Friday, June 04, 2004

Defending the SAT:

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.


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Anonymous said...

You admit that the SAT is correlated with wealth and income, yet you continue to defend its use because

"That test is equally accessible by all and every one takes the exact same test."

But this misses the major point that not everybody has equal preparation for the test, nor do the poor have access to the resources necessary to make their academic preparation for the test EQUAL to the academic preparation of the upper class kids from wealthy families. So arguing that a test is fair and merit-based because everyone has equal access to the same test ignores some significantg disparities in how the US educational system treats rich and poor kids.

So arguing that it should still be used because it is merit-based and puts everyone on the same footing is just wrong and ignores the fact that the pre-college educational system of the poor in the US is in no way equal to the pre-college educational system of the rich.

Jonathan said...

It is still a merit based test nonetheless. For instance, let's say for no fault of my own I have no access to a gym and then enter into a bench pressing contest. My competitor who kicks my butt had his family pay for his gym membership. He beats me. He still beat me in a merit based contest.

Plus the SATs DO have predictive validity. The problems poor people face, if they cause them to do not as well on the SAT also cause them to not do as well in college.

It does no good to send an unprepared person to a competitive college just because they faced harships in making them unprepared.

Anonymous said...

Then let's stop the charade and just use family income and wealth as selection criteria for college admission. They are as correlated with college GPA as is the SAT, so why have the SAT at all if all that you want to do is to select those that will do well in college.

I suspect that throwing out the SAT and just using income/wealth would not be tolerable because it would show that it is not really selecting on the basis of merit but rather on the basis of family income or wealth and merit is highly correlated with those variables. Why keep up the charade that the SAT levels the playing field?

You argue that the "...test is equally accessible by all and every one takes the exact same test." That hardly makes the case that the test is fair. If I give a test that selects on the basis of skin color, saying that everybody has equal access to the test and everybody takes exactly the same test doesn't make it a fair test if it discriminates on the basis of skin color when skin color is irrelevant for the job that the test is designed to select for. Continuing to use the SAT as a selection tool indeed makes sense if you are only interested in predicting college performance - in this way it will just perpetuate the system that lets the children of wealthy families with better academic preparation gain access to more elite colleges. If that's the point that you are making then it's a cynical one. I'm interested, instead, in giving all children the same academic preparation so that wealth and family income become eventually uncorrelated with SAT performance and entrance to college is truly based on MERIT alone.

Jonathan said...

You apparently don't understand the difference between correlation and causation.

The reason why family income and wealth are "as correlated with college GPA as is the SAT," is the same reason why those with high family incomes and wealth also tend to do well on the SAT: Those with higher intelligence and superior academic preparedness tend to be disporportionately concentrated among families with higher income and greater wealth. In other words, the tests really do test for intelligence and academic preparedness and those qualities are far liklier to be found in families with greater wealth and higher incomes.

You will never uncorrelate SAT performance with wealth or family income unless you abolish capitalism and the free market. And since 11/09/89, the prospect of that occuring seems both highly unlikely and undesirable.

Using wealth and family income as substitutes for the SAT would be terrible. Anna Nicole Smith's daughter -- if she inherits her intelligence -- would be let into Yale even though she'd probably never be able to score high enough on the SAT. While a Vietnamese child whose parents came to America in boats who may ace the SAT wouldn't get let in.

In the real world, if the poor Vietnamese student aces the SAT, she gets into MIT and graduates, and then, after graduation and on merit, gets a job which pays a lot of $$ and will join the ranks of smart folks who also happen to be rich and possess high incomes. And then you can point to her children and say: See the SAT only tests for wealth and income.

I'm all for replacing the SAT or ANY standardized test with ones that are better predictors of college performance.

Question: What if the more accurate tests yield outcomes where the poor tend to do even worse?

Somehow, I think, you aren't concerned about true merit and accurate predictors but want to rig the system where the rich and the poor and all social groups achieve even outcomes. You might as well replace these tests with throwing darts at a board.

Anonymous said...

All prediction requires is correlation. If wealth and income are as highly correlated with GPA as the SAT is, then you can throw out the SAT and use wealth and income as predictors - simple psychometrics. You don't want to do that because it shows that the SAT is just a gatekeeper for the rich and wealthy.

e.g., r(SAT, GPA) = .6 and r(SES, GPA) = .6 then it doesn't matter which predictor you use if your goal is just to select those that will do well in college.

In fact it would probably be cheaper for students in the long run to allow colleges just to use their parents SES level as a selection criterion because then they wouldn't have to pay for the SAT which is redundant...

Your argument that intelligence is concentrated disproportionately in the wealthy is actually the one that turns correlation into causation: these people are wealthy because they are more intelligent (the great myth in America that one's wealth is a function of one's drive and intelligence rather than being a function mostly of your parents' wealth). Maybe its the other way around, they do better on standardized IQ tests because their wealth and their parents' wealth has given them all of the opportunities and experiences for learning that are tapped by IQ tests.

Jonathan said...

And you are skirting the main issue. I don't want to throw out the SAT and other standardized tests because you know that they allow poor bright bright kids -- like the Vietnamese person in my example, and endless real life anecdotes can be offered -- to succeed, and will hold back less-bright, less academically inclined children of rich parents.

Taking this into account, while no doubt a strong correlation exists between parents' wealth, income and SAT and GPA performance, I seriously doubt that parents' W and I is every bit as accurate as the GPA/SAT matrix that colleges use (and don't try to prevaricate with comparing SAT alone or GPA alone to parents' wealth and income -- I know that colleges take BOTH SAT and GPA, weight them a particular amount in a matrix; and the reason WHY colleges do this, intuitively, is because it's the BEST predictor that we have so far).

I'd bet a large sum of money that while parents' wealth/income can well predict college performance, the GPA/SAT matrix is even more accurate because it controls for bright kids of poor parents and less bright kids of rich parents.

Finally, people aren't wealthy because they are more intelligent. Plenty of smart people with modest or low income and wealth exist. And plenty of folks like Anna Nicole Smith, Mike Tyson are dumb and rich.

The actual facts are that the free market tends to disproportionately reward those occupations that require more intelligence and education. And the skills that need to be learned that "are tapped by IQ" and other standardized tests and are math, science and verbal skills.

The way folks like you tell it, all the SAT tests for are things like which fork you are supposed to use first at a formal dinner. Anyone who has taken the test knows that this isn't reality.

Anonymous said...

It's even worse because in addition to being a test that favors the children of wealthy and highly educated parents, the predictive validity of the SAT is lower for lower income students. In other words, it does a worse job of predicting college GPA for poorer students - so not only are they selected against because of their parents' wealth, but the test that is doing the selecting is poorer at doing what it is supposed to do - it's closer to random prediction for lower SES students. Why defend a test that has these kinds of problems?

Journal of Educational Measurement 11 (4), 277–284.

Jonathan said...

I think you can, no pun intended, predict my answer: The SAT (combined with GPA) has predictive validity -- in fact it's the best predictive mechanism we so far have.

If you want to replace it, then find something with superior predictive validity. You don't replace something with nothing.

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