at least low enough for twenty or thirty thousand of annual tuition to be a significant hardship).

How about the losers by the standard? Remember these are people who would gain relatively little from a very high score. That rules out anyone not fairly well to do (most of the rest of us can really use a full ride scholarship). They would probably attend the kind of elite and very pricey prep schools that are expert at getting their students into top universities. They would have the support network of connections and role models that make the application process go much smoother.

We previously discussed the op-ed by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan clearly saw herself as someone who was more likely to be hurt than helped by the SAT so it would be interesting to see how well her background matches the group above. A quick stop at Wikipedia reveals that, though Boylan has overcome many challenges in her life, academic hardship does not appear to have been one of them. At the time her anecdote took place, she was about to graduate from the Haverford School. Haverford is almost a living cliche of an elite prep school, one of those places where the rich and powerful graduate from and send their children to.

It's true that there are ways that people with money can gain an advantage on the SAT. There are, however, considerably more and more effective ways that people with money and position can gain an advantage in all of the other factors used to rank potential college applicants: grades; school standing; extracurricular activities; recommendations; connections; the daunting application process. Students in Boylan's position have massive advantages. You could make the case that, as a high school student competing for a spot in an prestigious university, the only time Boylan had to compete on a roughly even playing field was when she took the SAT and it is worth noting that she resents it to this day.

That said, I don't want to single Boylan out. My concern here is with the insularity of the elites in our society and with the way that certain media outlets, particularly the New York Times, have come to view the world from their vantage point.

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