The Limits of Standardized Tests


Writing in the Washington Post today, Oklahoma State University Provost Robert Sternberg warns that admissions officers pay too much attention to the SAT. This is the sort of sentiment that strikes students, academics, and parents as rather obvious. For admissions personal, however, it’s irrelevant.

Sternberg writes convincingly that,

We can do a much better job of college admissions if we start thinking about student abilities differently than we have for the past century. We should assess and value analytical, creative and practical skills and wisdom, not just the ability to memorize or do well on tests. And we should admit people on the basis of their potential for leadership and active citizenship – people who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world.

Or, as the title puts it “To get the real star students, college admissions should look beyond SATs.”

Sternberg, however, doesn’t work in admissions, or he hasn’t in many years. Before his time as an academic administrator he was professor of psychology and helped create a college admissions package “designed to assess creative, analytical and practical skills and general wisdom.”

That’s all very admirable but colleges don’t actually want to have a lot of “real star students” in each class, nor should they; they want to have a few stars and a lot of very normal, reasonably bright, hard working ones.

Granted, the SAT is a particularly limiting exercise. It’s an impersonal, stressful, examination designed to place an entire national high school class along a largely arbitrary smartness scale.

But there need not be a special admissions program to find the best thinkers and leaders of tomorrow. Exceptional people are rare. Most high school students, even very bright ones, are not exceptional. For centuries America’s most exclusive schools pretty much let in anymore who could pay, and it worked out fine.

There’s no need to try and turn admissions staff into people who can diagnose latent creative and analytical skills and “general wisdom” in high school seniors. They’ve got enough to do just trying to build diversity, find enough paying students, and appeal to alumni. Admissions staffs don’t need to find the exceptional people. Exceptional people make sure others find them, usually after they’ve finished college. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer