Phi Beta Cons

Pinker Gets It Right on Standardized Testing

If you haven’t been following the discussion about William Deresiewicz’s missive against the Ivy League, then you may have missed Steven Pinker’s response in the New Republic. Despite having harsh words for Deresiewicz, Pinker recognizes that something is amiss at America’s elite colleges and universities. Schools like Harvard do not, Pinker argues, admit students primarily on the basis of academic merit. Instead, they have fallen prey to the temptation of “holistic” admissions.

Rather than attempt a summary, I recommend you read the article in full. But it’s important to draw attention to a key point Pinker makes in his recommendations for retooling college admissions: standardized tests are a reliable, objective measure of academic aptitude.

Pinker points out that the standard canards about such exams—they aren’t really predictive of anything; they favor the wealthy who can afford test prep courses—have been “empirically refuted.” ACTA points to much of this evidence supporting the predictive validity of tests like the SAT in our trustee guide on the topic, and we have noted it frequently in our critiques of schools that have gone test-optional or test-blind.

As Pinker writes, “Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck.” This is something colleges and universities ought to consider before they decide to hop on the test-optional bandwagon.  

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