Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Bypassing tests

Tamar Lewin reports to the New York Times that many small, selective, liberal arts colleges are no longer demanding SAT scores (yet most students applying, submit them). While interesting enough, there are some sillies in the article. Note this from the VP for enrollment at Mount Holyoke:

"We hope that now that there are more test-optional schools, students will think about not taking it, and putting their time and money into other activities, like music or writing or community service. We hope they will have more interesting lives."

Discussions - 40 Comments

It’s just a way to 1) undermine meritocracy in admissions, and 2) squeeze dollars out of the parents of unprepared (and perhaps unsuitable) students. So transparent, and so disgusting.


Liberalism and objective testing are inherently at odds. As liberals in academe become more and more grasping and arrogant, objective testing will play less and less of a role. It’s not manipulable and it measures knowledge and ability, not attitudes. Altogether, it’s "not with the program," so it must be minimized and eventually must go.

Would "intersting lives" include pro-life activism, or helping the Minutemen, or Republican party activity? I think not.

Given the amount of time and money some folks spend preparing for these tests, it’s a good thing for admissions folks to be encouraging people to find other pursuits. I’ll take "music or writing or community service" over Kaplan or Princeton Review any day, Peter. How any of those pursuits is more "silly" than practicing filling out ovals with a #2 pencil is beyond me.

Well, Brett, we’ll see how you feel about it when you get bumped from some important resource because of someone’s else’s "interesting life." Some small colleges are eliminating standards because they simply want to maximize admissions (i.e., $$$). Other universities want to abandon standards because they deeply desire an "engineered" student body along certain lines (e.g., race, gender). Believe me, you or someone you know will be victimized by this abandonment of objective standards.

Brett, c’mon, do you really think that most kids spend more than a bleary-eyed morning in which they would have just slept in anyway once a year taking this test? If there was no SAT, I doubt the level of music competency or voluntarism would increase very much in this country. Just what we need anyway, more kids taking music lessons, voluntering, or signing up for a school club because it "looks good" on their college application. My guess is that Peter Schramm can size a kid up in about 5 minutes during a personal interview for the Ashbrook Scholars program.

My silly son is at Kent State never having taken either the SAT or ACT. We never got around to it. He’s only just turned seventeen years old and I never thought he could go to university so young.

He is in a highly competitive graphic arts program for which he never even submitted a portfolio. I let him persuade me to apply last year after a college visit. We spoke to the director of the VCD program, at which time he must have "sized up" my kid, as Tony Williams put it, about as quickly as Peter Schramm can. Well, we had about ten minutes. I know someone called his high school art teachers, who must have said something incredible. He did take Kent State’s entrance exam this summer (after acceptance, and for placement in academic courses) and did so well they do not seem to care if he ever takes those other exams. Not, as the director said last fall, that good scores on any of those exams would mean anything in a graphic design program, anyway. But I was still shocked.


I only got into my undergraduate colleges on the basis of my SAT test scores and have loved those things ever since, on that account. I hated most of high school, finding it mostly deadly, leading instead a "more interesting life". Someone would have had to look at my high school transcript with something like supernatural insight to have considered any subsequent success in college a possibility.

Having spoken with many public high school teachers over the last few years, different schools have very different standards for grading. And yet, they all complain of being pressured to inflate grades, even in schools with relatively loose standards. To abandon the objective standard of these tests is only going to make this worse.


Do those tutoring programs really make any great difference?

"We hope that now that there are more test-optional schools, students will think about not taking it, and putting their time and money into other activities..."

Taking tests, like voting, does require some preparation and effort... and I think lots of potential Democrat supporters have plenty of "other activities" more important than these.

Which is why a) Democrats aren’t going to take Congress this fall, and b) Democrats will again blame Republicans for "stealing" the election.

Be all that as it may, the standardized-test industry, typified by the SAT -- which proliferated into the "necessary prelude" PSAT and the "alternative that you really ought to take too, not instead, in case you score in a higher percentile" ACT -- is receiving the real body blow higher up the chain. The natives are in revolt against the Bar Exam Prep racket, which has been endured financially for so long in no small part because of the priming and conditioning conducted by the folks who had the bright idea of making such a killing off the course of hurdles. Standardized testing is one thing -- institutionalized-bureaucratic cash-cow standardized testing another.

I agree with Kate... I also wonder about the efficacy of the SAT and standardized tests in general. On the other hand I also wonder about grades. But I am also suspicious of the LSAT...lets suppose that a student comming out of high school could score a 170 on the LSAT...why couldn’t such a student go straight to law school? Is such a student more prepared for law school than a student with a degree that scores a 160? Aside from questions of "implied" maturity...a person who scores a 170 should be better qualified than at least 95% of the others(depending on the year)...and many people go to law school with substantially less than a 160. In what sense are these standardized tests not just variants of the IQ test? Why not take the IQ test and a Myers-Briggs type indicator?

As David Frisk says liberalism and testing are at odds...but liberalism and grades are also at odds...In short this is just another manifestation of the ontological problem. When defining that which is most pertinent about being...we invariably run into conflict...Dain may be right that this instance is just a ruse...but Mr. Poulos may also be right. It is all about how you ontologize it.

Liberals hate standardized tests because they like Arabs more than Americans. Also they like Allah better than Jesus.

Given the high regard America has for lawyers, who here would even question our current system of forming them? How could anyone doubt the efficacy of the current system, of either the LSAT or law schools in determining and "defining that which is most pertinent about being"....a lawyer?

Now Hal, that’s a classic troll drive-by. Let’s have no more of that.

Do those tutoring programs really make any great difference?

Sure they do. That’s why people who can afford to will pay $200/hr and more for them. It’s the market at work.

I’m slightly amazed that the folks on this board who would ordinarily be counted on to support classical notions of a liberal education would defend a standardized testing regime that does a better job at tracking family income than anything interesting about a particular human being. I agree that a personal interview will give a better sense of a student than an SAT score. I thought that was the logical inference you could draw from the VP of Mount Holyoke’s quote, the one that drew derision from Peter.

An undergraduate law course like in Britain, Germany, or France is an interesting idea, but we abandoned that path in the early 20th century. My sense is that viewing law as a postgraduate enterprise highlights the technical nature of legal decisionmaking, and this is probably a good thing, on balance, for all those who yearn for some kind of neutrality from the bar.

As we all know, this whole question is very complicated. These tests originally had a laudable if debatable objective; they have also had sorry moments in their history ("too many Jews!"). They were meant to make students from very different schools comparable, and to reduce the effect of class privilege, surely a step ahead.

For a time I taught for Kaplan (SAT, ACT, and GMAT). Prep courses do raise scores. Various organizations and Kaplan itself, moreover, sometimes offer the courses pro bono: for a while, I taught Upward Bound kids.

I agree with Brett on this point: surely few of us would simply equate these test scores with merit or standards.

A further thought, the Duke students described in that Rolling Stonespiece all had very high SATs.

14: Brett, isn’t it obvious that true education at the college level requires substantial pre-existing knowledge and mental skill? These things are certainly not the same as education, but education rests on them. If you have a lousy vocabulary and lousy reading comprehension, it’s not likely that you will be educated to a very high level. The verbal SAT meaningfully measures one’s depth of vocabulary and reading comprehension.
The fact that it unfortunately correlates with parental income or socioeconomic status shouldn’t blind us to its merits. The main purpose of a liberal education is not to create more equality or "fairness" in society. It is to educate individuals. If the better-prepared individuals tend to be from better-off homes, that’s not a problem that admissions officers and professors should be expected to take responsibility for or to waste their time on. It’s a concern for others. Their job is to educate.

The hard fact is that lower-income families tend, statistically, not to produce children who are well-equipped for liberal education. (If the liberals who run our public schools did a better job, income wouldn’t be such a determinant, I suspect.) The SAT is good, among other things, for identifying those lower-income children who nonetheless are ready for a true college education.

Many things in life are incovenient or seem unfair. The correlation between SAT scores and family SES, or even income alone, is one of these seemingly unfair things. Does that mean we must ignore it? Your position, thought through and applied more consistently than you probably intend, has rather frightening, not to say anti-civilizational, implications.

rather frightening, not to say anti-civilizational, implications

So now the SAT is a bulwark of civilization. How did the West survive without it for so long? For the record, I’m enough of a post-Nietzschean to understand your basic point.

My position is that it is good if admissions officers of universities, especially elite ones, place more emphasis on an application process that is qualitative rather than quantitative (the latter meaning, measurable through standardized tests). I’m happy with tests and admission criteria, just not with the SAT.

I agree with Steve Thomas: the SAT does not measure anything that couldn’t also be determined through other means, and an emphasis on it distorts children’s preparation for higher education.

There are colleges out there for everyone...if you want your kid to go to an "objective college" then make them apply where the SAT is required. What difference does it make what PRIVATE entities decide to make their decisions on. Last time I checked, this was America where little things like freedom, personal choice, and government non-interference into private affairs were valued.

18, "Abbie Hoffman" -- Who, Mr. Yippie, has suggested that the government require colleges to use the SAT? Can’t you read? Can’t we comment on the decisions of these private entities? Or does that not come under your idea of precious freedoms?

"In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards."
-Mark Twain

Might as well substitute College Admissions Officers as well as Admission Committee’s for school boards.

David: You are of course free to comment all you want, and you are also free to not send your kids there, advocate the use of so-called "objective tests", but I do think that a more live and let live attitude on the part of Conservatives is long over due. Conservatives claim not to want to use government power to interfere into the lives of private citizens, but I can think of many many examples where their rhetoric of personal freedom and personal choice doesn’t hold up when they find something personally offensive. The Conservative outrage bit gets old. If the non-use of SAT’s is not supported by college applicants, won’t the market let them know it is a bad decision?

Actually, Abbie, it’s Libertarians who don’t want government to interfere in peoples’ lives. Conservatives understand the need for social control. We tend to favor clear and forceful governmental restrictions on immoral behavior (and yes, that even includes stuff like Enron). The difference is that we generally don’t consider the acquisition of private property as "immoral" -- unlike the Left. Indeed, we consider private property an important check on state power and the prime engine of (durable and appropriate) social change. But true conservatives, unlike libertarians, put culture ahead of $.

Of course, not all market-driven social change is good, even in our eyes (e.g., "reality tv").

The difference is that we generally don’t consider the acquisition of private property as "immoral" -- unlike the Left.

dain - a hasty cliche, perhaps amusing to those who get their red meat from the likes of Coulter, and not true.

Steve...in what sense "not true?" Progressive taxation? Inheritance taxes? The numerous "Eat the Rich" t-shirts I’ve seen on myriad Lefty chests? I’m sorry, it is true. Leftism has inherited the Marxian distaste for private property; you know, the "all property is theft" rhetoric one hears all the time. You’ll get no apology or retraction from me...this is as true as anything that can be said of the Left.

Dain, you said, "...you know, the ’all property is theft’ rhetoric one hears all the time."

Are you serious? Does one really hear this all the time? Where? Is this some message that your monolithic Left is successfully getting across to the public, and thus it’s hard to avoid hearing it??

dain - The American left includes only a handful of Marxists who are opposed to the "acquisition of private property." And strictly speaking, I suppose, they are not good Marxists (for failing to see the progressive role of private property, and for talking about the "immorality" of it!).

As you know perfectly well, left and right disagree about the role ("size") of government (or different levels of government) and about how to finance it. To favor federal inheritance taxes is hardly to oppose the acquisition of property (except by a handful of heirs). Literate and informed lefties embrace classic arguments for private property (e.g., Locke, Montesquieu, and Smith), though popular contemporary liberalism is surely careless, especially in talk about corporations and profits, but that is hardly new: you find it at least as far back as the early 19th century. What’s really interesting is how contemporary conservatives have so often succeeded in putting liberals on the defensive -- as if the "founding" and private property and liberty and equal opportunity were peculiarly conservative ideas!

P.S. "Property is theft" is Proudhon, by the way, mocked by Marxists.

I didn’t say Marx said it, Steve. And as far as your spin about the Left, it’s nonsense (same goes for you, trollboy...if you aren’t the same person). The Left has never respected private property, and I’m amused that you would even argue the point. Now, I suppose there is a "liberal" democratic point of view that views capitalism as a useful ’host’ (a parasitic point of view, that), but even that has a VERY STRONG Robin Hood ethic. In short, your contention is ridiculous.

dain - a pleasure, as always

Are you the same dain who retreated with his tail between his legs, all indignant, the last time somebody called you a closed-minded twit and an ignoramus? Or am I confusing you with dain?

Hey, Steve, I didn’t do any of that...I was called a racist and I pondered whether to spend my time more profitably in other pursuits (instead of talking to nitwits like yourself).

dain - Now that the sun is up, two points.

Perhaps we have different definitions of "the Left." No sense arguing over mere words. I meant liberal Democrats, some of whom (like the late Carey McWilliams) have trouble with certain liberal ideas.

I can’t see the truth in attributing either of two propositions to any serious groupings in American politics - "property [as such] is theft" or "taxes [as such] are theft" - although I have seen both of them on t-shirts.

My contention is pretty straightforward...if "liberal Democrats" (aka ’the Left’) don’t stand for redistribution and restriction of the accumulation/use of private property, exactly what do they stand for? If you say "the use of government to improve society," that only begs the question of where the state gets all this money to do these great things. Seems to me the Democrats are all about telling economic elites HOW they must run their companies, WHO they must pay and how much, WHO they must hire, and HOW MUCH MORE tax they must pay. I don’t see a lot of respect for private property there.

Other things they are "about" aren’t consistent. For instance, being anti-war today, you might think they are always anti-war, but that’s not true. Didn’t hear much from the Left when we were bombing the Hell out of Serbia.

OK, now that we’re off the crude ideological rhetoric (about "the Left" being opposed to "acquisition"; about "Marxist" t-shirts being evidence of that), we can see where we disagree. These are mainstream, 20th century disagreements.

In light of the recent Census Bureau report on income, I wonder if your kind of "respect" for private property will continue to be a winning electoral strategy.

You are certainly right that liberal Democrats need to think harder about the principles governing the use of force in the world. But then, so do conservatives and Republicans.

Respect for private property is a principle held without regard to electoral strategy. I suppose principles are just like that; always disregarding the popular appeal. It is a thoroughly American principle and one very good reason why we were founded as a republic and not a democracy. As we become more democratic, the risk is that said principle, not logically requiring respect among the unpropertied or less propertied masses, won’t be respected. This happens in JUST the way dain says it does, and the road to that particular hell is certainly paved with all sorts of good intentions.

The real fear conservatives have about liberals is that they seem all good intentions and no principle. It is hard to argue with good intentions and it just might be lousy electoral strategy. I wish Democrats would think harder about principles in all areas as their appeal to the electorate on unprincipled grounds, to win for the sake of winning, using "good intentions" as the springboard, just sounds like demagoguery to me.

Kate - I’m not sure how to respond, since I believe the difference between most conservatives and most liberals in America is exactly how to apply principles that they share (an old fashioned, moderate view, I know). Such arguments can get heated and philosophically interesting. Or do you argue that progressive taxes or Social Security or air quality regulation are inherently unprincipled and/or confiscatory?

I was not suggesting a sacrifice of constitutional principle to electoral success. Rather, I was suggesting, in a Burkean way, that we not get too stiff necked about what property rights mean (ultimately, for the sake of property rights). I think you’ll find that is consistent even with Adam Smith.

Steve, I, too, am concerned about the growing inequality in U.S. The main reason in my view is the ability to 1) produce goods elsewhere, 2) sell them in our market, and 3) reap the enormous difference between cost of production and sales. We need not violate private property to moderate this pattern...tariffs, or the insistence that any corporation selling goods in this country must actually produce X% IN THIS COUNTRY. I think the Libertarian "Right" is leading us into a cul-de-sac.

dain - I am not enough of an economist to have an opinion worth much about what to do. I was interested in this Mallaby piece: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/03/AR2006090300741.html

Well, Steve, the Mallaby article is the point I’m trying to make about the Left...redistribution is about the extent of their creativity. And you know, most of that "redistributed" income wouldn’t find its way into the hands of the working class. Nope, it would simply create more bureaucracy and more people dependent on bureaucracy (the real goal of the Left, in my view). An industrial policy would be far better...it sets new ground rules for capital acquisition (the right of any nation, and one granted by our own Constitution), and it allows an evening out of incomes without holding guns to peoples’ (i.e., capital’s) heads.

I might also point out that, given globalization, it’s our consumer market companies want access to...they can easily avoid the redistributional taxation through a variety of mechanisms. Tariffs aren’t so easily ignored (and they would have the double virtue of reducing the tax burdens of our people).

A final problem is that redistribution will be widely resented and would make control of the machinery of government ever more desperate...really ugly. A national industrial policy, on the other hand, PO’s exporters but benefits most others. If China expects us to hand them their own Industrial Revolution, we should by God make them pay the right price!

What it comes down to is simple: Do you want to help people, or do you want to grow government programs? New Orleans aptly demonstrated the fruits yielded by the latter course.

dain - I share all your concerns.

As you know, the existing tax structure affects the distribution of income. Mallaby does not propose starting from scratch, (re)distributing for the first time.

Say more about what you mean by "industrial policy" - something not ordinarily embraced by those who have your worries about bureaucracy. I guess you’ll have to hurry. We’ll soon be bumped off the bottom of the page.

The idea is pretty simple, really. We begin to treat our consumer market like the resource it is. New tariffs, domestic-content laws, more focus on (mutually-beneficial) bilateral trade agreements. Abandonment of the WTO as well as NAFTA. We are still the 800 lbs. gorilla in the room, and before we lose that advantage for all time we must start looking after the interests of our nation/people (rather than the interests of WalMart, etc.).

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