The SAT’s ‘Adversity Score’ Is Both Necessary and an Admission of Failure
By Nicholas B. Dirks, May 20, 2019
The recently announced addition of an adversity metric to the SAT is welcome, and in some ways long overdue. It is also, however, a fundamental admission of the failure of the SAT.
For almost a century, the SAT has been a central element in the American effort to create a new society based on merit and hard work rather than inherited privilege.
The SAT exam was introduced into American schools in June 1926, an outgrowth of various efforts in the U.S. Army to measure innate intelligence. The inventor of this new exam, a Princeton professor by the name of Carl Campbell Brigham, was an ardent eugenicist with characteristic racial theories of intelligence. He designed the SAT to replace content-based examinations used by Harvard and other colleges to test students on the knowledge they acquired mostly from curricula used by New England boarding schools. Growing disillusioned by his new invention, however, Brigham increasingly doubted the capacity of the exam to capture raw intelligence, but by then the exam took on a life of its own.
James Conant, President of Harvard in the early twentieth century, saw the SAT as a promising vehicle for identifying talented students from unusual backgrounds, with the goal of recruiting them to Harvard with special scholarships. Henry Chauncey, who worked with Conant at Harvard, moved to Princeton after World War II to build the Educational Testing Service and install the SAT as the single test that could be used more broadly to develop a genuinely meritocratic college admissions process across the U.S.
Ever since, it has been widely assumed that the SAT is a necessary complement to examinations based on content, school grades, and teacher evaluations, for the purpose of evaluating whether a student should be admitted to a particular college. The SAT has been thought to be the one way to measure talent, as opposed to training, as it cleverly uses vocabulary, sentence structure, and textual interpretation on the “verbal” side, and basic mathematical calculations and problem sets on the “math” side, as proxies for raw brain power.
Accordingly, the SAT is not supposed to be about where, or how, you grew up, not about which school you went to, or even about how hard you applied yourself to your studies. In postwar American life, the SAT has been seen as the single and most reliable means for college and university admission offices to identify and access genuine “merit.” It is the necessary hand-maiden of the American belief in our fundamental egalitarianism.
But we also know that it is impossible to disentangle individual intelligence from social experience. In the aggregate, the most significant correlation for performance on exams like the SAT is still the zip code (i.e. income level, school quality, racial and ethnic background, etc.).
Perhaps the core problem with the SAT is the problem with all exams: performance on them tells us more about how well we take exams than it does about how well we will do in college, or for that matter in life. For the most part, the single best predictor of college performance itself is past grades. Because there is such variability across schools (and, for that matter, across individual teachers and courses), the attraction of the SAT, beyond its claims for measuring an abstract idea of intelligence, is the promise of objectivity and universality.
The promise of universality, however, has too often been perverse, justifying inequality rather than countering it. There is an exciting new effort to think differently about assessment altogether, to move from an exam-based evaluation system (whether for specific content areas or for general aptitude) to a more nuanced “mastery” based system. Although a change of this kind will never erase all differences of “skill” or even “intelligence,” it has the salutary effect of encouraging achievement that can both be more personalized and more adaptive to the future needs of our society and our economy.
Even with significant efforts to change the basis of college selection and recruitment in favor of the goals of diversity and equity, we continue far too much to see both the reproduction of privilege and the corruption of our egalitarian ideas (leaving aside recent examples of the egregious corruption of the college admission process). Despite the best efforts of the College Board, we may need far more than an adversity metric to capture the full potential of new generations of students.
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