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Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks ( is an author and essayist who writes frequently about education. His latest book is Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Perseus).

  • Higher Education April 17, 2003

    Class Struggle

    In a nation that nominally eschews class distinctions as unbefitting our supposed classlessness, whose elected officials decry any protest over government largesse to the rich as "class warfare," real Americans--most of whom are suckers, it turns out--spend untold amounts of time, cash and effort obsessing on a tiny number of elite colleges that really, really don't want the vast majority of them as members.

    Never mind, though. For an increasing number of baby boomer parents, it's never too early to stick kids on the Harvard- or-bust fast track. It starts with Mozart and Shakespeare in the crib, and then it's off to the $8,000-a-year and up nursery school that admits toddlers on the basis of IQ tests (performance on which is heavily influenced by the educational attainment of the child's parents). The proper nursery school inexorably leads to the high-powered kindergarten and prep school and eventually to thousands of dollars more in fees for college consultants and standardized testing tutors.

    Before a child can say "meritocracy," he or she is embarking on an overseas adventure to New Guinea that will lead, by design, to that killer college application essay that wows admissions counselors from Harvard, Yale or Princeton for its originality and sense of social and democratic purpose, a tonier version of the Miss America contestant's "I'm for world peace" speech.

    If all the time and effort devoted to this enterprise were about a child's or young person's love of learning, creativity and personal development, I for one would be considerably less cynical. But the elite college admissions game--under the near-tyrannical guidance of US News & World Report's annual ranking of the nation's "best" colleges--is all too often about the pursuit of prestige at almost any cost, a game that perpetuates the big lie that one can't find a decent education at anything less than a Brand Name school.

    I was excited to read Jacques Steinberg's new book about elite college admissions, The Gatekeepers, anticipating a breath of fresh air on the subject from the New York Times education reporter. As he introduces himself and his book, we learn that this son of a Massachusetts anesthesiologist sees himself as a sort of accidental alumnus of the Ivy League, who pleads ignorance as to how he got admitted to Dartmouth in the early 1980s. But he obviously owes a lot to his very assertive mom, a former nurse, who on the family's exploratory visit to the Dartmouth campus grabbed her son by the collar after an admissions officer's spiel and strode to the front of the room to magisterially inform the official, "We're the Steinbergs." The rest, as they say, is history.

    Steinberg strikes me as a lucky man indeed. After joining the Times and becoming a national education correspondent, he attended the 1999 conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling in Orlando, Florida. While there, he was approached by William Hiss, an administrator at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Hiss wondered whether Steinberg would like exclusive access to the selective college's admissions process, noteworthy in that it does not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Although Steinberg and his editor, Ethan Bronner, were intrigued by the idea, they declined Hiss's offer in favor of a less "anomalous" college--i.e., one that continued to rely on gatekeeping tests like the SAT.

    After being turned down by several colleges for the kind of exclusive, total-access deal the Times wanted, Steinberg found what would seem a perfect match. At Wesleyan, located in Middletown, Connecticut, midway between Hartford and New Haven, college officials agreed to provide the reporter unfettered access to its admissions process from fall 1999 to spring 2000, culminating in the Times's series of articles upon which The Gatekeepers is based. Wesleyan agreed not to meddle in Steinberg's stories, gave him access to individual students and their families and allowed him to observe any and all meetings in its admissions deliberations--in other words, a reporter's dream assignment. (It couldn't have hurt Steinberg's cause that his boss, Bronner, graduated from Wesleyan in 1976, as one discovers in the book's acknowledgments.)

    It's all very cozy and well connected in these pages, with lucky people and impressive degrees from prestigious institutions to spare. When we meet Steinberg's featured "gatekeeper," a Wesleyan admissions officer named Ralph Figueroa, a Los Angeles native who ends up in Middletown after a stint working admissions at Occidental College in LA, I'm thinking, cool choice. This ought to be interesting, a Mexican-American man with a working-class background (the rebel in me hopes), now an insider shaking things up at one elite private college in comfy New England.

    Instead, we learn that the 34-year-old Figueroa's dad was a lawyer and graduate of Loyola Law School; that his mom earned a master's degree in education, and became a mover and shaker in an organization called Expanded Horizons, a nationally recognized program (held in high regard by Ronald Reagan and his Education Secretary, Terrel Bell) that helped Mexican-American kids prepare for college. The family frequently took their children on trips to colleges like Pomona, Occidental and Caltech. The grooming and preparation paid off for the Figueroa clan. Ralph graduated from Stanford--he turned down Harvard, Yale and Princeton--and went on to UCLA Law. His several siblings also attended elite schools, including UCLA Law and Stanford Law, and one sister, like himself, would find a niche in admissions at Caltech.

    As if adopting the same mesmerizing tricks as the colleges themselves, holding out the impossible dream of an elite college education to the masses in order to up their application counts (which improves selectivity rankings), Steinberg and his publisher pitch this book as "required reading for every parent of a high school age child and for every student" who is applying to college. But it's easy to imagine ordinary parents and their kids--the overwhelming majority of whom attend ordinary public high schools that aren't even remotely on the map of "feeder" schools highly regarded by elite colleges--being completely intimidated by this book. I could scarcely find one person in these pages, whether an admissions officer or student, whose parents weren't at least modestly well educated or who didn't have some connection to either a brand-name college or elite prep school. Most of the admissions officers at Wesleyan were either Wesleyan grads or had connections to other elite schools (a fairly common trait, from what I can tell, among the admissions staffs at elite private colleges). In fact, I was able to find just one student in Steinberg's world whose parents had not attended college, a most admirable young New Yorker named Aggie. But even she managed to find her way out of a downtrodden public school in New York City to the Oldfields School, a venerable girls' prep school in rural Maryland.

    But let's be real. Readers of this book will more likely be the well-educated parents and high-flying students who do attend schools that are "on the map," and for whom prestigious colleges and personal connections to those schools are all part of the entitlement package; people for whom "state university" is a dirty word. And though Steinberg is skillful at telling the stories of Ralph and a handful of young people who apply to Wesleyan and other highly ranked colleges, I can easily imagine sophisticated readers sighing a collective, "So what?" There's very little in Steinberg's highly detailed narrative that such readers won't already have surmised about the competitive admissions game.

    When highly selective colleges talk about their admissions process to prospective students, they like to convey the notion that there are no formulas, no tricks, no standard combination of grades or test scores that will insure one's admission. It's standard advice that Steinberg, who calls the process "messy," would undoubtedly agree with. True, there may be no magic formulas, but colleges like Wesleyan do pass their judgments about individuals under some mighty formulaic parameters. Readers probably won't be surprised to learn that Wesleyan admissions officials watch their ranking in US News & World Report like nuclear plant operators monitoring reactor heat levels. In fact, Steinberg describes one seasoned admissions officer, Greg Pyke, whose task is to keep running tabs on median SAT levels and other indicators of the admitted class important to US News, in order to insure that the college improves upon its previous year ranking.

    The most revealing aspects of the process can be gleaned between the lines of Steinberg's account. For example, many students and parents who buy into this game have long known that test scores play a very important, if not decisive, role in it. Recent surveys by the National Association of College Admission Counseling confirm this. According to NACAC's December 2001 survey, fully 86 percent of admissions officials rated test scores as of either considerable or moderate importance, just slightly below the importance the gatekeepers attach to grades in college prep courses (89 percent).

    As competition for admission has intensified and acceptance rates have declined at elite private colleges in recent years, the weight attached to gatekeeping tests has also increased, according to a recent report by the Association for Institutional Research. Meanwhile, private colleges have soured on high school grades, arguably a more egalitarian indicator of merit and once the most important criterion in admissions, this despite the well-known correlation between SAT scores and the educational and income levels of one's parents.

    Steinberg, like the admissions officers who are his subjects, is rarely as explicit about these matters as the data presented in those surveys. But parents and kids who know the game won't bat an eye at how heavily colleges rely on gatekeeping tests, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding. For example, Wesleyan admissions officers seem to think that a 50- or 100-point difference in SAT scores among two candidates means something significant about their future academic performance in college, a patently false use of test scores. Steinberg, ever nonjudgmental, allows such assumptions to pass virtually unchallenged, although they have been powerfully refuted in numerous studies. Bates, the SAT-optional college that first approached Steinberg, discovered no differences between the academic performance of Bates students who declined to submit SAT scores when applying, and that of SAT-submitters, whose test scores were, on average, 160 points higher.

    Deeply ingrained beliefs in the power of cognitive screens like the SAT and about the importance of good grades in AP courses were not the only things at the top of Wesleyan's gatekeeping criteria. There were two additional ones, earmarked by a manila folder. "If an applicant was the child of an alumna or alumnus, a dark orange square was added," Steinberg writes. "If an applicant had identified him- or herself as a member of a minority group, a yellow circle was added. These details were considered too important for a reader to overlook, and the coding system was designed to ensure that they were given due attention."

    Within these strictures Wesleyan's gatekeepers exercised a small degree of wiggle room, and Steinberg does his best work describing the difficult process of selecting a class of some 700 students from about 7,000 applications. Grateful, perhaps, for the access Wesleyan gave him, he writes admiringly of the gatekeepers' studious commitment to be fair and objective. But parents with high-school-age children are likely to be appalled at the inconsistencies, and even arbitrary nature, of some of the judgments made by Figueroa and his colleagues. The SAT, for instance, which is often described by admissions officials, the College Board and the Educational Testing Service as a "common yardstick," looks more like a magic stick out of Alice in Wonderland, meaning whatever Wesleyan's gatekeepers want it to mean, depending on whether the applicant is a member of a minority group, an athlete or a member of the Wesleyan "family." Isn't meritocracy grand?

    Meanwhile, Andrew Fairbanks, a former Wesleyan admissions official, has given us a very different account of elite college admissions, in a book written with Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser, both professors at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. While Steinberg uses character and nar- rative to reveal the inner workings of one college's admissions process, the authors of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite seek to expose this often-deceitful and manipulated game in order to make it more fair to all comers. Indeed, they say they hope to arm more students and parents with information on how the game is played, and therefore help to reduce the unfair advantages the present system affords well-connected and affluent students. Although the book is focused on a detailed investigation of early admissions programs, its reach is far broader, if only because early admissions has become such a key element of competitive college-recruitment efforts in recent years. As one student who was recently admitted to Harvard told the authors, "That's just how you apply to Harvard."

    Although the writing lacks the journalistic polish of Steinberg's account, and although the organization is at times disjointed, readers seeking solid information about elite college admissions will find The Early Admissions Game refreshingly frank. Other readers concerned about restoring some equity to the process will also appreciate the book's generosity of spirit and suggestions for reform.

    The authors present a devastating portrait of elite college admissions--and early admissions in particular--as an elaborate and complicated "game" in the most literal meaning of that word, played by colleges seeking competitive advantages over rivals, students seeking to maximize their opportunities for entry into prestigious colleges and school counselors striving to maintain the reputations of their "feeder" schools in terms of their efficiency in placing students at highly ranked colleges. As in all competitive games, the various players often have little incentive to be forthcoming about their tactics and every incentive to conceal strategic information from public view. Not surprisingly, the authors suggest, the winners of the game tend to be privileged students who have access to highly skilled counselors with information pipelines to elite college admissions offices.

    At the center of the book is a social scientific investigation that makes powerful analytical use of admissions data at elite colleges spanning several years and including some 500,000 college applications, which reveals a fascinating statistical portrait of early admissions. (Early admissions programs include both "early decision" ones, which permit just one early application and bind students to that college if they are admitted, and "early action" programs, which allow multiple applications and do not bind students to colleges that accept them early.) In public, most institutions are quick to reassure students and parents that there's no advantage to applying early as opposed to waiting to throw one's hat into the "regular" admissions pool. But the advantages afforded early applications are considerable.

    Consider Princeton. One need only note the increasingly small number of openings remaining from the regular admissions pool to see why many students who don't walk on water might find it in their best interest to apply early. Of the 2,000 students admitted in one recent year at Princeton, for instance, only 500 had applied during the regular admissions cycle. The rest were either early applicants or "hooked" applicants (underrepresented minorities, athletes or children of alumni).

    At Princeton, which runs an early decision program, the authors estimate that while its acceptance rate from the regular applicant pool was slightly below 20 percent, the college's acceptance rate for early applicants ballooned to well over 50 percent. The same pattern held for virtually all the highly selective colleges in the authors' study. At Columbia, for example, more than seven in ten students who applied early were admitted, compared with about three in ten students applying during the regular period.

    When colleges concede such glaring differences in their admissions rates, they explain that early applicants tend to be more attractive candidates in terms of test scores, grades and other factors. The authors easily destroy this canard by comparing early and regular admission rates for students with similar credentials. Applying early to elite colleges, they demonstrate, produces the equivalent of a 100-point SAT boost for early action applicants and a 190-point boost for early decision applicants. For the time-strapped student oddsmaker, the game presents some interesting choices. Spend $1,000 on an SAT prep course, or apply early? "Which is easier?" the authors ask. "To submit an early application? Or to master the trombone to the level of all-state orchestra or become a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Science Competition?"

    So what's in it for the colleges? Why give early decision applicants the equivalent of nearly 200 points on the SAT? Part of the answer, it seems, is that they have an Enron problem. The unfortunate fact of elite college admissions in the era of US News & World Report is that the magazine's annual ranking of the nation's best colleges now rules this marketplace with an iron fist. The magazine operates under the fiction that college quality is tantamount to median SAT scores, acceptance rates and other more arcane measures such as "yield" rates, defined as the percentage of the admitted students who decide to enroll--which might be more accurately dubbed the "prestige index." In any case, colleges have discovered how early admission programs easily permit them to manipulate numbers in order to elevate, however marginally, their US News rankings. For example, an early decision applicant will almost certainly enroll, thus instantly boosting the college's yield rate.

    Who takes most advantage of early admissions and its generous payoffs? Primarily children from affluent families, students for whom a college's financial aid offer isn't a deal breaker. Because early decision programs in particular lock needy students into a single college, they are unable to compare or negotiate financial aid packages among schools. The authors contend that colleges also exploit the monopoly power granted through early decision programs in order to hold down their financial aid budgets. Furthermore, students with access to good information about early admission programs, including their improved chances of admission, also gain. And, again, such students tend to be affluent. Reliable information, the authors found, is a function of whether students attend public high schools where many students do not go to college or elite private schools and highly regarded public schools where most students do attend college.

    Among the most compelling passages in The Early Admissions Game is its description of the elaborate, back-channel "slotting" operations by which highly skilled and well-connected high school counselors work hand in hand with elite college admissions officers to place students. To outsiders, such collaboration might be scandalous, but for some students recently accepted to places like Harvard and Yale whom the authors interviewed, it's rather ho-hum. Listen to Mira (Harvard '98): "My counselor has a good relationship with the Harvard admissions office. He handpicks people for admission and tells Harvard who to admit." Or Dan (Yale '98): "If I wanted to attend Yale, [the counselor] would get me in."

    No book could paint such a damning portrait without offering suggestions for reform of a system that produces such inequitable results. The authors discuss various options, including the frequently suggested proposal that colleges agree to a ban on early admission programs. That's not likely to fly, the authors argue, because any given college would have great incentive to violate the ban by picking off its competitors' most promising applicants. "If we gave it up," Harvard admissions dean William Fitzsimmons suggested, "other institutions inside and outside the Ivy League would carve up our class and our faculty would carve us up."

    As an alternative to the current system, the authors propose to set up an independent, Internet-operated clearinghouse, through which students could state their first preference for college without a binding commitment. The clearinghouse would share the information among all participating colleges in order to preclude any deception. Colleges, which currently spend a great deal of money on statistical models trying to predict which students will ultimately enroll, could rely instead on the students' stated preferences. Such a simple, relatively inexpensive solution would also diminish the importance of the sorts of back-channel slotting operations that now give privileged applicants such an advantage in the early admissions game.

    Meanwhile, however, there's little reason to hope the game will become more equitable anytime soon. Elite colleges appear eager to install early admissions programs as fixtures for building and managing their entering classes. As of December, for example, the University of Pennsylvania had already filled nearly half its freshman class with early admits. At Yale and Columbia, more than 40 percent of entering classes was already spoken for. Millions more high school students from increasingly well-educated families will continue to place their hopes and dreams on a tiny fraction of colleges that admit an increasingly smaller percentage of those who apply. At Harvard, for example, the acceptance rate of 11 percent in the year 2000 was nearly half what it was in 1990. By midyear, testing companies had reported surges in registrations for taking entrance exams, with ACT Inc. boasting its biggest gain in thirty-five years.

    All this in a nation where nearly 40 percent of adults believe they currently are, or will be, among the richest 1 percent of Americans. Who knows, maybe we'll all get lucky.

    Peter Sacks

  • Education Reform October 31, 2002

    A Nation at Risk

    A year ago Congress overwhelmingly approved George W.

    Peter Sacks

  • Politics August 29, 2002



    Princeton, NJ

    In an accurate review of Jonathan Marks's loosely argued What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, Micaela di Leonardo passes on to readers the misleading impression that the Great Ape Project uses the genetic similarities between humans and apes to argue for "human rights" for apes, "frequently to the detriment of the impoverished African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands" ["Too Much Monkey Business," July 8].

    This is false from start to finish. First, the Great Ape Project is not based on the genetic similarities of humans and great apes but on the rich emotional and mental lives of the great apes, so well documented by supporters of the Great Ape Project like Jane Goodall and many others.

    Second, the Great Ape Project does not seek the full range of human rights for great apes, but only the basic rights to life, liberty and protection from torture, and even the rights to life and liberty that we seek are not absolute, for they allow euthanasia in the interests of the apes, and captivity where that is in the best interests of the apes or is required for the safety of others. Finally, the protection of the remaining, and rapidly dwindling, forests of Africa and Southeast Asia where the great apes live in their natural habitat is, surely, also in the best long-term interests of the human residents of those regions.

    Readers interested in finding out more about the project for themselves may go to



    Evanston, Ill.

    You've got to hand it to notorious headline-grabbing philosopher Peter Singer, who has endorsed infanticide for disabled human babies, claimed we can solve global poverty by just consuming a little less and donating as individuals to aid agencies (no need, apparently, to complicate matters by considering capitalist functioning and state and NGO actions) and called for a revision of taboos against bestiality since "sex with animals does not always involve cruelty." Now how exactly can he hold his mouth to call Jon Marks's 98% Chimpanzee loosely argued?

    What is so refreshing about Marks's work is that he is a hard scientist who really understands that we live and act within a shifting political economy. Animal and ecosystem conservation and human rights for the impoverished who live in surviving great ape territories in Africa and Southeast Asia need not be antithetical projects, but Marks quotes numerous Great Ape Project activists who believe they are, including the zoologist who chillingly said to him, "Think percentages, not numbers" in weighing Southeast Asian human vs. ape rights. Others frequently liken apes to human children or mentally retarded adults. And Singer is most disingenuous in claiming that the GAP does not argue on the basis of genetic similarity. The group's official website clearly argues for apes' inclusion with humans in a "community of equals" because they (and Singer co-wrote this statement) "are the closest relatives of our species."

    The issue, as Marks makes crystal clear, is not whether apes are adorable, interesting, endangered and in need of aid--of course they are--but how we use science to make political arguments. "Why should the mentality of apes have any bearing on their humanness (or lack thereof) or their rights (or lack thereof)? If you lose the ability to reason and communicate, do you...forfeit your humanity and rights? This is a scary moral place for apes and people to be.... Human rights should neither be forfeitable nor accessible by nonhumans.... Singling out particular classes of people in order to show how similar they are to apes is a troubling scientific strategy, not least of all when the humans rhetorically invoked are the very ones whose rights are most conspicuously in jeopardy."

    Disability groups and others quite rightly have weighed in en masse against Singer, but nonhuman primates, too, deserve a better, more rational advocate.



    Santa Barbara, Calif.

    Eighty years ago, journalist Walter Lippmann took on the standardized testing enterprise in The New Republic, addressing such broad issues as the effects of education, opportunity and heredity on test scores. For example, Lippmann dismissed the claim that IQ tests measure hereditary intelligence as having "no more scientific foundation than a hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and correspondence courses in will power." His articles on testing continue to be valued today not merely because he could turn a phrase but because he had a firm grasp of the complex technical and political issues surrounding the use of test scores.

    Alas, Peter Sacks is no Walter Lippmann. To Sacks, who reviewed my book Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education ["Testing Times in Higher Ed," June 24], the issues are simple: Tests are evil; eliminating them is good. Sacks has undoubtedly been aware of my work because I have pointed out errors and omissions in his writings on testing; in fact, I do so in my book. He ignores large portions of the book in order to characterize it as "a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams." A reader of the review might be surprised to find that my book proposes a new consumer agency to monitor admissions testing, discusses the perils of relying too heavily on test scores in admissions decisions and describes research, including some of my own, in which test scores did not do a good job of predicting subsequent grades.

    Rather than attempt to address every inaccuracy, I will focus on a central feature of Sacks's review--his belief that the existence of score disparities among ethnic and economic groups proves that admissions tests are biased. In Fair Game? I point out that determining whether tests are biased is complex and requires a willingness to look beyond patterns of average test scores. In Change (March/April 2001), I commented on Sacks's earlier Change article, "Standardized Testing: Meritocracy's Crooked Yardstick": "[Sacks] cited several studies to prove that SAT scores and socioeconomic status are related, and alluded to [a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics]. What he neglected to mention is that this study showed that socioeconomic status was also related to high school grades... [and to course background, teacher evaluations and extracurricular activities]. In particular, 24 percent of the high-SES group, compared to only 10 percent of the low-SES group, had high school [grade-point averages] of at least 3.5..."

    What the GPA and the SAT have in common is that they are indexes of previous achievement and therefore reflect past inequalities in educational opportunity. In The Nation (June 5, 2000), Pedro Noguera and Antwi Akom noted that "explaining why poor children of color perform comparatively less well in school is relatively easy: Consistently, such children are educated in schools that are woefully inadequate on most measures of quality and funding."

    Sacks omitted the findings on grades and other achievement measures from his book and from his Change article. Presenting the complete results would have undercut his position that some inherent property of tests causes the scores to be related to economic factors. (Including all the findings might have also required him to abandon his pet phrase, "the Volvo effect," which he uses to refer to the association between family income and standardized test scores.)

    In addition, Sacks is incorrect in implying that class-rank admission plans like the Texas 10 percent plan, which involve consideration of high school grades but not test scores, have uniformly led to greater campus diversity. The Dallas Morning News, for example, reported on June 19, 2002, that at Texas A&M, the percentages of black and Latino students have decreased since the initiation of the Texas plan. As I point out in my book, the plan is structured so that diversity benefits are likely to accrue to the state's flagship institution, UT Austin.

    Finally, in response to Sacks's criticism that my writing is textbookish, I readily concede that I lack his ability to generate catchy phrases like "Volvo effect" and "crooked yardstick." But clever labels are a poor substitute for thoughtful consideration of the controversies that surround the use of standardized tests.



    Boise, Idaho

    In response to my criticisms of her new book, Rebecca Zwick takes aim at the reviewer. She says I believe that "tests are evil; eliminating them is good." It's not surprising she'd make up this straw man, since attacking it also sums up the entire marketing strategy behind her book.

    Zwick--a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the firm that produces such standardized tests as the SAT--and her publisher have touted Fair Game? as a source of objective information about testing, positioned to clear up all this testing fuss with common sense and straight facts. If one chooses to look at a different or broader set of facts than she does, or to interpret them with a non-ETS spin, Zwick seems to imply that one must then be a simpleton and an ideologue.

    Zwick tries to make hay of the finding that high school or college grades, just like test scores, also correlate strongly to socioeconomic status. Not recognizing this, as Zwick takes pains to do in her book, is to unfairly single out standardized tests as punitive to poor and minority kids, Zwick claims.

    Like so much of her book, Zwick seems to miss the big picture. The thrust of my entire critique of the testing culture--and her book--is that gatekeeping tests give questionable weight to one-time performance on highly abstracted testing exercises, which by definition are mere approximations of genuine work. And mostly poor approximations, at that. Given this, it's no wonder that test scores are such feeble predictors of later success, whether in school or work.

    Just as Bates College and other institutions have done, with great success, in their efforts to reduce the importance of admissions tests, I'll take classroom performance--as measured by grades, portfolios of student work and other documentation of student accomplishments both in and out of school--any day over test performance as an indicator of how a student will perform in real life, not the tested life.

    Regarding the Texas 10-percent plan, Zwick says I'm incorrect in implying that de-emphasizing the SAT has led to greater diversity for all state institutions. In fact, I'm not implying any such claim in the context she quotes. I draw on data only from the University of Texas at Austin. Zwick speculates that the plan has merely reshuffled the deck in terms of statewide enrollments of minorities. If Zwick wants me or another reviewer to take her seriously on this point, she'd better offer up something of substance or do some real analysis. In her book, Zwick could only muster up this: "Data on the statewide effect of the Texas 10 percent plan are hard to come by."

    What can she possibly mean with such a vague statement? That university officials are trying to hide some dirty little secret? Does it mean that there are no campus-specific enrollment data broken out by race and ethnicity? Seems improbable. Or could it mean that Zwick could find no readily available studies by credible researchers that support her claim that enrollments have merely been redistributed from other state campuses to Austin? But even a boatload of data needs a theory, an explanation of what the data mean. Alas, Zwick offers readers no theoretically plausible explanation whatsoever as to why minority enrollments might be expected to decline across the state as a result of reducing the emphasis on SAT scores. In fact, there's every reason to expect just the opposite.

    As for textbookishness, that is certainly no major offense. Sign me up any day for a dry but forthright book about testing in America. Regarding Zwick's curious reference to me and Walter Lippmann, I won't touch that one with a ten-foot number-2 pencil.


    Micaela di Leonardo, Peter Sacks, Peter Singer and Rebecca Zwick

  • Education June 6, 2002

    Testing Times in Higher Ed

    The SAT has been on the ropes lately. The University of California system has threatened to quit using the test for its freshman admissions, arguing that the exam has done more harm than good. The State of Texas, responding to a federal court order prohibiting its affirmative action efforts, has already significantly curtailed the importance of the SAT as a gatekeeper to its campuses. Even usually stodgy corporate types have started to beat up on the SAT. Last year, for example, a prominent group of corporate leaders joined the National Urban League in calling upon college and university presidents to quit placing so much stock in standardized admissions tests like the SAT, which they said were "inadequate and unreliable" gatekeepers to college.

    Then again, if the SAT is anything, it's a survivor. The SAT enterprise--consisting of its owner and sponsor, the College Board, and the test's maker and distributor, the Educational Testing Service--has gamely reinvented itself over the years in myriad superficial ways, hedging against the occasional dust-up of bad public relations. The SAT, for example, has undergone name changes over the years in an effort to reflect the democratization of higher education in America and consequent changes in our collective notions about equal opportunity. But through it all, the SAT's underlying social function--as a sorting device for entry into or, more likely, maintenance of American elitehood--has remained ingeniously intact, a firmly rooted icon of American notions about meritocracy.

    Indeed, the one intangible characteristic of the SAT and other admissions tests that the College Board would never want to change is the virtual equation, in the public's mind, of test scores and academic talent. Like the tobacco companies, ETS and the College Board (both are legally nonprofit organizations that in many respects resemble profit-making enterprises) put a cautionary label on the product. Regarding their SAT, the organizations are obliged by professional codes of proper test practices to inform users of standardized admissions tests that the exams can be "useful" predictors of later success in college, medical school or graduate school, when used in conjunction with other factors, such as grades.

    But the true place of admissions testing in America isn't always so appropriate. Most clear-eyed Americans know that results on the SAT, Graduate Record Exam or the Medical College Admission Test are widely viewed as synonymous with academic talent in higher education. Whether it's true or not--and there's lots of evidence that it's not--is quite beside the point.

    Given the inordinate weight that test scores play in the American version of meritocracy, it's no surprise that federal courts have been hearing lawsuits from white, middle-class law school applicants complaining they were denied admission to law school even though their LSAT scores were fifty points greater than a minority applicant who was admitted; why neoconservative doomsayers warn that the academic quality of America's great universities will plummet if the hordes of unwashed (read: low test scores) are allowed entry; why articles are written under titles like "Backdoor Affirmative Action," arguing that de-emphasizing test scores in Texas and California is merely a covert tactic of public universities to beef up minority enrollments in response to court bans on affirmative action.

    Indeed, Rebecca Zwick, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, wrote that "Backdoor Affirmative Action" article for Education Week in 1999, implying that do-gooders who place less emphasis on test scores in order to raise minority enrollments are simply blaming the messenger. And so it should not be surprising that the same author would provide an energetic defense of the SAT and similar exams in her new book, Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education.

    Those, like Zwick, who are wedded to the belief that test scores are synonymous with academic merit will like this concise book. They will praise its 189 pages of text as, finally, a fair and balanced demystification of the esoteric world of standardized testing. Zwick and her publisher are positioning the book as the steady, guiding hand occupying the sensible middle ground in an emotional debate that they claim is dominated by journalists and other uninformed critics who don't understand the complex subject of standardized testing. "All too often...discussions of testing rely more on politics or emotion than on fact," Zwick says in her preface. "This book was written with the aim of equipping contestants in the inevitable public debates with some solid information about testing."

    If only it were true. Far from reflecting the balanced approach the author claims, the book is thinly disguised advocacy for the status quo and a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams for college and university admissions. It could be more accurately titled (without the bothersome question mark) "Fair Game: Why America Needs the SAT."

    As it stands, the research staff of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, Zwick's former employer, might as well have written this book, as she trots out all the standard arguments those organizations have used for years to show why healthy doses of standardized testing are really good for American education. At almost every opportunity, Zwick quotes an ETS or College Board study in the most favorable light, couching it as the final word on a particular issue, while casting aspersion on other studies and researchers (whose livelihoods don't depend on selling tests) that might well draw different conclusions. Too often Zwick provides readers who might be unfamiliar with the research about testing with an overly simplistic and superficial treatment. At worst, she leaves readers with grossly misleading impressions.

    After providing a quick and dirty account of IQ testing at the turn of the last century, a history that included the rabidly eugenic beliefs of many of the early testmakers and advocates in Britain and the United States ("as test critics like to point out," Zwick sneers), the author introduces readers to one of the central ideologies of mental testing to sort a society's young for opportunities for higher education. Sure, mental testing has brought some embarrassing moments in history that we moderns frown on nowadays, but the testing movement has had its good guys too. Rather than being a tool to promote and protect the interests of a society's most privileged citizens, the cold objectivity of standardized testing remains an important goal for exercise of democratic values.

    According to this belief, standardized testing for admission to college serves the interest of meritocracy, in which people are allowed to shine by their wits, not their social connections. That same ideology, says Zwick, drove former Harvard president James Bryant Conant, whom Zwick describes as a "staunch supporter of equal opportunity," in his quest to establish a single entrance exam, the SAT, for all colleges. Conant, of course, would become the first chairman of the board of the newly formed Educational Testing Service. But, as Nicholas Lemann writes in his 1999 book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Conant wasn't nearly so interested in widening opportunity to higher education as Zwick might think. Conant was keen on expanding opportunity, but, as Lemann says, only for "members of a tiny cohort of intellectually gifted men." Disillusioned only with the form of elitism that had taken shape at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges, which allotted opportunities based on wealth and parentage, Conant was nevertheless a staunch elitist, an admirer of the Jeffersonian ideal of a "natural aristocracy." In Conant's perfect world, access to this new kind of elitehood would be apportioned not by birthright but by performance on aptitude tests. Hence the SAT, Lemann writes, "would finally make possible the creation of a natural aristocracy."

    The longstanding belief that high-stakes mental tests are the great equalizer of society is dubious at best, and at worst a clever piece of propaganda that has well served the interests of American elites. In fact, Alfred Binet himself--among the fathers of IQ testing, who would invent the first version of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, the precursor to the modern SAT--observed the powerful relationship between one's performance on his so-called intelligence test and a child's social class, a phenomenon Binet described in his 1916 book The Development of Intelligence in Children.

    And it's the same old story with the SAT. Look at the college-bound high school seniors of 2001 who took the SAT, and the odds are still firmly stacked against young people of modest economic backgrounds' beating the SAT odds. A test-taker whose parents did not complete high school can expect to score fully 171 points below the SAT average, College Board figures show. On the other hand, high schoolers whose moms and dads have graduate degrees can expect to outperform the SAT average by 106 points.

    What's more, the gaps in SAT performance between whites and blacks and between whites and Mexican-Americans have only ballooned in the past ten years. The gap between white and black test-takers widened five points and eleven points on the SAT verbal and math sections, respectively, between 1991 and 2001. SAT score gaps between whites and Mexican-Americans surged a total of thirty-three points during that same period.

    For critics of the national testing culture, such facts are troubling indeed, suggestive of a large web of inequity that permeates society and the educational opportunities distributed neatly along class and race lines, from preschool through medical school. But for Zwick, the notion of fairness when applied to standardized admissions tests boils down to a relatively obscure but standard procedure in her field of "psychometrics," which is in part the study of the statistical properties of standardized tests.

    Mere differences in average test scores between most minority groups and whites or among social classes isn't all that interesting to Zwick. More interesting, she maintains, is the comparative accuracy of test scores in predicting university grades between whites and other racial groups. In this light, she says, the SAT and most standardized admissions tests are not biased against blacks, Latinos or Native Americans. In fact, she says, drawing on 1985 data from a College Board study that looked at forty-five colleges, those minority groups earned lower grades in college than predicted by their SAT scores--a classic case of "overprediction" that substantiates the College Board claim that the SAT is more than fair to American minorities. By contrast, if the SAT is unfair to any group, it's unfair to whites and Asian-Americans, because they get slightly better college grades than the SAT would predict, Zwick suggests.

    Then there's the odd circumstance when it comes to standardized admissions tests and women. A number of large studies of women and testing at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan and other institutions have consistently shown that while women (on average) don't perform as well on standardized tests as male test-takers do, women do better than men in actual classroom work. Indeed, Zwick acknowledges that standardized tests, unlike for most minority groups, tend to "underpredict" the actual academic performance of women.

    But on this question, as with so many others in her book, Zwick's presentation is thin, more textbookish than the thorough examination and analysis her more demanding readers would expect. Zwick glosses over a whole literature on how the choice of test format, such as multiple-choice versus essay examinations, rewards some types of cognitive approaches and punishes others. For example, there's evidence to suggest that SAT-type tests dominated by multiple-choice formats reward speed, risk-taking and other surface-level "gaming" strategies that may be more characteristic of males than of females. Women and girls may tend to approach problems somewhat more carefully, slowly and thoroughly--cognitive traits that serve them well in the real world of classrooms and work--but hinder their standardized test performance compared with that of males.

    Beyond Zwick's question of whether the SAT and other admissions tests are biased against women or people of color is the perhaps more basic question of whether these tests are worthwhile predictors of academic performance for all students. Indeed, the ETS and the College Board sell the SAT on the rather narrow promise that it helps colleges predict freshman grades, period. On this issue, Zwick's presentation is not a little pedantic, seeming to paint anyone who doesn't claim to be a psychometrician as a statistical babe in the woods. Zwick quotes the results of a College Board study published in 1994 finding that one's SAT score by itself accounts for about 13 percent of the differences in freshman grades; that one's high school grade average is a slightly better predictor of college grades, accounting for about 15 percent of the grade differences among freshmen; and that the SAT combined with high school grades is a better predictor than the use of grades alone. In other words, it's the standard College Board line that the SAT is "useful" when used with other factors in predicting freshman grades. (It should be noted that Zwick, consistent with virtually all College Board and ETS presentations, reports her correlation statistics without converting them into what's known as "R-squared" figures. In my view, the latter statistics provide readers with a common-sense understanding of the relative powers of high school grades and test scores in predicting college grades. I have made those conversions for readers in the statistics quoted above.)

    Unfortunately, Zwick misrepresents the real point that test critics make on the question of predictive validity of tests like the SAT. The salient issue is whether the small extra gains in predicting freshman grades that the SAT might afford individual colleges outweigh the social and economic costs of the entire admissions testing enterprise, costs borne by individual test-takers and society at large.

    Even on the narrow question of the usefulness of the SAT to individual colleges, Zwick does not adequately answer what's perhaps the single most devastating critique of the SAT. For example, in the 1988 book The Case Against the SAT, James Crouse and Dale Trusheim argued compellingly that the SAT is, for all practical purposes, useless to colleges. They showed, for example, that if a college wanted to maximize the number of freshmen who would earn a grade-point average of at least 2.5, then the admissions office's use of high school rank alone as the primary screening tool would result in 62.2 percent "correct" admissions. Adding the SAT score would improve the rate of correct decisions by only about 2 in 100. The researchers also showed, remarkably, that if the admissions objective is broader, such as optimizing the rate of bachelor's degree completion for those earning grade averages of at least 2.5, the use of high school rank by itself would yield a slightly better rate of prediction than if the SAT scores were added to the mix, rendering the SAT counterproductive. "From a practical viewpoint, most colleges could ignore their applicants' SAT score reports when they make decisions without appreciably altering the academic performance and the graduation rates of students they admit," Crouse and Trusheim concluded.

    At least two relatively well-known cases of colleges at opposite ends of the public-private spectrum, which have done exactly as Crouse and Trusheim suggest, powerfully illustrate the point. Consider the University of Texas system, which was compelled by a 1996 federal appeals court order, the Hopwood decision, to dismantle its affirmative-action admissions programs. The Texas legislature responded to the threat of diminished diversity at its campuses with the "top 10 percent plan," requiring public universities to admit any student graduating in the top 10 percent of her high school class, regardless of SAT scores.

    Zwick, of course, is obliged in a book of this type to mention the Texas experience. But she does so disparagingly and without providing her readers with the most salient details on the policy's effects in terms of racial diversity and the academic performance of students. Consider the diversity question. While some progressives might have first recoiled at the new policy as itself an attack on affirmative action, that has not been the case. In fact, at the University of Texas at Austin, the racial diversity of freshman classes has been restored to pre-Hopwood levels, after taking an initial hit. Indeed, the percentage of white students at Austin reached a historic low point in 2001, at 61 percent. What's more, the number of high schools sending students to the state's flagship campus at Austin has significantly broadened. The "new senders" to the university include more inner-city schools in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, as well as more rural schools than in the past, according to research by UT history professor David Montejano, among the plan's designers.

    But the policy's impact on academic performance at the university might be even more compelling, since that is the point upon which neoconservative critics have been most vociferous in their condemnations of such "backdoor" affirmative action plans that put less weight on test scores. A December 1999 editorial in The New Republic typified this road-to-ruin fiction: Alleging that the Texas plan and others like it come "at the cost of dramatically lowering the academic qualifications of entering freshmen," the TNR editorial warned, these policies are "a recipe for the destruction of America's great public universities."

    Zwick, too, neglects to mention the facts about academic performance of the "top 10 percenters" at the University of Texas, who have proven the dire warnings to be groundless. At every SAT score interval, from less than 900 to scores of 1,500 and higher, in the year 2000, students admitted without regard to their SAT score earned better grades than their non-top 10 percent counterparts, according to the university's latest research report on the policy.

    Or, consider that the top 10 percenters average a GPA of 3.12 as freshmen. Their SAT average was about 1,145, fully 200 points lower than non-top 10 percent students, who earned slightly lower GPAs of 3.07. In fact, the grade average of 3.12 for the automatically admitted students with moderate SAT scores was equal to the grade average of non-top 10 percenters coming in with SATs of 1,500 and higher. The same pattern has held across the board, and for all ethnic groups.

    Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, is one case of a college that seemed to anticipate the message of the Crouse and Trusheim research. Bates ran its own numbers and found that the SAT was simply not a sufficiently adequate predictor of academic success for many students and abandoned the test as an entry requirement several years ago. Other highly selective institutions have similar stories to tell, but Bates serves to illustrate. In dropping the SAT mandate, the college now gives students a choice of submitting SATs or not. But it permits no choice in requiring that students submit a detailed portfolio of their actual work and accomplishments while in high school for evaluation, an admissions process completed not just by admissions staff but by the entire Bates faculty.

    As with the Texas automatic admission plan, Zwick would have been negligent not to mention the case of Bates, and she does so in her second chapter; but it's an incomplete and skewed account. Zwick quotes William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates, in a 1993 interview in which he suggests that the Bates experience, while perhaps appropriate for a smaller liberal arts college, probably couldn't be duplicated at large public universities. That quote well serves Zwick's thesis that the SAT is a bureaucratically convenient way to maintain academic quality at public institutions like UT-Austin and the University of California. "With the capability to conduct an intensive review of applications and the freedom to consider students' ethnic and racial backgrounds, these liberal arts colleges are more likely than large university systems to succeed in fostering diversity while toeing the line on academic quality," Zwick writes.

    But Zwick neglects to mention that Hiss has since disavowed his caveats about Bates's lessons for larger public universities. In fact, Hiss, now a senior administrator at the college, becomes palpably irritated at inequalities built into admissions systems that put too much stock in mental testing. He told me in a late 1998 interview, "There are twenty different ways you can dramatically open up the system, and if you really want to, you'll figure out a way. And don't complain to me about the cost, that we can't afford it."

    Zwick punctuates her brief discussion of Bates and other institutions that have dropped the SAT requirement by quoting from an October 30, 2000, article, also in The New Republic, that purportedly revealed the "dirty little secret" on why Bates and other colleges have abandoned the SAT. The piece cleverly observed that because SAT submitters tend to have higher test scores than nonsubmitters, dropping the SAT has the added statistical quirk of boosting SAT averages in U.S. News & World Report's coveted college rankings. That statistical anomaly was the smoking gun the TNR reporter needed to "prove" the conspiracy.

    But to anyone who has seriously researched the rationales colleges have used in dropping the SAT, the TNR piece was a silly bit of reporting. At Bates, as at the University of Texas, the SAT "nonsubmitters" have performed as well or better academically than students who submitted SATs, often with scores hundreds of points lower than the SAT submitters. But readers of Fair Game? wouldn't know this.

    One could go on citing many more cases in which Zwick misleads her readers through lopsided reporting and superficial analysis, such as her statements that the Graduate Record Exam is about as good a predictor of graduate school success as the SAT is for college freshmen (it's not, far from it), or her overly optimistic spin on the results of many studies showing poor correlations between standardized test scores and later career successes.

    Finally, Zwick's presentation might have benefited from a less textbookish style, with more enriching details and concrete examples. Instead, she tries to position herself as a "just the facts" professor who won't burden readers with extraneous contextual details or accounts of the human side of the testing culture. But like the enormously successful--at least in commercial terms--standardized tests themselves, which promote the entrenched belief in American society that genuine learning and expert knowledge are tantamount to success on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-type multiple-choice questions, books like Fair Game? might be the standardized account that some readers really want.

    Peter Sacks

  • Education Reform March 15, 2001

    SAT–A Failing Test

    Educators have long known the rap sheet on the SAT, the college entrance exam that millions of young people have taken as a rite of passage for some seventy-five years. Since its inception, the SAT has become among the most scrutinized and controversial of standardized tests. And yet, the exam--and the mental testing culture that has sustained it in the United States--has been remarkably impervious to the attacks on it over the years.

    Recently, however, the SAT suffered a body blow when the president of the University of California system proposed dumping the exam. Don't expect colleges and universities to defect from the SAT en masse--it's too deeply entrenched for that. But in announcing his far-reaching proposal in February, UC president Richard Atkinson legitimized open discussion of a heretofore taboo subject for large and selective universities: whether they (and society) would be better off without the test.

    Atkinson, an eminent cognitive psychologist, knows well the list of particulars against the exam in question, the so-called SAT I "reasoning test." As the progeny of the first intelligence test commercialized in the United States, the SAT has proven to be a weak predictor of a student's actual performance in the first year of college; after that, its usefulness vanishes completely. Moreover, the SAT has proven to be a vicious sorter of young people by class and race, and even gender--and has served to sustain the very upper-middle-class privilege that many of the exam's supporters claim to oppose. The latest figures from the College Board, the SAT's sponsor, show that a test taker can expect an extra shot of fifteen to fifty points on his or her total SAT I score for every $10,000 that Mom and Dad bring home. Call it the Volvo Effect: a boost that peaks out at the highest levels of family income. Being white, on average, confers an extra 200-point advantage over a black test-taker. Atkinson hopes that replacing the SAT I with the SAT II subject tests will lessen such disparities and more accurately reflect what students study in high school. In fact, scores on both exams are powerfully correlated with each other, and UC's own data show that the SAT II also sorts harshly by class, race and gender. More helpful, Atkinson intends to revamp the entire UC admissions process by requiring campuses to evaluate applicants more comprehensively than under the old numerical formulas, judging a high school student's achievements in light of his or her social and economic circumstances.

    The SAT's shortcomings have become especially vivid in recent years, as courts, voters and policy-makers in several states, including the UC Board of Regents in 1995, have ordered public universities to dismantle their affirmative action programs. Post-affirmative action, UC's most selective campuses have seen freshman acceptance rates wane for blacks and Hispanics. Meanwhile, the state's Hispanic population is forecast to skyrocket from about 11 million in 2000 to 18 million over the next two decades. Hispanic high school graduates will surge 74 percent over the next decade, while numbers of white graduates are expected to grow just 2 percent.

    In light of these trends, the usual justifications for the SAT's continued dominance as a gatekeeper to UC would no longer wash. Yes, since 1968 the admissions test has been a bureaucratically convenient way to sort and weed large numbers of college aspirants. Yes, UC's relatively high SAT scores made it look good in the test-score fashion show put out by US News & World Report. Yes, the test was a common yardstick. But it was also a crooked one, inflicting enormous social costs.

    Of course, there will be complaints that Atkinson's tossing the SAT will lead to the ruination of a great university: As UC opens the floodgates to hordes of the academically unfit, standards will plummet. We've heard it before, as when the University of Texas system enacted its "top 10 percent" law after the 1996 federal appeals court ruling in the Hopwood case, which ordered the state's universities to end their affirmative action programs. Beginning in 1997, any Texas high school senior graduating in the top 10 percent of her class earned automatic admission to Texas public universities--regardless of SAT scores. Did this produce the collapse of a great university? Hardly. At the flagship University of Texas, at Austin, SAT scores of students admitted under the top 10 percent law, as expected, fell markedly compared with their peers from pre-Hopwood days. And yet, their classroom performance actually bettered their pre-Hopwood counterparts (that is, those in the top 10 percent who did meet the SAT threshold), holding steady even in engineering, business and science. To top it off, by 2000, enrollments of Hispanics and African-Americans had been restored to their pre-Hopwood levels.

    Ultimately, UC's faculty senate and the Regents could dash Atkinson's hopes for a new era in the university's approach to college admissions. Nevertheless, he has accomplished something of unquantifiable benefit by helping to pry open a badly needed debate about the meaning of merit in American higher education. Will we be a nation that judges young people based on what they have accomplished and what they've overcome to do so, or by how well they fill in bubbles on a standardized test that is itself of questionable merit?

    Peter Sacks