Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Confusion about ZIP Codes


Edward Fiske, the long-time New York Times education reporter, has a puzzling article on Minding the Campus.

He takes the death of Stanley Kaplan, whom he clearly admires, as an occasion to condemn the entire world of college admissions today. By coaching students to improve their scores, Kaplan “set the stage for students, and later colleges and universities, to game the system,” Fiske writes.

Although his article focuses mostly on the way that universities game the U. S. News rankings, Fiske also dismisses SAT scores as protectors of the status quo: “The best predictor of scores continues to be family income and parental education — or, to keep it simple, zip codes.”

I am not an expert on the SAT, and I know there are endless debates about its content. But the fact that well-educated, well-off people have children who score well on standardized tests that combine aptitude and education is hardly a reason to condemn the tests.

The United States is not a stagnant Third World country where a hereditary aristocracy holds all the wealth.  It is a competitive marketplace where intelligence, talent, self-confidence, and hard work enable people to move into those affluent ZIP codes. Intelligent people are apt to beget intelligent children (not always, of course) and provide them with the additional information required (such as sophisticated vocabularies) to score well on standardized tests.

Is Fiske saying that we should expect high SAT scores in neighborhoods where people aren’t very successful? Standardized tests do offer a chance for such children to be discovered — that was the motivation behind Stanley Kaplan’s initial efforts. But to expect such children to dominate those ZIP codes defies common sense.


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