I graduated in the bottom third of my high school class with a 2.2 GPA. I didn’t think of myself as smart. I thought “smart” meant kids who raised their hand in class — those types. I grew up in foster homes and had experienced relentless chaos in my early life. This led me to despise homework, teachers, and rules.
But at age 17, I took a standardized test required to join the military, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. Half of my motivation for taking the test was that I got to skip class. I spent the night before with my friends drinking Four Loko malt liquor and playing Xbox 360. I woke up with a hangover, chugged a Rockstar energy drink, and took the test. Afterward, an Air Force recruiter showed me how to convert ASVAB to SAT scores: I had the same score as my smartest friend, who always got straight As and who was headed for college.
It was my first inkling that maybe I could be a good student after all.
Standardized testing has long been a point of contention, with some arguing that it excludes poor and minority students because the questions are too narrow and those with wealth and connections gain an advantage via expensive private tutoring. Lately, the debate over testing has intensified, with those who want more diversity in education and the professions advocating an end to admissions based on tests like the SAT or the GRE. And major institutions — including colleges and elite high schools — have been trying this out. Several colleges, including Harvard and the University of California schools, made the SAT and ACT optional for applicants early in the COVID pandemic and have kept the policy in place.
This week, however, Dartmouth College became the first Ivy League school to reverse course on pandemic-era test-optional policies and reinstate the requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores.
Often, this is presented as a racial matter, as if those who find value in standardized tests really just want to guard white privilege. Yet this is a serious misreading of the issue.
The New York City public advocate, Jumaane Williams, a passionate proponent of greater diversity in elite city schools, has spoken out strongly in favor of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which he described as “a pathway to inclusion, not exclusion.”
“I’m a public school baby, from preschool to master’s. For a kid with ADHD and Tourette’s, it’s incredible that I made it through at all,” Williams said in 2019, testifying to a state commission on education. Williams himself won a place at the Brooklyn Technical High School. “I got that acceptance because of the SHSAT,” he said. The issue isn’t the test itself, Williams argued, but the school system’s failure to prepare kids for the test, not least by cutting programs for the gifted.
As a Latino-Asian former foster youth who benefited from standardized testing to enter the military and then Yale, I couldn’t agree more.
Typically, the identification of gifted students has relied on referrals from parents and teachers — a subjective personal evaluation. But a 2016 study published by the economists David Card and Laura Giuliano found that implementing a standardized testing requirement increased the number of poor and minority students in one such program at the K-12 level, because it offered a pathway for previously overlooked students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Likewise, a British study found that when comparing students who earned the same results on a cognitive test, teachers judged poorer students as less capable.
Again, this suggests that relying on subjective evaluations does more harm to poor students than relying on the more objective measure of test scores.
It’s true that SAT scores tend to correlate with family income. But grade-point average also correlates with family income. And as a recent story in The New York Times points out, “Test scores are more reliable than high school grades, partly because of grade inflation in recent years.”
On just about any metric used in college admissions, kids from richer families tend to outperform those from poorer families. But this doesn’t mean we should scrap standardized testing. There’s a reason the US military uses it.
At the time I took the ASVAB military admissions test, I wasn’t aware that both it and the SAT were highly correlated with IQ, which is more important in the military than many think. A 1989 study on Army recruits found that scores on an intelligence test, along with 2-mile run time, were the best predictors of success in infantry training.
In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara initiated Project 100,000, which lowered testing requirements. Supposedly, the aim was to alleviate poverty — the story was that entering the military would help recruits move into the middle class. And, of course, the Pentagon needed more men to fight in the Vietnam War. But recruits of Project 100,000 turned out to be many times more likely to require remedial training, and training took up to four times longer than it took for peers who had entered under the higher-score requirement.
Did the veterans who made it home achieve upward mobility? No. Compared with civilians of similar attributes who were not recruited, they were less likely to be employed and less likely to own a business, and they obtained less education. So the higher ASVAB score thresholds were reinstated.
Today, there is no recommendation to eliminate the ASVAB test. No one says that it’s biased, unreliable, or discriminatory.
Tellingly, there is also no wholesale effort to eliminate the LSAT in law school admissions or the MCAT in medical school admissions. Presumably, we believe that these tests tell us something important about the people who may hold sway over our laws and our health.
Seeing my ASVAB score, I changed my view of myself. Since then, I’ve served in the Air Force, graduated with a psychology degree from Yale, and recently received a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.
How many kids out there have potential that isn’t noticed — kids who live in chaotic situations and get bad grades that mask underlying potential that a standardized test could reveal? Most poor kids don’t take the SAT or any other standardized test. More should, and it would help if these tests were compulsory and free for them.
Some who advocate eliminating standardized testing have their hearts in the right place and believe that removing this barrier will increase social mobility. But some members of the ruling class may also be using poor kids as pawns to undermine meritocracy because doing so helps their own kids who don’t “test well.” Without standardized exams, such parents are more likely to know how to encourage their kids to strategically boost their GPAs, how to get recommendation letters from important people, and how to stack their resumes with extracurriculars. They have “polish.” Indeed, researchers at Stanford found that family income is more highly correlated with admissions essay content than with SAT scores. Presumably, applicants from well-to-do backgrounds are especially adept at crafting their essays in ways that please admissions committees.
Too many are claiming that the SAT is a “barrier.” It’s a gateway.
Rob Henderson is the author of the forthcoming book “Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class.”