Richard Kahlenberg reviews a new book by Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, who argues that the SAT and other standardized tests for college admission are antithetical to democracy. Jeffrey Snyder of Carleton College says that Guinier’s arguments are misleading.


Guinier argues that the tests are reflections of affluence, not merit or character. They serve to reward those who are already privileged.


Kahlenberg writes:


“‘Democratic merit,’ Guinier explains, goes far beyond examining test scores to look at the skills and commitment among student applicants that our democracy requires. Invoking Harvard economist Amartya Sen, Guinier writes that merit is ‘an incentive system that rewards the actions a society values.’ Today, she says, our society should value people who combine two sets of attributes: (1) knowing how to solve problems, which requires not just cognitive skills but also the ability to collaborate with others, and to think creatively; and (2) a “commitment to building a better society for more people” rather than just pursuing one’s own selfish ends.


“Guinier argues that the heavy reliance on standardized test scores in college admissions is deeply problematic on many levels. The tests are designed not to tell whether an individual will contribute to the strength of our democracy but only how he or she will perform academically in the freshman year. “If all we cared about is how well you do in your first year of college, we would have college programs that last only one year, right?” she quips. And SATs don’t even explain first-year grades very well, she says, citing economist Jesse Rothstein’s finding that SAT scores explain 2.7 percent of the variance in freshman grades….”


“Finally, Guinier writes, the testocracy “values perfect scores but ignores character.” Indeed, because doing well on the SAT is seen as a product of talent and hard work, the winners often lack the sense that they owe anyone else anything. The old inherited elite sometimes recognized that the accident of birth triggered a need to give back. “The new elite, on the other hand, feels that it has earned its privileges based on intrinsic, individual merit,” Guinier writes, and therefore feel no “obligation or shame.”


Now that the SAT will be aligned with the Common Core, both directed by the same person, David Coleman, we can expect it to become “harder” and thus even more reflective of family wealth.


Jeffrey Snyder says that Guinier is wrong. Snyder says that critics of testing miss the point. All standardized tests favor those who have had greater opportunities because they are better educated and better prepared.


He writes:


The SAT, Guinier maintains, reflects the “values and culture” of “white, upper middle-class” students. Many scholars in the field of education readily endorse this claim. I know because I used to be one of them. Two years ago, though, after reading through the empirical research carried out by psychologists and psychometricians for a course I created on standardized testing and American education, I concluded that the charges of bias do not stand up to closer scrutiny. The overwhelming majority of leading measurement experts contest the notion that the SAT systematically underestimates the academic skills and knowledge of poor students and students of color. Indeed, Guinier is unable to provide a single specific example of racial or class bias on the test. Consider the fact that Asian Americans significantly outperform whites on the SAT. Is there nothing distinctive about the cultural heritage of Americans of Asian descent? Following Guinier’s logic, the tens of thousands of high-scoring first- and second-generation immigrants from India and China somehow share the “values and culture” of upper middle-class whites, even if they are working-class or their parents do not speak English as a native language.


The SAT is not the only measure where money matters. As University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Emerita Rebecca Zwick has shown, every measure of academic achievement is at least in part a “wealth test,” with higher-income students enjoying consistent performance advantages over their less well-off peers. On average, more affluent students have higher scores on annual tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation; on tests with no coaching available such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress; as well as on high-school exit exams such as New York’s Regents Examination. The same goes for grade-point-averages and the ACT. So no matter the achievement metric, as a group, more affluent students always do better.


Just to be clear, for Guinier and many of the other most vociferous critics of standardized testing, the SAT is a meaningless metric. The only skills it measures are those necessary to succeed on the SAT itself. Access to test prep allows students to learn how to “game” the test and a white, upper-middle class cultural background somehow provides a key to unlock the test’s otherwise mystifying content. In her mind, nothing separates the high from the low-scoring students, apart from bank account balances and the color of their skin. But while the SAT has many noteworthy flaws (the essay section, for instance, is farcical and an insult to the craft of writing), it does a decent job fulfilling its central purpose, which is to measure “college-readiness.” Those students who do well on the SAT really are more likely to succeed in college than those who do poorly.


The school of thought that deems the SAT meaningless is deeply misguided. If you care about expanding educational opportunity for poor students and students of color, charges of class and racial bias turn out to be red herrings. And test prep is the biggest red herring of all. College admissions tests, by and large, register rather than create socio-economic and racial disparities. Weeks or even months of test prep are dwarfed by the lifetime of accrued advantages associated with wealth. Think high-quality nutrition and healthcare, as well as access to museums, travel, and extended social and professional networks. Consider too a dozen plus years of attending the best public schools or private schools with well-qualified teachers and a rigorous high school curriculum that includes a rich array of foreign language offerings, Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities. By the time they are seventeen, more affluent students are more likely to succeed on the SAT—and in college—because they have received better educations than their less well-off peers.


To deny the real differences in the linguistic, mathematical and analytical skills between the typical low-income student and the typical high-income student is inexcusable. The test prep industry and “biased tests” make for easy targets—but they distract us from the much more important inequalities that are embedded in our racially and economically stratified K–12 educational system. Across the country, for example, poor students and students of color are disproportionately overrepresented in the lowest academic tracks, and disproportionately underrepresented in “gifted and talented programs” and honors and Advanced Placement classes. We should concentrate on students’ broader educational trajectories, rather than obsessively honing in on the drama of college admissions. We need to stop thinking of college admissions as a point of departure and start looking at it as the culmination of a long journey.