Monday, March 30, 2015

The Student Affluence Test?

Many elite colleges send notice of acceptances right around April 1st. Back when I was applying to college, this was a postal mail phenomenon. Joy came in fat envelopes; tragedy in thin. Now, much is done electronically. Accepted students can join private Facebook groups to get to know each other (and, colleges hope, increase the chances that these admitted students will enroll).

One thing hasn't changed in the intervening 18 (!) years. Colleges use the SAT for part of their decision-making process. While "SAT" used to stand for scholastic aptitude test, of late it hasn't officially stood for anything. Critics charge that it stands for "student affluence test" because scores tend to rise with family income. This then becomes a way that economic inequality replicates itself.

Charles Murray wrote an op-ed about this in the Wall Street Journal last week claiming that it wasn't affluence itself that was causing the effect. (The op-ed requires a subscription to read, so I'll try to describe it). According to Murray, the dominant factor is parental IQ. Smart parents usually have smart children. This no doubt happens through some combination of nature and nurture, but the result is that given a constant maternal IQ, SAT scores don't rise particularly from (relatively) middle class incomes to very high ones. The issue, Murray notes, is that higher IQ people also tend to earn more. "The more strictly that elite colleges admit students purely on the basis of academic accomplishment, the more their student bodies will be populated with the offspring of the upper-middle class and wealthy -- not because their parents are rich, but because they are smart. No improvement in the SAT can do away with this underlying reality."

There are, of course, problems with this argument. There's plenty of evidence that kids with good academic records from schools that don't send a whole lot of people to elite colleges don't know to aim there. Such schools seem expensive, or far away, or unwelcoming. While it's become fashionable to wonder if too many people are going to college, there are still people who could succeed who don't know to go. I've written before of the bizarreness of mismatches between high school graduation requirements and college standards. (In CA, for instance, a reasonable number of children graduate from high school lacking just 1-2 of the courses required for admission to one of the state's 4-year universities. That's what happens when you go to schools where no one is really paying attention).

But there is something to be said for Murray's assertion that "Merit has nothing to do with possessing a high IQ." This has ramifications for gifted education too. One of the reasons gifted programs face on uphill battle in schools is this idea that having a higher IQ means the child is somehow "better" than other kids, and is already destined for success. So why help any more now? "What we need is an educational system that brings children with all combinations of assets and deficits to adulthood having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well," Murray writes. "What we need is a society that has valued places for people with all combinations of assets and deficits." Children with high IQs learn differently and have needs that often must be met outside the traditional classroom. At the same time, education for those not in the gifted range should be much better and more challenging, and it should be possible to earn a good living with the skills learned as part of that education. These are not mutually exclusive statements.

1 comment:

Bostonian said...

The essay is available at .