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Cooking the Books: Racial and Sexual Politics in the SAT?

IP-12-1994 (October 1994)
Author: David Murray

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America’s academic accountant has developed sticky fingers. By distorted entries in two separate accounts, grading and the SAT, the country is being scammed. We are robbed of valid measure of school results, and student achievers are deprived of just rewards for real ability.

When 90% of Stanford students receive grades of A or B, the standard curve is destroyed. When over 40% of Harvard students make the honor role every term, flunking out necessitates a deliberate act of self-immolation.

Former Stanford president Donald Kennedy defended this inflation; students today are just so much better that they don’t do C work, the same way that some maids don’t do windows.

The point of a grade curve was to judge students against each other. Even an Olympic race with the best sprinters in the world produces some winners and some losers. If, on the other hand, grading is absolute, as in many sciences, then it is possible for the cross-bar of effort to be cleared by all, and all may receive A’s.

But why has the number of great leapers ostensibly been increasing when scores on the few objective measures left, like the SAT Math test, plummet year after year?

Professor Jacob Neusner broke the silence about grade inflation a few years ago at a Brown University commencement. The reason you all get good grades is it’s the path of least resistance. The faculty do it to avoid the effort of real grading, the students accept it and call off their parents’ lawyer guarding against the vicious C.

It is a great compromise, just like in the Soviet economy; you pretend to study, and we pretend to grade you. No one will be the wiser, except for maybe the Japanese and Koreans who will whoosh past American students on the research and productivity road. Professor Neusner, by the way, no longer teaches at Brown.

Critics of the SAT have now produced a self-fulfilling prophecy. They charged, against the evidence, that there was no correlation between test scores and subsequent grades in college. Now the charge has been made true; whether one scores 1300 or 1050 is irrelevant–both students are on the honor roll.

Grade inflation is serious, but devaluing the SAT is more so. The charges of bias against the test are overwhelmingly bunk. The Educational Testing Service maintains extraordinary efforts to eliminate advantage not directly tied to academic preparation. Yet still, groups score differentially.

This fact of differential performance leads critics to call for more than reform of the SAT; they want it dropped. Some admission offices have complied. As a response to the charge of bias, however, this deletion is counterproductive.

The SAT is used to calibrate high-school grades from many different kinds of schools with different standards of grading. Its presence serves the interests of better students, by revealing that a grade of B from a first-rank program may represent superior preparation over an A from a weak program, once the two students are put on the same testing “track.”

Without the SAT, incomparable grades gain greater determinative power. Critics propose to supplant the SAT with essays or portfolios of high-school work. These may be valuable, but they are hardly less susceptible to bias and subjectivity than the objective instrument they replace.

Why, then, do critics encourage admissions to adopt these alternative standards? The most common response is that the college gains, thereby, “flexibility.” This is a misleading term, as I shall discuss below.