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Guest Commentary

by Lawrence Douglas & Alexander George

Publication Date: 2002-08-25

In We Must Save the SAT authors include such questions as this one in their argument:

beluga : blini
foie gras: ?

(a) saltine
(b) egg and onion matzo
(c) fischietti genoveste
(d) toast point
(e) none of the above

This article is from The Chronicles of Higher Education, May 10, 2002

The University of California's plan to abandon the SAT as a basis for admission has sent shock waves through higher education. While many educators have applauded the proposal, we find it ill advised and potentially nocent to our national security.

From the outset, we must emphasize that our defense of the SAT has nothing to do with the fact that, as tenured professors at an elite institution of higher learning, we are the apparent beneficiaries of a system that valorizes high performance on such exams. Admittedly, the present writers scored a combined 3010 on the SAT (a result that would have been even higher had one of the authors not stumbled on the insidious "purblind," which he reasonably, if incorrectly, assumed could not have anything to do with blindness). All the same, this did not prevent our being rejected from most colleges to which we applied, including Harvard (twice), Yale (three times), Brown, Princeton, Amherst, Tufts, Bucknell, and the University of McDonalds. (Not that either of the present writers had any desire to attend Yale in the first place.) In sum, we are not merely rationalizing a status quo that has rewarded us personally; the situation is more daedal.

Let us, then, consider the arguments against the SAT, beginning with the charge, with which we are all by now thoroughly au fait, that the exam has a hidden ideological bias. Critics of the test point to questions such as the following, taken from a recent exam:

beluga : blini
foie gras : ?

(a) saltine
(b) egg and onion matzo
(c) fischietti genovese
(d) toast point
(e) none of the above

Aristarchs have been quick to decry the apparent need for culinary sophistication, or -- even more heinously -- Western culinary nous. (As if, incidentally, not everyone knew that foie gras belongs on [d] as does a glove on a hand.) But a close examination reveals that charge's speciousness. All the question requires is recognition of a certain linguistic pattern: videlicet, that both "beluga" and "blini" are single words beginning with the same letter, while both "foie gras" and "fischietti genovese" are two words beginning with the same letters.

Likewise, consider another common charge, that the reading-comprehension questions on the SAT actually make little sense and can only really be answered if one grasps -- perhaps even internalizes -- the hidden bias of the exam, in which case they can be answered all but blindfolded. The following question has been used as a case in point:

In school, Biff and Scooter disagreed regarding the axiological significance of the data only if the first remonstrated rebarbatively provided that the second reasserted his proleptic supposition that fraternization promotes gingivitis.

The main idea of the above passage is that: (a) meteorology remains an imperfect science (b) four out of five dentists recommend flossing (c) fungal infections contributed to the French Revolution (d) the universe is expanding, but not as quickly as once thought (e) a meritocratic educational system in which wealth, power, and status accrue to persons who perform well on standardized exams contributes to a healthy pluralist democracy and a thriving market-based economy

Here again, it might seem telling that the correct answer is (e), but what does that ultimately prove? That the Educational Testing Service is covertly trying to gain hegemonic control over this nation's youth? Blatherskite! However one cuts it, the passage is about an educational meritocracy, and thus (e) is the only correct answer. To insist that the passage extols the virtues of flossing is not to subscribe to a different ideology. It is to reveal one's inability to read.

Parallel conclusions hold for the quantitative portions of the test, which have also been attacked as tainted by the Dominant Paradigm. Let's take a look at one much cited example:

Assume Ken brought one widget to market. That is, letting X be the number of widgets Ken brought to market, we have X = 1. Multiplying each side by X, we get X2 = X. Subtracting 1 from each side, we get that X2-1 = X-1. Dividing each side by X-1, we find that X+1 = 1. Therefore, X = 2. And now Ken has two widgets.

Can you conclude that:
(a) Ken always had 2 widgets, but earlier had misplaced one
(b) on the way to the market, Ken stole another widget
(c) it is illegitimate to divide by X-1
(d) the miracles of capitalism are boundless
(e) none, or maybe two, of the above

Those who insist that there is something wrong with the reasoning here are relying on antediluvian arithmetic. If we don't teach our children the latest in accounting, we'll lose our international competitive advantage. Obviously (d) is the only economically correct answer. We'd be doing our students -- and our country -- an injustice to teach them anything else.

The argument that the SAT is a weak predictor of future success likewise fails to convince. No one would deny that persons who score under 1100 can lead full and meaningful lives. We can think of many who struggled on the verbal section yet went on to contribute to society. Indeed, in many careers, high intelligence and a questioning mind may actually be a handicap to professional success. But that acknowledgment doesn't gainsay the value of the test as a diagnostic tool. Indeed, not a single study has successfully challenged the reliability of the SAT as a predictor of how students will perform on SAT-type exams.

To use the present authors"experience as an example, our combined 2900 on the Graduate Record Examinations almost perfectly mirrored our score on the SAT. (The 110-point fall-off was due to one writer's careless conflation of "otiose" and "odious" and to the other's failure to recall that 46 is an even number.) Consequently, we insist that the SAT is an important test, because it serves to predict accurately how well one will perform on important tests like the SAT.

In addition to its diagnostic value, the SAT is significant in ways harder to quantify. Without it, an entire industry of preparation books and review courses would be destroyed, with untold economic consequences. Many of those who slave away for the better part of their teenage years preparing for the SAT emerge from the experience most suited to teaching others how to take the test. Should the test be terminated, armies of young people will find themselves without any suitable outlet for their talents. And perhaps most incalculably, in an increasingly multicultural world, we would lose one of the few points of cultural reference that all Americans share, an index that transcends race, religion, and class, and treats us all as that most pure and benign of things -- a number.

Should the SAT serve as the exclusive test of merit? Certainly not. A student who has demonstrated outstanding ability in other meaningful pursuits -- who has, for example, performed at Carnegie Hall, exhibited at the Venice Biennale, or been fathered by a tech tycoon -- should not be barred admission to our best colleges simply on the basis of an inability to read or reason. But to abolish the test altogether -- such an act would be truly otiose.

Lawrence Douglas is an associate professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought, and Alexander George is a professor of philosophy, at Amherst College. They are frequent contributors to The Chronicle.

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