Standardized Tests Can’t Capture Merit

Harvard psychology Professor Steven Pinker makes a number of highly contentious assertions in his big The New Republic piece on Ivy League admissions, and I am not going to try to challenge or refute any of them. All I want to talk about is his idea that it would be a better admissions system if the Ivies just relied almost exclusively on standardized tests.

I think it’s a terrible idea, and not just because I think standardized tests discover a too narrow band of aptitude. Prof. Pinker is clearly bitter that a lot of Harvard students skip his lecture, in his opinion, with the blessing of the Harvard administration. They do so to work on the student paper, to row on the crew team, to sing in ensembles, and to goof off or otherwise satisfy some higher priority. But, here’s the thing. Most college students learn as much or more from interacting with other students than they do from their instruction in classes. This is just as true at Harvard as it is at Ohio State. Kids are learning when they play a role in a play or play racquetball in the rec center. So, it’s not only important that colleges have organized activities outside of the classroom, but it’s important that the student body is diverse enough to have a starting quarterback for the football team, a cellist for the orchestra, and an editor for the newspaper. A college body made up purely of the kids who scored the best on standardized tests would be unlikely to mesh with the requirements of the school.

As a society, we have a tendency to look at college admissions as something that should be done purely on merit, which puts the entire enterprise squarely on the individual applicant and not on the culture of the school. It’s strikes many people as unfair that a student with lower grades and aptitude scores would be selected over one with higher ones. That’s understandable, but it is the wrong way of looking at things. When I was growing up in Princeton, I knew two students at the university, one from Oklahoma and one from Alaska, who never would have been accepted if they had grown up in New Jersey. They got in specifically because they came from states that had only a handful of applicants. And they added something to the culture of the school that one more kid from Princeton High School would not have. That admissions process discriminated against me, but it wasn’t all about me. It was about having a student body that was itself educational.

I went to boarding school in New England for one year, and the school had a program that brought in black children on scholarship from Far Rockaway, New York. Without question, I learned more from interacting with those kids, who had both an urban sensibility and the experience of discrimination, than I learned in any of my classes. Most of those kids would not have aced a standardized test, but they benefited from the quality education they received and they gave back by educating everyone around them.

Prof. Pinker seems to think that Harvard and the Ivies should have a different standard than the Ohio States of the world, primarily because they can select only the brightest students who score the best on standardized tests. If you want to sing in a choir or star in a play, you can do that anywhere. So, maybe Harvard should just shut down all its non-classroom activities. Those things are a distraction from academics.

I suppose we could create schools like that. They would admit only the best test-takers and they would provide nothing but classes and coursework and labs. But, in my book, those kids would be getting only half an education. Actually, I think they’d be getting somewhat less than half.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.