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There Is No Enlightened Argument in Favor of the SAT

The progressive case for the SAT is about as risible as the progressive case for war in Iraq was.
The SAT needs to die.

Every few months, some emissary from the chattering classes offers a sober defense of the merits of standardized testing and other quantifiable means of sorting the elect from the non-elect. Often this defense takes the form of a tortured apologia for IQ tests, and for Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, as in a recent New York take by graying eminence and longtime Murray proponent Andrew Sullivan. Yet despite their unpopularity with many parents and the rank-and-file membership of teachers' unions, standardized tests continue to find their defenders across the political spectrum, including former Obama education secretary John King and even Barack Obama himself, both of whom agree with the general aim of testing as a way of quantifying student outcomes if not necessarily with the volume of testing that students undergo.

More recently, however, the leftist magazine Jacobin published an ostensibly "progressive" defense of the SAT by Fredrik deBoer, a freelance writer who works in curriculum and assessment for the City University of New York, and who in his professional life is paid to grapple with the nuances of grading and testing. DeBoer's defense of the SAT boils down to one simple point: In a world where so much is working against impoverished and underrepresented minority students, a surprisingly high SAT or ACT score might help them even the odds and score access to the upper echelon, like Pip in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

If nothing else, it was interesting to see a fresh attempt at salvaging the SAT from the left, given that many leftists have spent decades condemning the test, contending, with good reason, that the SAT is hopelessly culturally biased. Elitist analogy problems like "runner is to marathon as oarsman is to regatta"—a challenging question for land-locked and impoverished students and a regularly cited example of the SAT's cultural bias during the 1980s—were exorcised from the test a decade later. Despite the removal of obviously alienating questions like that one, the revamped test still contains exercises that provoke cognitive fatigue in the minds of students who might be offended by the exam designers' subtler (but no less harmful) racist and misogynistic content choices, with one particular ham-handed math problem accompanied by a chart of 10th graders showing that more boys than girls were enrolled in math courses.

DeBoer argues that the SAT, whatever its faults, remains a "progressive" tool because occasionally one disadvantaged or underrepresented student will perform well on it, thereby offsetting other admissions criteria that are even more culturally biased than the SAT, such as participation in extracurricular activities that are open to richer students who don't have to work part-time jobs, or grade-point averages that are significantly more inflated in high-performing high schools than in lower-performing ones. In this account, the various factors that play into an admissions officer's supposedly "holistic" evaluation of a candidate are really just line items on a CV to be gamed by the privileged, who can afford to do everything, and perhaps it is harder to game the SAT than it is to game a participation trophy for keeping track of 500-meter splits at your prep school's rowing club.

The SAT, deBoer explains, doesn't respond as well to "coaching" as, say, one's teacher might respond to parental importunings that their little high achievers be awarded nothing but A's. In support of this argument, deBoer cites a comprehensive meta-analysis that examined the retesting effects of extensive practice by test takers. These results are fine as far as they go, but they fail to account for the in-the-trenches perspectives of test-preparation professionals. Many people employed in the test prep industry can quickly sort the soon-to-be-retested students arriving at Kaplan or the Princeton Review according to cultural capital: The students who benefited from a privileged background are easily distinguishable from those unfortunate customers who have spent several hundred dollars chasing a graduate school dream for which they will likely remain ill equipped. In other words, some re-takers do great, but the improvements among this typically privileged group might not be generally accessible—if you drill down into the analysis far enough.

I speak from firsthand experience. From 2007 to 2009, I worked as a test tutor at Kaplan, teaching students how to take the LSAT, SAT, and GRE. I had done well on those tests, well enough to teach for Kaplan, but not as well as I did when I would periodically retest myself after prolonged exposure to Kaplan products and methods. During the one Kaplan course I took for free while employed there—their PMBR Multistate Bar Exam study program—I raised my score from 154 on my first practice test to 169 on the real thing—a high score, to be sure, but not anywhere near the 177 I got on a retest after I had sold 50 practice questions to the PMBR program for use during their next test-preparation cycle.

What I learned from retaking these exams, and teaching people how to retake them, is that improvement can be dramatic, but only if the person being tutored has already been raised in a setting that conditioned them to accept the value of sitting quietly, listening attentively, and writing neatly. In other words, barring a major learning impairment or a behavioral issue of some sort, people who grew up in a world where test-taking is the normal order of business will keep getting better with each succeeding test they take. The SAT is part of this world, a world of imagined meritocracy that conjures up Thomas Jefferson's grand vision of "raking from the rubbish annually" the best scholars lurking within the huddled masses. There are certainly intellectual prodigies among the disadvantaged, as there are world-beating athletes, but any kind of skilled work becomes better through practice of those skills: Someone might be a natural in all matters mathematical, but all other things being equal, a well-coached prodigy almost always outpaces one who has the talent and will but has yet to be shown the way.

I witnessed this truth first as a Kaplan test tutor and then as a university professor at a branch campus of a state university, observing as my students, the products of a system built around tests and tiering, passed through (and almost always passed) my classes. The students who arrived with significant preparation for the world of post-secondary education—which rewarded competence at studying for the test to the exclusion of everything else, combined with rigorous grade-grubbing—generally turned out fine, getting into decent graduate programs and continuing along this path toward some kind of conventional professional career. Other students, just as intelligent but much less prepared, never saw the point of an "A" grade, and so regarded these behaviors, perhaps understandably, as pointless and perhaps even a bit shameful.

At any rate, we risk banishment to the bizarro world if we find ourselves arguing that grade inflation is a sign of privilege while the SAT test is a somehow "worst best option" for the least fortunate among us. There are many problems with this reasoning. To give one significant example, recent research has shown that disadvantaged minorities surrounded by white peers have an advantage over minority students educated in segregated settings, since the latter won't benefit from community learning resources or get to see as many test-positive behaviors modeled by at least some of their peers. Thus, students in all-minority settings might be at a disadvantage on standardized tests compared with minority students in integrated schools. At root, however, the problem comes down to the idea that we must test, grade, and rank in the first place.

What might replace these admissions measures, all of which are flawed and discriminatory? An extensive, multi-day interview that consisted of hours engaged in free-wheeling discussions with the applicants might do the trick, but only if the interviewers understood and honored the cultural context of each applicant. For a long time, I've thought that was the best route, since the students I have worked with who accomplished the most were students from the moot court team I oversaw—students from diverse backgrounds whom I tutored, and who spent days traveling with me, but who were never fearful of receiving a bad grade or a harsh rebuke from me. Working as a mentor or near-peer in a manner similar to Jacques Rancière's "ignorant schoolmaster" Joseph Jacotot (whose pedagogical philosophy was to learn in concert with his pupils), I wound up with a better idea of who was bright, kind, and thoughtful than I would have if I'd been perceived as a harsh, distant authority figure who assigned magisterial, ostensibly "objective" grades to their tests and papers.

Perhaps an even more drastic step could achieve greater results: eliminating or significantly restructuring the hidebound four-year institutions of higher learning that depend on the loan or grant payments that learners make in exchange for their path-defining grades. Four-year degrees earned after unnecessary and tedious prerequisite courses—a curriculum that owes much more to the 12th century than the present—could give way to targeted single courses that provide thorough instruction and certification in each student's areas of interest. Sprawling university campuses could be downsized and replaced with modest classrooms or video chats, and the massive savings could be applied toward paying full-time wages and benefits to legions of talented but underemployed adjuncts, while the educational emphasis would be entirely on the mentor-to-learner relationship rather than on bureaucratic busywork. But such a transformation is unlikely because many powerful people who did well in school, earning their alphabet-soup degrees and impressing peers and parents with their high marks as they ascended to lofty positions in the educational hierarchy, have a vested interest in ensuring that everyone pays their toll to pass through this all-defining meritocratic stage of life.

In short, merit may be among the most difficult privileges to check: If just one spectacularly adept underrepresented person has benefited from the SAT, the reasoning goes, then perhaps the rest of them just aren't trying hard enough. This is fine for assessment professionals like Fredrik deBoer, an avowed left-winger who drew considerable attention to himself for branding Bernie Sanders a "socialist in name only" in Politico yet whose own cautious, centrist academic work consists primarily of reminding administrators that the "current higher education system is succeeding in many of its core functions," and thus the status quo requires only slight adjustments. For him and for other higher-ed assessment wonks who are working in the testing and curricular development industry, it pays (literally) to keep evaluating the students the way we always have, albeit with occasional nudges and tweaks that get things moving in the right direction. Thus, the best "progressive" argument for the retention of the SAT and ACT is that these deeply problematic examinations remain slightly better sorting mechanisms than nothing. When presented with such a stark Hobson's choice, many educators—myself included—might opt for nothing, nothing at all.