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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


‘The Atlantic’ Owes UC a Correction

And higher ed needs to get better at telling its story.

July 26, 2021

Writing at The Atlantic[1] on the University of California system’s decision to drop the SAT as part of admission decisions, Caitlin Flanagan has two main messages.

  1. The decision itself is wrong on the merits and therefore antithetical to the purported goal of increasing opportunities for Black and Hispanic students.
  2. The people who made the decision ignored evidence and instead are acting out of a surface-level commitment to an appearance of social justice, as opposed to pursuing substantive policies that would genuinely help minority groups. They’re not only wrong. They’re not to be trusted.

Because Flanagan is a highly skilled writer working at a high-profile and trusted platform, her message carries a lot of credibility and bite. She even sticks the knife in and gives it an extra twist by invoking the ethos of the university -- “shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge” -- and because this decision is so egregious, claiming this very core is a lie.

Funny thing, though. Flanagan gets a lot of stuff wrong.

Sarah Reber, a professor at UCLA, tried to alert one of the article tweeters, Matthew Yglesias, to mistakes Flanagan makes in basing her analysis on a report on the policy that had incomplete and erroneous information. Yglesias’s original tweet had 391 retweets and at least 2,000 likes.

Reber’s tweet had 12 retweets and 53 likes.

Reber co-authored a report with Michal Kurlaender of UC Davis and Jesse Rothstein of UC Berkeley that counters the report to the UC Board of Regents that Flanagan cites as a mic drop. As it turns out, these questions are complicated, and because we are in the midst of a debate that invokes the difficult intersection of policy and values, declaring an issue settled, as Flanagan wishes to do, is premature.

But that’s not all. Zachary Bleemer, a UC Berkeley Ph.D., currently on a fellowship at Harvard, and who will join Yale next year[2], identifies three errors of fact in Flanagan’s original analysis. A key part of Flanagan’s argument -- that the UC system provides a lifeline to some postsecondary education for all students by including the SAT -- is simply not true.

But wait, there’s more. Four days after the publication of Flanagan’s article, in which she declared, “[Dropping the SAT] is a move so widely hailed by the administrators and faculty that you know someone’s getting hustled, and in this case the marks are the state’s low-income Black and Latino students -- the very ones whom the new policy is supposed to help,” the University of California announced that it had admitted the most diverse undergraduate class in UC history.

Zachary Bleemer formally wrote to The Atlantic asking for corrections to Flanagan’s factual inaccuracies regarding admissions to the UC system. As of this writing, there has been no public acknowledgment of these errors or moves to correct them. No one should hold their breath on this front.

Even if the factual errors are cleared up, Flanagan will likely still manage to work her way to her conclusion, which is not about giving opportunity to minority students, or finding a superior system, but in feeding a narrative of a diminished America that places equity above competition and (in Flanagan’s eyes) merit. She says, in lumping this decision in with larger problems like coastal erosion, homelessness and rising crime, “Someday, in a textbook on world history, there will be a chapter about all of us -- you, and me, and our shared moment. The title of that chapter will be American Decline.”[3]

Because of the currents of our never-ending culture war, Flanagan’s attack need not be accurate or factual to be persuasive to many people in her audience. In fact, the opposite is often the case. The article is part of a campaign among influential voices like Flanagan and Yglesias to preserve the kind of competition that they think makes America great, the kind of competition at which they themselves have been so successful.

Yglesias previously used research from Jesse Rothstein to draw a conclusion that the “anti-SAT push is misguided” that Rothstein himself attempted to (very politely) correct on Twitter. Yglesias appears unbowed by that correction.

Jesse Rothstein, Sarah Reber and Zachary Bleemer all know much more about how standardized tests and admissions work as part of the UC system than Matthew Yglesias and Caitlin Flanagan. Jon Boeckenstedt, another expert who has worked in college admissions for 40 years, called Flanagan’s article “the worst ever” on the SAT and admissions.

But of course, this is why Flanagan attempted to salt the earth behind her argument by impugning the motives of those who support dropping the SAT. They’re not only wrong. They’re not to be trusted.

I wish there was a quick and clear way to counter these harmful (and false) narratives that undermine the public faith in public higher education. This is only one example of many found in mainstream publications. Matt Reed recently demolished a Jay Mathews effort in The Washington Post that demonstrated Mathews has only a passing knowledge of the work of community colleges.

It’s bad enough that propagandists like The College Fix are peddling bad-faith attacks, but it may be worse when trusted center-left and center-right figures reinforce the messaging of those propagandists.

That there is no quick fix does not mean that institutions are powerless, however. In Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, I dedicate a chapter to how to successfully navigate the culture war in order to restore public faith in public higher education, so I believe it can and must be done.

The University of California is already taking the most important step by living its values and making the decision to drop the SAT from a standpoint of what I call mission on up, rather than operations on down.

The most diverse class ever. That is your mic drop.

But this is not enough by itself, as witnessed by these attacks that come despite the obviously positive results.

As a practical matter, I hope that people inside the UC system take up Bleemer’s call for factual corrections to Flanagan’s article. The mistakes are clear and unambiguous. If Flanagan wants to try to reconstitute her argument having corrected her errors, so be it, but it would be a mistake to let it drop, both because the public record should be clear, and it would be nice if these high-profile commentators were a little more circumspect in their work when it comes to higher education.

But there is a larger battle over narrative to be fought as well, and in this case I believe it behooves institutions to be more proactive about making sure that the story they’re telling the public is indeed consistent with the mission they claim to be pursuing.

On this front, Rothstein articulated an ethos that I think should be placed front and center in these debates. In talking to Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat last year about the potential impacts of dropping standardized tests, Rothstein said, “We have to get away from this idea that the goal of college is to admit students who are going to do great. The goal of college has to be to help students who wouldn’t do great without your help. That’s a very different thing, and it leads you to very different ideas.”

Flanagan and Yglesias and others are defending a worldview where prestige is an important marker of worth, and therefore removing a gauge of prestige denies those deserving of recognition something they’re entitled to. Institutions play into this narrative when they tout their U.S. News rankings or other dubious metrics meant to signal that the institutional value is rooted in the test scores and GPAs of who is admitted, rather than what happens once students arrive.

The reality is that the vast majority of students attend nonselective institutions, and those institutions are afforded significantly less funding than those that carry more prestige. This is not only detrimental to students who attend those underfunded institutions, but to the populace as a whole.

We know this to be true. We should be pointing this out much, much more.

Dropping the SAT isn’t just a move to make the most selective institutions at the UC system more accessible to students from minority backgrounds. It can also be viewed as a choice to privilege values other than prestige and competition. The idea that a UC Berkeley or UCLA educational experience could be watered down because their students did not take the SAT is absurd. That students in the UC system deserve sufficient resources to pursue their educational goals regardless of which campus they attend is indisputable.

This may disturb some people who are invested in the tale of prestige and competition add up to greatness for all, but the vast majority of us will benefit if we help a different narrative of higher education mission take root.

[1] Full disclosure: I’m a subscriber.

[3] If I am wrong about this, I will publish a follow-up post in which I will gladly eat a big old plate of crow. I will title it, "I Was Wrong. The Atlantic Does Care About Accuracy."


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