Bartlett: Legitimacy Lost

Standardized testing must remain an integral part of the admissions process.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 9/20/18 2:05am

Life isn’t fair; get used to it. My father’s favorite tidbit of “parental wisdom,” this brutal truth applies quite well to the realm of collegiate admissions. In fact, this sentiment colors how people gaze upon all of academia. It guides them to bemoan privilege, to champion the underdog, to seek true meritocracy. And yet here we stand, looming over an academic precipice which stands to plummet higher education downward and subvert the progress that has been made toward climbing Mt. Meritocracy. This generation stands privy to the death of standardized testing — the death of the great legitimizer.

Now, believe me when I say that I understand vehement hatred toward the ACT and SAT. Judging an individual’s intellectual self-worth based upon their performance on one little test rings as cruel as it does disingenuous. Yet for all its hypothetically hyperbolic misery, standardized testing is not the end-all-be-all. It in no way supplants one’s existing qualifications. Instead, it complements one’s existing academic portfolio — facilitating and not impeding social mobility. 

This isn’t to say that I implore higher education to emphasize standardized testing further. The test should always remain the supplement, not the foundation. But the opposite side of the coin — de-emphasizing standardized testing — in no way serves as a better option. And unfortunately, this seems to be the path that academic institutions are taking. I understand the doubters of my pseudo-slippery slope; I get it. For all we know, this initiative could be little more than a blip on the radar — certainly nothing worthy of sparking a nationwide trend. Yet it very well could be all that and more, especially as more prestigious institutions hop on the bandwagon. One such “bandwagoner,” the University of Chicago, announced this past year that it will no longer require its prospective students to submit standardized test-scores.

Some view this as a victory. No longer will these tests pose such a threat to the poor-test-taker hoping to be a future academician; no longer will a single number — which proponents argue correlates with socioeconomic status — wound the underprivileged. At long last, they theorize, academia may judge individuals solely on their dedication and acumen. 

However, humanity does not reside within the realm of theory — we dwell within the caustic apathy of reality. And realistically, all resumes are not born equal. Relativity rules the day. Each and every high school is different. Such is a glaring truism, yes, but an important one — especially so far as student credentials are concerned. In a burgeoning age of academic competition, what lies outside of the students’ control is what may make or break them. Private schools, those pristine chapels of academic rigor and preparation, tend to own pockets deeper than the Marianas Trench; the same goes for public schools within well-to-do neighborhoods or suburbs. They can afford the best professors, provide a multitude of AP and Honors courses, offer acclaimed extracurricular opportunities — all of which serve quite nicely as application fodder that provides a leg (or two) up on the competition. 

In this way, underprivileged students are rendered inherently behind the ball in the process. Perchance theirs is a school with nonexistent advanced coursework, or maybe the extent of their club selection starts and ends with the yearbook.  These students exist — for no fault of their own — in a state of disadvantage when it comes to striving for greatness. They’ve no miraculous trophies to put on their resume; and even the lucid waters of Lake GPA grow murky in the wake of uncertainty on the part of universities over how to effectively gauge a fluid metric.

So how does that bright, young chap hope to prove it in this increasingly relativist academic landscape? The results of standardized testing are impervious to such doubts — and completely independent of social standing. Removing that opportunity to prove indubitably how one compares to students nationwide doesn’t help the underprivileged — it plops a greater impediment in the way of their social mobility. 

Say what you will about the ACT and SAT. Yes, they correlate with wealth; money talks and B.S. walks, after all. And yes, it remains perfectly rational to lament that while some students hire professional tutors, others cannot even afford a calculator. But a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction very seldom restores that oh-so-tantalizing equilibrium.

A world that diminishes standardized testing is one in which the small-town prodigy finds it much more difficult to prove that they are more than simply the biggest fish to reside within an itty-bitty pond. These students did not choose to attend a school that struggles academically any more than their privileged peers chose to find themselves within esteemed institutions. Yet they’re punished for it all the same, even if they worked to achieve that GPA; even if their school offers little to no advanced coursework; even if the only extracurriculars available garner no national acclaim. They can only play with the hand dealt to them, and the system may very easily dismiss these cards. It deems them less valuable simply for their inherent lack of prestige — of privilege. 

Standardized testing, however, helps to subvert this dismissal. A perfect ACT or SAT is perfect, regardless of whence one comes or the bounty embellishing one’s bank account. One cannot simply purchase (legally, anyways) their desired score. Socioeconomic status still correlates with test results, yes. But it’s just that: a correlation. Wealthy students are no more guaranteed a perfect score than their poor counterparts are a subpar one. The path to “standardized glory” may be more difficult for the average Joe to discover, but it always remains wholly possible. And this possibility reigns as the holy grail of meritocracy, offering a chance at mobility in spite of mounting obstacles. For, in a way, these exams metamorphose into the zenith of opportunity, legitimizing achievements which would otherwise ring as hollow and cracked as the Liberty Bell. Because the test doesn’t make the student — it simply makes them impossible to relegate. Therein lies the beauty.

Devaluing standardized testing only facilitates an environment antithetical to the intent of such pursuits: one in which the criteria for the almighty verdict depend far more on social standing and arbitrary variance, not less — a scenario which puts an eraser to the underdog story, which dulls the scintillating glimmer of hope that any child — be they ghetto-born or mansion resident — can validate their many aptitudes and aspire to greatness. And it’s a shame.