by Allegra Geanuracos ’19
In response to Kenny Xu’s perspective, “Dear Admissions: Don’t Use Corona to Push Anti-Testing Agenda“
Dear fellow members of the Davidson community,
Like many of you, I have been stuck in quarantine for a while. It has been hard, mostly mind-numbing, but I am grateful to have not been impacted more than that. So I have time. Lots of time. And unfortunately, Kenny Xu ‘19, a classmate and passing acquaintance of mine while at Davidson, is about to be a victim of my over-abundance of free time. Apologies in advance, Kenny, as I likely would have never written this without it. But unfortunately, Kenny’s article is simply too poorly researched and littered with too many falsehoods for me to not spend at least some of my spare time refuting it.
Most of Kenny’s argument revolves around his central claim that standardized tests are “essential towards providing accountable measurements of intellectual ability and less prone to abuse than the other common metrics used for admissions.” In particular, he argues that standardized tests are good at predicting success in college. However, here’s one of many sources I found disputing this claim, arguing that high school GPA was a far better indicator of whether or not students would complete or do well in high school and college than the SAT. Furthermore, it shows how standardized testing is a better proxy for how good your school is than for how good of a student you are. If you get a good score, you probably went to a good school. In other words, it’s a good measure of inequality, not inherent intellectual ability. Ironic.
And although the SAT/ACT may not be the best predictor of how an individual performs in college, such tests can account for grade marking differences between some schools. On this point, I can almost agree with Kenny. If you go to a school that inflates your grades, you will likely score worse on the SAT than your grades suggest. Seems like a no brainer. The athlete who needs the A so he can play in next week’s game can’t scam the SAT (well, actually, he can, but I have a word limit so let’s move on).
But the instances of grade inflation that Kenny cites in his article are of a different sort. What Kenny cites is much more tragic than I think he understands. In 2019, the New York Post found “Over 140 schools have grades with 90 percent state exam failure rate.” Here’s what that article (and Kenny) failed to mention. Every single school mentioned by name in the article is made up of over 90 percent non-white students. That’s a huge detail to skip over. Now let me explain why this matters.
Of all the U.S. school systems, NYC has the most segregated system in the country. This is in large part because public education is funded by property tax. Basically, if you live in a wealthy neighborhood where you pay high property taxes, you have great public education. If you live in government or low-income housing where the property taxes are lower, you have terrible public education. This is true not only in New York City but across the country. Just think about that for a second. Your parents’ ability to pay for a nice house in a nice neighborhood is directly tied to your access to good education, and therefore a good standardized test score, which in turn helps you get into a good college and get a good job so you can afford a nice house. It all comes down to your house.
So when this article talks about 90 percent of students failing, and 80 percent of them being pushed through anyway, it is not talking about lazy, wealthy White students getting A’s. These students live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, can’t afford to eat food other than the slop their school serves them, work multiple jobs while being a student, and barely pass because the school can’t afford to keep all of them back. Many of them will go to jail, not college. And a lot of this will be because their parents couldn’t afford a nicer house. How ludicrous is that?
Kenny makes further claims that these kids are better off being forced to take the SAT or ACT because it gives them a chance to compete against wealthy Whites. He claims that for every three rich kids who sit the SAT, one poor kid will beat them. Even if his math is correct (which I have no ability to test because quite frankly I have no idea what standard deviation or normal distribution is), there are far fewer rich kids than poor kids in the U.S., and the divides are even deeper across racial lines. The fact that it takes three rich kids for every poor kid to do as well or better than them, and said kid is still unlikely to be Black or Hispanic, should raise alarm bells, but to Kenny, it “doesn’t seem terribly inequitable.” Agree to disagree.
As for whether test preparation makes a difference, Kenny has once again cited poorly. To begin with, his source is from 2001. From my research, the SAT has changed drastically at least twice since then, so it is questionable how relevant its claims actually are. Indeed, even the College Board says these numbers are an underestimate, and this article shows how 20 points may not seem like much, but that difference may be huge in terms of which school you are a competitive candidate for, especially among high-achieving students. Further research suggests that test-prepping does not even enhance scores equally across socioeconomic and racial divides. To summarize, tutoring is something you can only really obtain if you come from privilege, and it doesn’t even do much good if you do not already have the combination of intellect and circumstance to be a high-achieving student in the first place. And many students of intellect do not have the circumstance.
But what about the claim that the SAT is a reliable test of intellectual ability? Well, here is the racial breakdown for SAT scores in 2015. People from various racial backgrounds performed disparately, and this is a consistent fact about the SAT and standardized tests writ large. In particular, Asian and White students significantly outperform Black and Hispanic students over and over again. Now, if the SAT is a reliable test of intellectual ability, why the discrepancies? Essentially, if you believe that this test is actually a reliable indicator for inherent intellectual ability, then the results must be at least relatively accurate regardless of circumstance or privilege. This would mean that one could use the SAT to say that students who are Black or Hispanic are not victims of circumstance, but rather have less intellectual ability than their White and Asian peers. Let me repeat that. If you believe that the SAT and standardized tests, in general, are a reliable test for intellectual ability regardless of circumstance, and Black and Hispanic students routinely do less well on said tests, then you must come to the conclusion that Black and Hispanic students are simply dumber than others. I may not know what standard deviation is, but I do know what a reductio ad absurdum argument is (thank you Departments of Philosophy and Classics).
Here’s the reality. You do better on these tests if you go to a good school. You go to a good school because you have a nice house. You have a nice house because your parents can afford one. Your parents can afford one because they are wealthy enough to afford one. If they are wealthy enough to afford one, they are far more likely to be White.
These tests are not reliable, and they are far from equitable. Putting people on the same level is not inherently fair. A level playing field will not feel level if you’ve grown up on a tilted stage. There is no yardstick to account for one’s upbringing—all schools and employers can do is investigate the standards of an applicant’s school and put individual students’ achievements, such as their GPAs, in their unique contexts, something Davidson and others already pride themselves on doing. Why make a marathon runner do a hurdle in the last 100 meters, when she only intends to run, and will likely never do another hurdle in her life? What does it say that the rest of the race did not? We ought not to force people to stumble when they have already worked so hard to get to the finish line.
And while Davidson may be changing its policy in part because of COVID-19, it should stick to it long after it’s gone. And don’t worry future Davidson students, you can still submit these tests if you want. No one is robbing you of your score, as Kenny seems to imply, so feel free to submit it if you think it will make a difference. But now, no one is making you jump.
Allegra Geanuracos ‘19 is a recent alumna from London, England, and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.