Gail Heriot guest-blogging at Volokh defends the SAT. Kudos for her -- that test in general and standardized tests in particular are much in need of defending against their “leveling” critics. She takes on the misleading notion that standardized tests are unfair because they tend to tell us about the socio-economic status background of its takers.
Does that mean that there is no relationship between socio-economic class and SAT scores? Of course not. For whatever combination of nature and nuture, the children of successful, well-educated parents do tend to do better than less-privileged children. But the effect is not as overwhelming as Sacks argues. The notion that only those with Volvos need apply to the Ivy League is nonsense.
Moreover, insofar as the children of successful parents do score more highly, the test is measuring something real and not something that will disappear if the SAT is abolished. Such students, on the whole, don't just tend to get better scores, they tend to do better in college too. Ignoring SAT scores just because the children of high-achievers tend to do well would be like ignoring height in basketball players just because the children of tall people tend to be tall.
In other words, there is a correlation between wealth and doing well on these tests, but there is no causal effect—being rich doesn’t cause one to do well on this test. Those who imply that standardized tests benefit the rich mislead because they either don’t understand, or are blatantly dishonest about why the children of the better off out-perform on standardized tests: High academic preparation and achievement lead to economic success. Adults who are economically well off tended to be better academic achievers and they pass that on through culture and genetics to their offspring. Hence, the children of wealthier parents tend to be more academically prepared than the children of lesser socio-economic backgrounds. That’s why the students who come from wealthier backgrounds who do better on the SATs do better in college too.
The SAT/wealth argument is a red-herring because it takes nothing away from the predictive validity of that test. If the test isn’t a “perfect predictor” (nothing is, by the way), then let’s replace the SAT with something that is an even better predictor. Let the test with the highest predictive validity be the one that is used. The levelers don’t want to do that. They want to replace something that has predictive validity with nothing (if you don’t believe me, Lani Gunier has argued that Law School Applications—especially for the prestigious Ivy League Schools—should be accepted on the basis of a lottery system!).
Standardized tests fly in the face of the modern egalitarian notion of equality of condition. The best and brightest rise to the top and achieve success, make more $, accumulate more wealth than those of lesser talent. Yet standardized tests like the SAT perfectly exemplify classical notions of equality (equally of opportunity, not of condition). That test is equally accessible by all and every one takes the exact same test. Indeed, these tests were created to end an aristocratic-like system that hands down privileges solely on the basis of blood-line and background. Heriot writes that the tests were put into place “to take privilege away from the WASPish families of the Eastern Establishment and put it into the hands of talented young people, regardless of background. And they were pretty successful. More than one Nebraska farm girl or government clerk's son from Newark has beaten out a scion of wealth and privilege for a seat at Harvard or Yale precisely because of the SAT.”
Moreover let me add that there are plenty of stories of Asians immigrating to America literally in boats, not learning the language perfectly (the adult immigrants, that is -- the children tend to learn the language perfectly), but working like crazy in blue collar types of positions, sending their children to crappy public schools, and the children of those Vietnamese or Korean immigrants kick ass on the SATs, get into a school like Berkeley, and end up successful. If that doesn’t fly in the face of aristocratic privilege, then I don’t know what does.
However, the “levelers” won’t hear it. Why? Equality of opportunity for individuals leads to inequality of results for those same individuals and inequality of results for groups of individuals as well.