TestPerfect is a new Silicon Valley start-up with an ambitious mission: to design a standardized college admissions test free of cultural or racial bias, resistant to differential test-prep efforts and accurately predictive of academic performance in postsecondary education.
TestPerfect’s chief executive says that development is far ahead of schedule and that a prototype exam should be available within two years. The forthcoming test promises to revolutionize college admissions by replacing not only the SAT but also traditional admissions-office functions such as evaluating transcripts from thousands of different high schools, parsing the compound adjectives of teacher recommendations and interviewing sweaty-palmed prospective students.
Once TestPerfect goes viral, as it surely will, the college admissions process, formerly the source of so much angst, individual and societal, will be rendered infallible, or close to it.
Actually, I just made all that up. There is no TestPerfect, much less a perfect test. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were?
As long as access to higher education is a scarce resource, for which students must compete, shouldn’t the criteria of individual merit be as objective — as quantifiable — as possible?
Yes, it should, which is why George Washington University’s decision to join the growing ranks of colleges and universities that make the SAT (and its first cousin, the ACT) optional for new applicants is cause for ambivalence.
Anything that challenges the power, wealth and influence of the self-appointed gate-keepers known as the College Board can’t be all bad. Preparing for and sitting through the SAT is a miserable experience (and an expensive one, to boot), which many students just can’t master for reasons having nothing to do with intellectual capability or curiosity.
And the test is far from a scientifically precise instrument for predicting academic success in college; otherwise, they wouldn’t be rolling out a completely revised one in March.
Yet SAT scores, for all their limitations, contain some valid information; if they didn’t, GWU wouldn’t be preserving the SAT requirement for certain applicants, such as those seeking enrollment in the seven-year BA-MD program, or those whose high schools do not produce grade-point averages.
On a more fundamental level, the aspiration that the SAT embodies — to express a student’s academic aptitude in a single number — strikes me as a useful, indeed, a noble one.
“Holistic” consideration of an applicant’s extracurricular commitments, the obstacles he or she has overcome, teacher recommendations and other intangibles — even high school GPA, considered in isolation — is, by contrast, far more variable and subjective.
The more weight a given admissions office assigns to “leadership ability,” “character,” essay quality and other intangibles, the more discretion that admissions office has; and the exercise of that discretion will produce anomalies and unfairness of its own.
To put it another way: Would we rather stake our children’s future on their test-taking abilities, or on their ability to impress high school graders and letter-of-recommendation-writers? Or on the good faith and essay interpretation skills of anonymous university functionaries?
Let it be remembered that, in the first half of the 20th century, Ivy League institutions strictly limited the admission of Jews, who, despite — or perhaps because of — their generally high grades and other indicia of intellectual brilliance, were thought to be insufficiently “well-rounded” for inclusion in these incubators of the American elite.
The subsequent shift in emphasis to quantitative factors, such as SAT scores, played a part in breaking up that biased old-boy system; historically, standardized testing was a meritocratic reform. Today, of course, the SAT stands accused of operating as a de facto barrier to entry for other historically disadvantaged minorities.
In that sense, the current movement to dethrone the SAT fits into a long-running American argument over how to define academic “merit,” and how much weight to assign it in granting admission to institutions of higher learning whose purpose is to produce “leaders” as well as scholars.
This problem will solve itself when technology and economics finally conspire to topple the existing higher-ed business model, in favor of schooling that is more freely accessible to all but no less excellent.
In the meantime, it would seem that the goal should be to design better, more valid and more information-rich statistical measures of academic aptitude, rather than to abandon the admittedly imperfect ones we now have. TestPerfect doesn’t exist, but maybe it should.