The op-ed excerpted below, “America’s Best Colleges: Merit by the Numbers,” by Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, appeared in the August 5, 2009, edition of Forbes. It eloquently examines the role played and not played by universities in educating young people to promote the system-justifying illusion of merit.
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In its recent commencement issue, an Ivy League college newspaper displayed a snapshot of the Class of 2009 “by the numbers.” Although the students had by then been at the college for four years, all of the relevant “numbers” were based on a profile of the class at the time of enrollment. Prominently featured were the 157 children of alumni; the 9.7% of applicants who were admitted; and, last but not least, the median SAT math and verbal scores–740 and 750, respectively–of the class.
Amazingly, all the “merits” of the graduating seniors involved attributes that predated the students’ arrival on campus. Totally missing from the portrait was the “merit” that the Class of 2009 developed as a result of the four years they had spent at the school. Nor was any mention made of the contributions they were poised to make. Apparently, the defining qualities of merit–and what was most valued in the students–were the attributes they already had as incoming freshmen.
Selective colleges and universities, like this one, act more like consumers than producers of merit. They build their reputation based on the credentials of the people they admit rather than the contributions of the people they graduate. Trapped by a rankings culture that ties their reputation to admissions inputs, they also define themselves by whom they exclude. Schools that attract a lot of applicants, and then reject 92.3% of them, are held in the highest esteem.
But this process valorizes a uniform set of test-taking skills that produce results no better at predicting college performance than family wealth. In fact, Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, found that the socio-economic status of a high school is a better predictor of what kind of grades its students will earn their first year in college than the individual SAT scores of its students. In effect, the testocracy reproduces privilege and stratifies the higher-education system by race and class. Individuals who perform well on high-stakes tests are awarded admission to college or law school as a prize for performance on a test that best predicts not aptitude, but parental income and education. This inequality effect of the SAT undermines a range of public values, from providing access to college independent of wealth and privilege to developing problem-solving capabilities.
The preoccupation with backwards-looking statistical criteria also severs the tie between admissions and mission. The testing regime deflects the college’s responsibility away from, for example, producing a diverse and dynamic learning environment that actually builds capacity among the students to become the leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs of the next generation. Reputation based on numerical ranking assumes greater importance than reputation based on the development of innovative ideas and publicly spirited graduates. The primary function of admission becomes status and prestige enhancement for the institution itself and for those who enroll.
Beyond that, the pre-eminent role of high-stakes tests also negatively affects student engagement and learning. The standardized and time-limited nature of the SAT and the ACT fixate student attention on the mastery of test-taking techniques, rather than on developing qualities such as creativity, ability to collaborate, critical thinking and drive. It misleads, by reinforcing the view that ability is fixed when in fact intelligence is both malleable and incremental.
A static view of intelligence has been widely debunked; it undermines intellectual risk-taking. It is also self-fulfilling. According to social psychologist Carol Dweck, students who hold a “fixed” theory of intelligence expend enormous energy worrying about how smart they are–they become preoccupied with avoiding mistakes and are less likely to engage in the excitement of learning. In contrast, people who believe that one’s capacity to learn is “expandable” are more willing to challenge themselves.
An openness to learning from others is crucial in today’s complex environment. People who tackle the world’s problems with the benefit of different perspectives are less likely to get stuck in the same dead ends. As Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, has demonstrated, diverse groups have greater potential to generate effective and innovative solutions to tough problems.
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To read the entire column, including Guinier and Sturm’s discussion of solutions and alternatives to the “testocracy,” click here.
To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”,” “Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” “The Situation of ‘Genius’,” “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Stereotype Threat and Exit Exams,” “The Situation of the Achievement Gap,” “The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,” and “The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty.”