Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

In Defense of the SAT


Robert, I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that “colleges shouldn’t use ‘a useful piece of information’; they should use the most powerful combination of pieces of information.” I think colleges should use all the information they have available.

As far as I can tell, in the article you link to, Murray supports his argument for abolishing the SAT by saying that it’s no more reliable than achievement tests at predicting freshman college grades. (Murray says that achievement tests do a “slightly better” job of predicting college performance, and that examining SAT scores may add a “small” amount of value, but in both cases the effects are minor. His argument is not that one predicts better than the other, but that using either one, by itself, is as good as using both.)

That may be true, and for now I’ll leave aside the question (a major one) of whether freshman college grades are a good proxy for what colleges should be looking for, rather than just an easy thing to measure. My problem with Murray’s article is that he never explains why, if achievement tests and the SAT provide the same information, the former is better than the latter.

OK, he does sort of try. Two-thirds of the way through the article, after presenting his usual blizzard of data, Murray the icewater-souled rationalist becomes incoherently touchy-feely, throwing around phrases like “a totem for members of the cognitive elite” and a “large and bright red herring.” He admits that coaching for the SAT is useless but then makes an enormous, mystifyingly ferocious fuss over it. As the crux of his argument, he asserts that while the SAT is a valid measure of intelligence, “knowing those scores is too dispiriting for those who do poorly and too inspiriting for those who do well.” Heaven forfend that we should let a few high-school nerds feel good about themselves.

Then, without even an attempt at proof, he makes the even more ludicrous assertion that achievement tests do not suffer these same problems. Why? Because “a low-income student shut out of opportunity for an SAT coaching school has the sense of being shut out of mysteries. Being shut out of a cram course is less daunting.” Moreover, “people forget achievement test scores. They do not forget cognitive test scores.” Charles Murray is a brilliant man, but I see no reason to believe that he can read minds, and mind-reading is all that this argument rests on.

Here’s what’s good about the SAT. First of all, it provides a universal standard of comparison. Students have to pick which achievement tests they will take, and if they strategize poorly in making the choice, it can make them look less intelligent than they are. Why discard the only universal standard that admissions officers have?

Second, achievement tests are much more susceptible than the SAT to coaching for “test-taking ability.” When I was in high school, I took the achievement test in chemistry, a subject I was supposed to be good at (I eventually majored in it). I was disappointed to get a 680 (see? I remember!). The reason was that I got bogged down trying to plough through a bunch of particularly time-consuming problems (redox equations, for all you chemistry nerds) instead of skipping ahead to the easier ones. Every achievement test must have its own tips and tricks of this sort, and then there’s the matter of guessing how you compare with the intelligence level they’re pitched at. Why rely on this rag-bag of arcana instead of the SAT, which (as Murray admits) you can prepare for thoroughly by taking a few practice exams?

And third, the SAT measures different things from the achievement tests.  I got mediocre grades at a mediocre high school, and my achievement-test scores were so-so, but I did very well on the SAT, well enough to get admitted to the college I wanted. So, once again: Why exclude useful information from the mix? Why does Murray single out the SAT, of all the tests and other factors that admissions officers look at, for condemnation? His argument rests on the amorphous and unproven assumption that everybody pays too much attention to the SAT, but even if that’s true, once achievement tests replaced the SAT as the standard of who’s smart and dumb, why wouldn’t they acquire the same status?

Charles Murray is an astute thinker and a meticulous scholar when he makes a case with data and logic. But when he descends into psychoanalysis and mind-reading, he is no more reliable than the guy on the next barstool. The SAT was, is, and will remain a useful tool that gives smart kids an opportunity to show their stuff. There is no reason in the world to eliminate it for what might, at best, be described as sentimental considerations.


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