• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Other Use of Standardized Tests

Identifying talent.


August 22, 2018

I never acquired a taste for basketball, despite The Boy having spent years playing it. But he did, so I’ve spent plenty of time at his games, and have taken him to college games. It’s a running joke with us that whenever we watch elite teams -- either high-level college teams in person, or pro teams on tv -- I groan whenever a player misses a free throw. It’s even worse when a player at that level misses two in a row.

That’s because free throws don’t change. They're the same distance and angle every single time, and have been since the player’s childhood. They’re unblocked, by definition. They aren’t rushed. To my mind, elite players should sink free throws as a matter of course. 

They’re a sort of standardized test.  A shot from the field can be different from others, depending on all sorts of variables, but a free throw is a free throw.  It’s a constant. You can compare free throw percentages over time and actually learn something. It doesn’t tell you everything -- if it did, Shaq wouldn’t have had a career -- but it’s something real.

For most of my career, it has been an article of faith among progressive academics that standardized tests are terrible.  They coat existing stratifications with a patina of “merit,” the argument goes. They’re only loosely correlated to academic success. They’re reductionist. And there are elements of truth to all of those.

But as with free-throw percentages, they can also tell you something. That’s why I was happy to see this piece from Brookings about the results of the state of Michigan giving free SAT or ACT tests in public schools during the school day.  Even conceding the very real issues with standardized tests, they also brought to light thousands of academically talented students from low-income backgrounds or out-of-the-way places who might otherwise have gone unrecognized.  (Happily, they’re making room for the SAT’s by dropping other standardized tests, so they aren’t crowding out instructional time.)

Standardized tests’ function as an equalizer may be part of why some elite private high schools are dropping AP tests altogether.  If a kid from Nowhere Special Public HS can score the same “5” as a kid from Snooty Prep, then what’s the payoff of Snooty Prep? From SP’s perspective, too much transparency could be dangerous.  It could reveal something they’d rather not reveal. Equalizers aren’t appealing when you’re on top.

Equalizes work because “good” students aren’t only found in “good” schools.  They’re everywhere, hiding in plain sight. As a society, we go to great lengths not to notice. 

Talent-scouting was actually one of the original purposes of the SAT. James Conant, a president of Harvard, wanted to recruit students of talent even from out-of-the-way places.  Grade scales may be quirky or inconsistent, but a single test with a single scale offers a reality check. It gives the talented kid from East Nowhere a chance to prove what she can do.

Those of us at community colleges, though, have known about hidden talent for a long time.  Open-admissions policies allow students fresh chances to prove themselves. To the extent that the “free SAT” movement plays into the “undermatching” argument -- which suggests that it’s tragic when an academically talented student goes someplace that isn’t selective -- I have no use for it.  But to the extent that it helps us all see that talent is distributed more widely than we currently perceive -- and that there’s much to be gained by improving the resources available to the colleges that lots of talented students from East Nowhere attend -- I’m all for it.

Yes, standardized tests carry all sorts of baggage, some of it deservedly.  But they also make visible some living, breathing rebuttals to the idea that academic talent tracks parental income perfectly.  They can even form the basis for turning the “undermatching” thesis on its head. Michigan’s motivations may have been mixed, or confused, but it may have stumbled into something good. I’m on board.


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