New Research Confirms Everything You've Always Suspected about the SATs

January 9th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Is it time for us to change how we decide who deserves success? Is it fair how we decide who gets into good schools, who lands high-paying jobs, and what ultimately guarantees a happy, successful, and fulfilling life?

Harvard’s Lani Guinier thinks we need to change. In her latest book, she argues that the concept of “merit” in education strongly favors those with wealth and privilege.

Just look at standardized testing. Standardized tests are the de facto gauge of merit for college admissions officers across the country, and programs that prepare students for tests like the SATs or ACTs command high prices. That naturally caters to wealthy parents who can spend more to buy their kids' good scores. The drive for guaranteed success is part of an astonishingly lucrative $4.5 billion test prep industry that shuts out those who can't afford the expensive courses. Ultimately, this system stymies the progress and potential of millions of smart, underfunded students.

For Guinier, the problem is essentially two-fold. Historically, "merit" is a notion that had fluid definitions, but lately, according to Guinier, it's become a dangerously rigid concept–one that, in certain instances, threatens to corrode core tenants of our democracy.

As a concept, merit is not necessarily inherently corrupt. It ideally describes what positive characteristics set us apart from one another. The problem, she says, is what merit has come to mean within the educational system -- a culture that values competitiveness over collaboration, and test scores over alternative forms of demonstrated ability.

"I am not trying to destroy the concept of merit here," Guinier writes. "I am trying to redefine what it means to be meritorious beyond a student's performance on standardized tests or in isolated academic situations. If we are going to have a ‘meritocracy’–which really just means ‘rule by merit’–then we need a better conception of what now constitutes merit in our society versus what it should be."

So what should we do?

Guinier points out that one problem with "testocratic" merit is that college admissions officers look for promising freshman academic performance as opposed to long-term societal success. But according to data she cites, SAT scores account for only 2.7% of what freshman report cards will look like. Moreover, attributes like creativity, character, and collaboration–things that are linked to long-term success–aren't measured by the SATs.

"[W]e must shift from promoting testocratic merit, which has produced dubious results, to developing democratic merit,” Guinier said. “Because the latter is the foundation upon which our national values truly ought to rest."

For SAT takers next year, one of the more substantial strides are the free online courses and instructional videos that the College Board, in partnership with the test prep outfit the Khan Academy, will offer, opening up access to valuable guidance for families and students unable to afford expensive tutors. But updated SAT content and easier access to study tools are still relatively small drops in the bucket of shifting our cultural understanding of merit.

But as earth-moving as some have said the reform efforts are, new research, coupled with a growing movement to reform entrenched ideas about test-taking and merit could undermine the very existence of and, some hope, academic reliance on standardized assessments like the SATs.