January 20, 2004

A "baleful" understanding of the SAT

I love the subtitle of this NRO article by Catherine Seipp: "Is the SAT biased or are college presidents nuts?" Are those our only two options?

Pitzer College alumni and donors may be wondering about the decision-making process of their president, Laura Skandera Trombley, after reading her Jan. 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece against the SAT. Because "we have a deep commitment to social responsibility," Trombley writes, Pitzer will no longer require applicants to submit SAT scores if they have at least a 3.5 grade-point average and are in the top-ten percent of their high-school class.

Well, that LA Times article explains the title of this article. In her article, Ms. Trombley asks, "Which Is an Exercise in Futility: the SAT, 'Survivor' or All of the Above?" Ms. Trombley's article, by the way, is an exercise in "educational equivalence," because she believes that context is everything, and some SAT references may be relevant to people like Ms. Trombley, but not to others, and we just can't expect intelligent students to be familiar with a core group of educational facts.

What's worse, Ms. Trombley's entire argument seems to be based on her reading of one SAT item:

Here, for example, is an actual SAT question:

"Aware of the baleful weather predicted by forecasters, we decided the ---- would be the best place for our company picnic.

(A) roof

(B) cafeteria

(C) beach

(D) park

(E) lake

Now, if I had grown up on the East Coast, my immediate choice would be "cafeteria," as my assumption would be that "baleful weather" would indicate rain or maybe even snow. But in fact, I lived for many years on the western side of the Pacific Coast Highway, so "baleful weather" could indicate high waves meaning that my company picnic would be best, and more pleasantly, relocated to a lake.

On the other hand, if I had lived in Iowa (and I did for five years), baleful weather might indicate flooding. Obviously my company picnic would be best held on the roof. What to do? What to choose?

Context: the framework within which we make sense of the world.

Obviously, Ms. Trombley's "framework" does not consider the possibility that flooding follows heavy rains, and thus an outdoor picnic - even on on high grounds - would not be too smart. Also, what Ms. Trombley is hoping to slip by the casual reader is the idea that the College Board deliberately includes test items that are familiar to smart kids from one part of the country and utterly foreign to smart kids from another region. The idea that the College Board just might try to include items that are as generalizable as possible is one that she doesn't want readers to think about.

Ms. Seipp, on the other hand, concludes that this item would be easy, even for a 10-year-old, because the correct option is the only one that represents an indoor location. Thus, even if one was not sure of what exactly "baleful" meant in this context (stormy? windy? rainy?), the one option that stands out so from the others gives you a clue.

But Ms. Trombley's inanities don't stop there. For some reason, she considers this 80-year-old, retired item to be further support for her arguments:

Another reason the SAT is an inadequate measure of student aptitude is that its questions have little to do with our day-to-day lives or with what we need to know. Here's a question from the original 1920s version of the SAT but it could just as easily be on the test today:

"Pick out the antonyms from among these four words: Obdurate spurious ductile recondite."

Emphasis mine. If this item was on the test in the 1920's, then it was considered relevant in the 1920's. If it's not on the test today - which it isn't - then someone at the College Board rejected it in favor of items that were more relevant to current times. The argument that an ancient (by testing standards) and obsolete item proves that the current exam is inappropriate is ridiculous, but people keep making it.

Anyway, let's continue on with the Ms. Seipp and her opinion of Ms. Trombley's argument:

So no more SATs at Pitzer. "We felt that requiring the SAT a test on which white students score 206 points higher then average than nonwhites, according to Psychology Today was inconsistent with our values," Trombley explains.

Oh my. This is the Psychology Today article they're referring to, and regular readers of this blog will recall that my opinion of that article was that it was shallow, one-sided, and muddled. If PT is the only source Ms. Trombley has for SAT information, I can see why she believes that removing the SAT actually removes the achievement gap between blacks and whites. She's confused the message with the messenger, and it apparently makes her feel good about herself, and her school, to do something that does absolutely nothing for the state of minorities in public education.

But I digress:

For those unfamiliar with its values, Pitzer a member of the Claremont Colleges in southern California is a small liberal-arts college dedicated to diversity and social responsibility and is the lead Claremont College for its black-studies program. The website features a picture of "President Trombley's electric vehicle" and a quote from her about how much she likes it: "Driving along at a top speed of 25 miles per hour, with the wind in our hair, we love hearing the birds instead of an engine."

I don't think she's affecting the royal "we" here, by the way; Trombley looks in the picture like a pleasant, unpretentious woman. Apparently she just never drives even an electric car except when carpooling. She's that socially responsible.

Tee hee. Ms. Trombley actually deserves more ridicule than Ms. Seipp provides here. I mean, look at her "argument" that relates the SAT to reality TV:

The SAT was born of 1920s intelligence testing. Its creator was Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton psychology professor and, according to Nicholas Leman, author of "The Big Test," an enthusiastic eugenicist.

Looking back on its history, the institutionalization of the SAT strikes me as an utterly American invention, one promising inclusive equality while simultaneously guaranteeing exclusion. We Americans desperately want to be reassured that we are the best when it comes to equalizing opportunity and rewarding merit, and the SAT affords us the chance to indulge our appetite for seemingly objective measurement. But at the underside of our meritocracy is a car-crash culture, filled with such wrecks along the self-esteem highway as television programs like "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "American Idol" and "Extreme Makeover."

And that's where you'll find the real message of the SAT: If you are the last one standing, having beaten your competitors by any means necessary, you are the winner. Everyone else is a loser.

Whaa? First she natters on about how the SAT was developed in the 1920's - I suppose we're supposed to assume that it's still a product of those old, bad, racist days, despite the fact that eugenic science has been discredited for fifty years - then she claims that the SAT is the same thing as reality TV, which is an ugly by-product of the 2000's. What's more, if I read this right, she's against all competition whatsover, because competition produces winners and losers.

But then we read this:

Our research has shown that a student's high-school grade point average not his or her SAT scores is the greatest predictor of success in college. We want students who are diverse and talented, with interests and achievements in and out of the classroom.

Emphasis mine. By this standard, then, couldn't students with low high school GPA's be considered "losers" in the race for college admissions? Couldn't valedictorians be the same as those triumphant "Survivor" competitors? How is a college admissions policy that admits only those students with a 3.5 GPA or a top 10% standing in high school not a meritocratic policy? How dare Ms. Trombley demand that students show evidence of "talent"?

Oh, sure, Ms. Trombley natters on about how if students have low GPAs and no SAT scores, there are other criteria they must meet, but aren't all required criteria proof that, in some way, merit matters for college admissions?

If high school grades outperform the SAT in predicting grades at Pitzer College, then by all means, the college should stop using the SAT. That's well within their bailiwick. But Pitzer's representatives shouldn't insult our intelligence by gullibly repeating the overinflated claims of test prep companies, naively insisting that a switch from SAT to grades nullifies the dreaded "meritocracy," and idiotically claiming that removing the SAT requirement somehow equalizes the educational achievements of minority and non-minority students.

Posted by kswygert at January 20, 2004 07:55 PM