Commentary

Standardized Tests: Merit-Based and Even Life-Saving

By Kenny Xu | August 5, 2021 | 2:04pm EDT
Students learn in a classroom. (Photo credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
Students learn in a classroom. (Photo credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Editor's Note: The following passage is excerpted from Kenny Xu's book, "An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy."

The local debate over New York's Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) parallels a larger discussion in America today—the relevance and endurance of standardized tests. The same arguments are made on a national level: The SAT, the largest national college entrance examination, is too easily gamed; it tracks privilege, and it does not capably determine the true merit of a student. 

But Duke University economist Michael Munger challenges the notion that the test has nothing to say about a person. 

“The SAT saved me twice,” Michael told me. “First, it brought me to Davidson [College in North Carolina]. Then it made my [college] advisor hold me to a higher standard, saying ‘You can clearly do this.’” 

Michael Munger grew up in rural Florida.

My father worked at a lumberyard, and my mother stayed at home. We lived on an orange farm, so much of my work when I was at home was [on it].

The economist describes his child self as “lazy.” “I attached no value to intellectual things.” He had Cs and Ds in most classes. But a standardized test—a ninth grade state test that all Florida students were required to take—identified him immediately as an outlier. “We took this test, and the principal of the school came in and said, ‘Which one of you is Munger?’ I had the highest grade in the school. And then they said, ‘Why are you in this class?’” 

Michael was immediately transferred to an upper-level class where he promptly did better and received higher grades. “I started doing the homework,” he said. He took the PSAT (the Preliminary SAT) and was awarded a National Merit Scholarship, which put him on the map to recruitment to selective colleges. With an excellent SAT score, Michael was awarded a scholarship to the highly selective Davidson College, where he—the son of orange farmers—would study the great classics and eventually be put on a tenure track as a Duke University professor. 

This is arrogant of me to say…but I, with no preparation, went to Davidson [and] had a mean, terrible person who was my advisor, who said, ‘Looking at your test scores,’ meaning my SAT, ‘you’re just lazy! So you have to take calculus-based physics and calculus.’ And I did, and I ended up majoring in math, because it’s true—I was able to do it. Because I was a math major at Davidson, I was able to get a PhD in economics.

To him, the SAT wasn’t a destructive experience; it was his biggest opportunity yet. The SAT, a nationwide test administered the same way for every student who takes it, forced colleges to seriously consider a boy from a high school that selective colleges never touch. It showed the world that Michael Munger was capable of competing with other students at the highest level. 

I went to my 40th high school reunion: Ten of the guys I graduated with are dead because they drove tractors in the [orange] groves, putting out insect spray without respirators…I escaped that program because of the SAT.”

Think about that: One might even say the SAT saved Michael Munger’s life. 

The argument, then, is that tests are able to be gamed, students coached to higher grades. This is a myth and a stereotype. The effects of coaching are low. Is it true that you can test-prep your way to higher SAT and ACT scores? Sure. But the effect of commercial test preparation, so to speak, is rather low—about 13–18 points on the SAT mathematics section and 6–12 points on the verbal. That’s a lot of work for fairly little external benefit.

“There are two things [the SAT] measures: one is innate ability, and the other is preparation,” Michael said. Michael had no preparation—but he had ability. Some students don’t have innate ability, but they prepare hard. And here is the rub: For the purpose of college admissions, both characteristics are meritorious. We can agree that innate ability is good for college preparedness, and that preparation is good for college preparedness. Ergo standardized tests are productive measures of academic excellence. 

If we can agree that the SHSAT at least is a productive measure of academic excellence, then an exam evaluation is likely both the simplest and fairest measurement of excellence, i.e., the least prone to human error and bias. Standardized test scores may not be the sole valid implementation of meritocratic thinking—on that, de Blasio makes a valid point—but one must acknowledge that it is clearly the simplest and perhaps even the most objective. Standardized tests have the potential to be what Charles Jin called an oasis of “meritocracy,” one of the last of its kind possibly in the entire United States. 

It’s not out of the question to say, therefore, that a single test is the simplest—and likely most cost-efficient—method of evaluating an applicant. No need to spend time and money interviewing applicants or combing through detailed research on their backgrounds. The score is “win and in.” That simplicity is part of the appeal to the nonconnected immigrant community. 

A single test may not sound fair, but consider the alternatives: grades, extracurriculars, performance on interviews, essays, teachers’ recommendations, and so on (and on). Each of these are prone to human error—worse, arbitrary human error. That is, unsystematic error. If one answer is misstated on a test, for example, at least it is misstated for everyone. Grades, teacher recommendations, and interview performances can vary between teachers, interviewers, and recommenders. Heck, an interviewer could be having a bad day and screw over a person’s application just because he was feeling disgruntled over his own personal life.

Kenny Xu is the author of "An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy" and the president of Color Us United.  Follow him on Twitter @kennymxu and Facebook.

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