The SAT was initially designed to objectively identify students who show great promise, to replace admissions based on wealth and connections with admissions based on talent and hard work. But for too long, the SAT has instead perpetuated an existing elite whose scores reflect not mere aptitude and diligence but also access to good schools and test preparation courses. Now, at long last, designers of the SAT have floated a new mechanism for identifying "strivers" -- those who did better than expected given their economic background.
Curiously, in "Piling on the SAT," [editorial, Sept. 4] The Post criticizes this development as "mildly troubling." Worse, the College Board, which represents colleges and contracts with the Educational Testing Service to produce the SAT, is trying to block the fledgling Strivers program. In the process, a dirty little secret about university admissions is coming to light: Despite the rhetoric, most colleges in fact give little weight to the idea that they should play a significant role in promoting social mobility.
As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the ETS program would create a "predicted score" based on 14 factors, including parents' income, education and occupation; whether the student speaks English as a second language; and her high school's academic strength and income level. Students in a given range who score 200 points higher than predicted would be labeled Strivers.
Surely everyone can agree, as one college official told the Journal, "A 1200 SAT score from a student in Beverly Hills means something totally different than a 1200 from a student in a school in South Central Los Angeles." The data have long shown that SAT scores are predicted, lockstep, by parents' income; that at each $10,000 incremental increase in family income, average SAT scores rise. When kids score well despite numerous economic obstacles, they are likely to perform much better in the long run than their raw scores suggest.
By keying the predicted score to economic status rather than race, ETS seeks to avoid the unpopularity of racial preferences. ETS's Anthony Carnevale told the Journal, "Our polls show that people don't want to give the rich African-American daughter of an African-American lawyer special treatment. But the poor African-American woman from the wrong part of town and the bad school is a different story."
Critics might argue, as Nicholas Lemann notes, that awarding extra points to the poor hurts the wealthy and is not unlike Kurt Vonnegut's tale in which the Handicapper General "subjects smart people to distracting noises, so that everyone will be truly equal." But, in fact, poor kids raised in noisy and overcrowded housing, and taught in substandard schools, are subject to the equivalent of Vonnegut's distractions every day of their lives.
Most universities publicly claim that they already count disadvantage into admissions decisions. The College Board itself asserts that "Most colleges already use [the] features promised by `Strivers.' " Since the Strivers program would only identify promising students, not require universities to admit them, the question becomes: Why is the College Board so strongly opposed to the program?
The truth is that the Strivers program would put new external pressure on colleges to admit significant numbers of poor and working class students whom they are not particularly eager to educate. Most universities care about having high-median SAT scores, students who can pay their own way, and "diversity" as measured by race rather than class. They also like to admit alumni kids, who are generally well off. Accordingly, universities admit high-scoring whites and blacks from upper middle class backgrounds and have little incentive to admit or enroll large numbers of working class students of any race.
In law school admissions, for example, the University of North Carolina's Linda Wightman found that universities don't give a break to strivers. Nationally, "schools are not currently placing special consideration or weight on SES [socioeconomic status] factors in the admission process." At the college level, William Bowen and Derek Bok report in their recent book, "The Shape of the River," that the bottom 28 percent economically have only a 3 percent representation at the elite institutions they study.
The Strivers proposal makes particular sense in a post-affirmative action world. As courts and voters put increasing pressure on universities to reduce or eliminate reliance on race as an admissions criterion, the socioeconomic Strivers mechanism can provide a legally defensible way to indirectly promote racial diversity. The use of race is already forbidden in public universities in California, Washington and Texas, and lawsuits are pending at other schools. UCLA Law School, barred from using race, has employed instead a six-part definition of economic disadvantage that has resulted in a black, Latino and Native American enrollment five times what it would have been had the school employed strict academic criteria.
The Strivers program would help to restore the truly meritocratic promise of the SAT and put pressure on colleges to uncover America's diamonds in the rough. ETS should stand firm against university leaders who would strangle this promising program it its cradle.
The writer is a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of "The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action."