Don’t Abolish the SAT

From Charles Murray: Abolish the SAT.

This article is pretty old, so it’s possible that this does not reflect Dr. Murray’s current view about the SAT, but if it does, this is a rare instance in which I disagree with something he has written.

Dr. Murray argues that the SAT ‘subject tests’ are a good enough proxy for intelligence and college readiness, making the SAT unnecessary:

After the College Board did all of its statistical corrections in its 2002 study and applied them to test-takers from California, it found, for example, that the correlation between the SAT Verbal and the Literature Achievement test was a very high 0.83 (a correlation of 1.0 represents a perfect direct relationship). The correlation between the SAT Math and the Math IC achievement test was 0.86. So I conclude that bright students who do not go to first-rate high schools will do fine without the SAT.

But then you run into the same problem as the original SATs, those being class privilege, elitism, coaching etc. If subject tests are so important, then why have high school at all. Just build a 9-12th grade curriculum based on subject tests.

That leaves an extremely odd set of high-ability students who will be harmed by dropping the SAT—so alienated that they do nothing to express their ability in school, so completely walled off from independent learning that they do poorly on the achievement tests, and yet able to buckle down on the SAT and get a good score. I am not sure that getting a good score under such circumstances is even possible on the SAT Math—too many of the questions presuppose hard work in algebra class—but perhaps it could be done on the SAT Verbal.

For really smart students, the SAT is not as strenuous as Dr. Murray makes it out to be, because they can figure out the answers easily. Smart people read fast, have high retention, and big vocabularies, which helps immensely for the verbal section. Less intelligent test takers have to keep re-reading passages and flipping back-and-forth between the text and the answers. Someone who is bored by schoolwork and reads a lot at home and has a good intuition of numbers, geometry, and probabilities can get easily a high SAT score despite mediocre school grades. This is the sort of applicant that elite schools want. They want someone who is bored with regular coursework and seeks intellectual challenge, not someone who dutifully does the required work.

To put it another way, those of us who thought that the SAT was our salvation were probably wrong. Even coming from mediocre high schools, our scores on achievement tests would have conveyed about the same picture to college admissions committees as our scores on the SAT conveyed.

Maybe the same picture for people within 1-2 standard deviations, but not the extreme outliers. Elite schools are looking for top 1-5% talent, not top 10-25%.

But the SAT’s independent role in predicting freshman grade point turned out to be so small that knowing the SAT score added next to nothing to an admissions officer’s ability to forecast how an applicant will do in college—the reason to give the test in the first place. In technical terms, adding the SAT to the other two elements added just one-tenth of a percentage point to the percentage of variance in freshman grades explained by high school grade point and the achievement tests.

This may be true for the first standard deviation of the bell curve, but to make exceptional and original contributions in grad school and beyond, such as in literature, math, physics, science, etc., requires a higher IQ than just the bare minimum for completing the coursework and graduating with a passing GPA. Elite schools, again, don’t want students who can do the work, but rather will bring prestige and or money. They want someone like David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, who is a math Olympiad finalist and at the tender age of 30, in 1996, published his groundbreaking philosophy book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Or a future Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager who was four questions short of a perfect score on the pre-1995 SAT.

Grade inflation has made high school GPAs nearly useless. It’s not uncommon for high school grads with high GPAs to have mediocre SAT scores. Elite colleges such as Stanford and Harvard are inundated with applicants who have high GPAs; the only way to distinguish top 1% talent from top 10% talent is with the SAT. ‘Top quintile’ is only better then one out of five, yet Harvard only admits 1 in 25, and these are among the best of the best of an already exceptional pool of applicants, so it’s more like 1 in 100. Consider two test-takers with 4.0 GPAs: one who scores 1000 and another who scores 1500. Although they both demonstrate academic readiness by virtue of having high GPAs, the student with the 1500 score demonstrates the raw mental power that is necessary to not just complete college courses but excel and make novel contributions and even become a wealthy donor. Harvard wants applicants who will bring prestige and money to the school, and the only way that is done is by admitting the bet of the best, not just those who merely demonstrate academic competence; that is what mid-tier colleges are for.

Hence the final reason for getting rid of the SAT: knowing those scores is too dispiriting for those who do poorly and too inspiriting for those who do well. In an age when intellectual talent is increasingly concentrated among young people who are also privileged economically and socially, the last thing we need are numbers that give these very, very lucky kids a sense of entitlement.

The final benefit of getting rid of the SAT is the hardest to describe but is probably the most important. By getting rid of the SAT, we would be getting rid of a totem for members of the cognitive elite.

I am skeptical of these claims.

If the achievement/subject tests are highly correlated with regular SAT math and verbal scores and predicative of IQ, then achievement tests will eventually fill that totem pole role.

Worse yet, there are few other kinds of scores to counterbalance the SAT. Of the many talents and virtues that people possess, we have good measures for quantifying few besides athletic and intellectual ability. Falling short in athletic ability can be painful, especially for boys, but the domain of sports is confined. Intellectual ability has no such limits, and the implications of the SAT score spill far too widely. The 17-year-old who is at the 40th percentile on the SAT has no other score that lets him say to himself, “Yes, but I’m at the 99th percentile in working with my hands,” or “Yes, but I’m at the 99th percentile for courage in the face of adversity.

Then such an individual should find a job that requires working with one’s hands and does not necessitate being exceptionally smart, such as being an auto mechanic. It’s not like attending a top college is the only measure of a person’s worth. Regarding courage in the face of adversity, how can such a thing be measured within 1% accuracy? Dr. Murray is unfortunately is using a rhetorical tactic commonly used by the left of trying to equate a concrete, measurable trait (intelligence) as being categorically and as precise as something that isn’t, that being emotional intelligence.

Now, the widespread belief is that the system is rigged, and the SAT is a major reason for that belief. The most immediate effect of getting rid of the SAT is to remove an extremely large and bright red herring.

Of all of the reasons to abolish the SAT, placating an irrational fear that it is rigged, is among the worst. After all, expensive test coaching only minimally boosts scores. Although children of the wealthy tend to score higher, this is not because of the test being rigged, but rather because high socioeconomic status is correlated with higher intelligence. Smarter people tend to make more money and then pass their high-IQ genes to their children.

The cognitive stratification of American society—for that’s what we’re talking about—was not a problem 100 years ago. Many affluent people were smart in 1907, but there were not enough jobs in which high intellectual ability brought high incomes or status to affect more than a fraction of really smart people, and most of the really smart people were prevented from getting those jobs anyway by economic and social circumstances (consider that in 1907 roughly half the adults with high intelligence were housewives).

From 1907 to 2007, the correlation between intellectual ability and socioeconomic status (SES) increased dramatically. The socioeconomic elite and the cognitive elite are increasingly one. If you want the details about how this process worked and how it is transforming America’s class structure, I refer you to The Bell Curve (1994), the book I wrote with the late Richard Herrnstein.

This was written in 2007 and the trend of cognitive stratification has only accelerated since then, in large part because of he post-2009 tech and stock market boom, which in terms of duration and gains has exceeded even the ’90s economic and stock market boom. It’s the cognitive elite who are by far reaping the gains of this expansion and pulling ahead of everyone else, whether it’s high-paying tech jobs, employee stock options, surging real estate prices in ‘smart’ regions such as the Bay Area and Seattle fueled by an unending supply of Chinese and tech money, passive investing, etc. Ending the SAT will not change this. In an increasingly technological and meritocratic society in which intelligence confers higher wealth and social status, there will always be cognitive sorting mechanisms of some sort, whether it’s SAT scores, elite colleges, elite tech companies, or coding ability.

Overall, I’m not a big fan of the subject tests as a replacement for the SAT. If they convey the same sort of information as the SAT, such as IQ and college readiness, eventually you will run into the same problems as the SAT. And given that the subject tests cover more advanced material than the SAT, such as algebra 2, if anything, it will exacerbate the problem of coaching and make it harder to low-income kids who lack such coaching but may otherwise be highly intelligent, to compete. This is because , unlike the SAT, which covers very basic math concepts but requires a good intuition for numbers and reasoning, the subject tests require actual pedagogy.