Tuesday, September 15, 2020

How Low Do We Set The Bar?

Standardized tests have come under increased attack over the last few years.

Some college and universities have announced they are no longer going to use SAT or ACT scores in the admission process in order to "enhance diversity" and to "level the playing field".

I find that interesting in that standardized tests were first introduced to do just that.

After World War II, aptitude tests gained increased favor with both business and education due to their wide use in processing hundreds of thousands of military recruits into the right roles in the War effort. For example, my father was a recent high school graduate at the beginning of World War II. He was working in a washing machine factory as he did not have the money to even think about going to college. However, he was assessed with high intelligence and trained as a cryptographer after he joined the Army. He told me that he was one of the cryptographers who passed the top secret message to drop the atomic bomb.

Business used the tests after the War for hiring for management positions based on whether someone had the aptitude to succeed rather than simply focusing on a college degree. It was the same reason that the Armed Forces used aptitude tests. Quite simply, in those days only 1 in 10 went to college. If someone did not attend college it most likely had nothing to do with their ambition or intelligence. They simply did not have the financial resources to continue their education.

The use of standardized tests leveled the playing field. It did not matter if your father wasn't a bank president or you did not go to a boarding school. It only mattered if you had the smarts to succeed.

Interestingly, a Supreme Court case in 1971 (Griggs v. Duke Power Co.)  ruled that jobs-based aptitude tests were potentially discriminatory as they could cause "disparate impact" when used by employers to assess and predict the performance of workers for promotion and advancement. As a result, a college education became the "default" for determining who would get on the management track and college became the only ticket for future advancement. High school graduates were left out in the cold no matter what their abilities might be.

The use of the SAT and ACT tests began being used extensively in college admissions decisions for similar reasons after the War and their importance grew after the Griggs decision. Admissions into the Ivy's and other top schools that were historically based on family connections and the East Coast boarding school they attended became democratized through the use of standardized tests.

Using a standardized test that measured one's aptitude for college work leveled the playing field. It allowed schools to find overlooked talent who may not have had all the advantages of the prepsters on the East Coast. It did not matter if you hailed from Michigan, Montana or Mississippi and did not have  the same access to a quality high school education that the affluent had. The SAT showed whether you had the ability to do the work. The SAT also allowed admissions officers to objectively compare a student from the Choate School with students from Chillicothe, Ohio and South Central LA.

You can therefore argue that standardized testing has been one of the biggest factors allowing deserving, overlooked people to be recognized and receive opportunities to get ahead in the military, business and education over the years. This led to millions being elevated in their class status in the United States.

In fact, it would be difficult to point to anything else that has had a bigger impact on improving class mobility and opportunity for deserving people over the last 75 years.

What is interesting is that the argument for doing away with these tests today is to "enhance diversity" and "level the playing field."

That seems particularly ironic in that standardized tests were introduced in order to "enhance diversity" in the first place. They were introduced to identify talent and aptitude without regard to anything else--family background, wealth, race, religion or gender.

We now have to get rid of these tests to do the same thing they were introduced to do?

College admissions at the most selective universities have been using affirmative action policies for a long time to skew who gets admitted if academic performance and standardized test scores do not get them the balance they prefer.

For example, a 2013 Harvard study found that without affirmative action Harvard would be 43% Asian, 38% White and .7% Black. 

This is the actual ethnic diversity breakdown at Harvard.

Source: https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/harvard-university/student-life/diversity/chart-ethnic-diversity.html

The Department of Justice recently charged Yale University with violations of the Civil Rights Act after a two-year investigation. Yale was ordered to submit a plan by September 15 on how it plans to modify its affirmative action practices to comply with the law.

 A key finding of the DOJ  investigation was that “Asian Americans and whites have only one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials.” 

It will be interesting to see if Yale moves totally away from standardized testing in their response. After all, if you don't have this objective standard it is harder for someone to point out that you are admitting someone without "comparable academic credentials." 

The arguments against standardized tests are now starting to extend to professional examinations such as the bar exam

Here is one such argument from someone with the New York Civil Liberties Union that believes that the New York Bar exam should be done away with forever.

I know something about the subject of standardized tests. I have taken more of them than most people on this earth.

I have taken the PSAT, SAT, ACT, LSAT, the Multistate Bar Exam and the CPA exam.

Some argue that aptitude tests are racist. However, these tests are designed to assess whether you have the abilities to succeed in college, law school, medical school and the like. They have continued to be used because most of the studies I have seen suggest that there is a pretty good correlation between those that do well on those tests and those who successfully complete the coursework. 

When you get to professional exams, like the bar exam or CPA exam, the tests are not measuring aptitude, but knowledge.

How is that racist?

It is very similar to the arguments that I have also heard that somehow mathematics is racist. Seattle public school students are being taught (who would ever guess?) that US math education is racist, is used to oppress people of color and the disadvantaged, and has been used to exploit natural resources. It is argued that this "Western Math", developed by the Greeks and Europeans, has culturally appropriated what might have been approaches that other cultures might have used in their mathematics. For example, the Aborigines might have called the degrees in a circle something other than degrees. 

I am not making this up. This is somehow the reason that minority children as a whole have lower math test scores than whites?

I went to three years of law school. Everyone in my class was taught the same case law and the same legal principles. One of the most popular and highly respected members of my class was an African American. He studied the same courses that I did and took the same tests. 

The same thing with the CPA exam. When I took it we were tested on Accounting Practice, Taxation, Auditing and Business Law. It was based on what I knew about these subjects.

Is it racist if someone doesn't know the law or important accounting principles that they are supposed to know? These exams were instituted to protect the public by insuring that people who practiced in these professions had met certain minimum objective standards.

Where do you draw the line?

Low SAT scores but allow admission into college anyway.

Low LSAT scores but allow admission into law school.

Not capable of passing the bar exam or CPA exam but anyone who graduates is still allowed to practice as an attorney or CPA? How about applying the same rule for doctors as well? Or pharmacists? Or a professional engineer?

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that these standardized tests are perfect.

Three or four of my law school classmates failed the bar exam the first time they took it and they were good students and smart people.

They are not alone.

Hillary Clinton failed the bar exam the first time she took it.

Michelle Obama did as well.

As did Kamala Harris.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jr.  were two others who failed the bar exam.

However, how low do we set the bar?

It seems there are many who want to set it lower and lower.

Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer who recognize that the better answer might be to raise people up rather than setting the bar lower.


  1. Scott, I was a member of my alma mater's alumni council when it made the decision to make standardized admission testing optional. The decision was predicated on three factors:

    1. High school class rank is a stronger predictor of student performance in college than a standardized test.

    2. The curriculum of high schools had evolved into a pattern of "teaching to the [SAT/ACT] test".

    3. Social biases on standardized SAT/ACT tests did,in fact, not level the playing field for all students.

    Racism was never uttered as an excuse to disregard or minimize the necessity for standardized testing. What is your alma mater's position?

    1. There clearly are other arguments to not use standardized tests. However, racism is far and away the reason most cited. There is nothing else even close.

      It was the main reason that the University of California system recently did away with the requirement even though the faculty senate found after a year-long study that it actually helped minorities gain more spots than they would have if admission was based only on HS record.

      Why did Regents ignore the faculty recommendation?

      The article below has a pretty good quote that explains it pretty well.


      "So how could the liberal governing board of a major university system reject the imprimatur of its own liberal faculty researchers and kill a diversity accelerator in the name of the very diversity desired?"

      "The answer: The urgency of political momentum against the tests proved irresistible and swept away the research and data.

      What is that political momentum? Charges of racism.

      Without that charge the use of standardized tests would not even be questioned.

      Most schools have made these tests optional. I think that includes both of my alma mater's. That does not say anything except a herd mentality is very strong in every facet of our life today.

      It is in evidence every day and every way.