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Monday, December 09, 2019

Colleges & Universities

During my school days, I used to enjoy taking standardized tests the way some people like doing crossword puzzles. To me, they were more rewarding than most of what went on at school. As an avid reader and an indifferent student, tests like the SAT were made for somebody like me—a bookworm who read fast enough to finish the exam early and who knew lots of vocabulary words he’d never heard spoken at home.

Perhaps accordingly, I’ve always found the recurring spasms of anxiety and outrage that accompany the College Board’s every adjustment in what used to be called the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” to be overblown and unpersuasive. So when I read a Washington Post column by a Princeton graduate referencing the SAT as a “hazy, horrible memory” and “the test from hell,” it’s hard not to suspect exaggeration. Most professional writers had high verbal scores.

I’m guessing Christine Emba did too.

Or maybe it’s because my other great pastime back then was sports. Playing ballgames, you learn pretty quickly how good you are, how good you’re not, and how to deal with it. I’ve always wondered if some of these stressed-out hothouse flowers would experience less SAT anxiety if instead of drilling with tutors, they’d spent more getting chosen in pickup games.

Indeed, one reason Americans love sports is their objectivity. You can’t bluff your way into Major League Baseball; no amount of Daddy’s money can put you in the NBA. So it’s good to remember, as Jonathan Wai, Matt Brown, and Christopher Chabris, a trio of education researchers, wrote regarding those Hollywood actresses and hedge fund managers who scammed their children’s way into elite colleges: They had to hire ringers to take the SAT. That is, “they had to fake intellectual ability—the one thing they could not buy.”

Grades, courses, recommendations, all these things can be purchased. But when it comes to college admissions, they write, “for every privileged student whose bad SAT score keeps them out, there is another student whose SAT helps get them in.”

I was one of those, although I never thought it made me a genius. The SATs measure verbal and mathematical facility, nothing else. For example, I have zero musical aptitude and couldn’t draw a recognizable human face to save my life.

The test said I had math aptitude; it remains theoretical.

For that matter, I had a childhood friend who could scarcely read (dyslexia, I suspect) but who had amazing mechanical ability. Steve was making lawnmower motor go-carts and repairing TV sets in junior high. School was torture for him, but post-Sputnik he made rockets in his father’s basement shop and fired them out of sight. He aced shop class; I did not.

Anyway, here’s the thing: nobody in our circle ever thought Steve was stupid. After I left for college, he moved out to California, where he became a successful contractor. I expect he hires the book work done.

Not everybody needs to go to an Ivy League college.

Which brings us to the latest coddling mechanism by the College Board, something called an “Environmental Context Dashboard,”  purporting to measure with sociological exactitude the exact degree of privilege or deprivation in a student’s background. College admissions offices will be provided a number from 1 to 100 based upon things like real estate values, crime rates in the student’s neighborhood, average SAT scores in his or her high school, etc. Kind of like the “degree of difficulty” multiplier in competitive diving, I suppose.

Supposedly, the “adversity score,” as the Wall Street Journal dubbed it, will be kept confidential from test-takers—a stipulation that I doubt will survive the first lawsuit filed by a disappointed Princeton applicant.

Anyway, I’ve no clue what degree of difficulty would have been applied to my own scores. I never lived in a posh neighborhood, although my suburban high school sent lots of students to prestigious colleges. My mother, a high school graduate like my father, taught me to read at age three, and spent much of her life regretting it.

See, when other kids were working on Dick and Jane, I was reading novels by John R. Tunis and Albert Payson Terhune. (Baseball and dogs.) A bit later, I’d hide a flashlight under the covers to keep reading my Book of Knowledge encyclopedia after lights-out.

My mother feared I’d go blind. Instead, I went off to Rutgers, the state university, which sent me an admissions letter basically saying that given my SAT scores, my high school grades were a disgrace and that I’d better wise up. So I did, because I couldn’t take my hard-working parents’ money and flunk out.

However, I’ve never believed that my facility with standardized tests made me anybody special. And I also think that many Americans’ obsession with sending their children to “prestigious” high-dollar colleges verges upon mania.

IMAGE: Lori Loughlin, one of the actors indicted in the college admissions scandal, and her daughters.

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You’re shocked to learn that wealthy parents allegedly paid bribes to get their children into elite colleges? Really? You shouldn’t be.

Wealthy parents have been paying big bucks — perfectly legally — to get their children accepted into prestigious colleges for decades. The family makes a huge donation, and suddenly the kid who seemed headed for State U. is bound for the Ivy League. The shocking thing is that nobody seems to care.

If a couple of black or Latino kids get into Harvard or Yale through an affirmative action policy that allows for admission with slightly lower test scores, well, that’s fodder for outrage, fuel for several Fox News shows, the preamble for a lawsuit.

But the longstanding practice of allowing the less-qualified children of graduates to get into elite colleges — known as “legacy” — barely stirs interest, much less headlines. And even wealthy moms and dads who didn’t graduate from Stanford or Harvard or Princeton can pony up a substantial donation to prop the doors open for their kids, as Daniel Golden outlined in his well-researched 2006 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department disclosed a sweeping college admissions scandal in which the wealthy, including well-known Hollywood actors, allegedly could not be bothered to follow the legal purchase-a-place-for-your-child practices already established at so many prestigious institutions. Instead, reports say, working with corrupt coaches and entrance exam officials, they lied outright — claiming a child was a championship rower, for example — or paid for fraudulent test scores, according to federal prosecutors. If that’s true, it lays bare a system of college admissions that is corrupt at its core.

Americans are deeply invested in the idea of meritocracy, the idealistic notion that people fail or succeed on their own merits. But for most of the history of this country, Americans of color were denied the opportunity to succeed — no matter how much grit, gumption and determination they demonstrated. And an economy that increasingly favors those who are already advantaged is now closing off opportunity to less-affluent whites, too. In other words, the myth of meritocracy is largely that: a myth.

Education, of course, is supposed to be the great equalizer, a path that will advance the masses. While many prestigious colleges remained the playgrounds of wealthy WASPs through the first half of the 20th century, the increasing use of standardized college entrance exams helped to change that in the latter half. High-achieving students from middle-class families — the sons and daughters of teachers, nurses and small business owners — were admitted. That cemented the myth of meritocracy, but it hardly made college admissions fair.

For centuries, black and brown people were denied the right to a decent education and were barred from entry into many of those elite schools. We could not give our children the advantage of basic academics, much less legacy. Black and brown children started off with educational deficits that made stellar test scores far less likely. Even now, many children of color are stuck in failing schools.

Affirmative action policies — which don’t admit unqualified students but do admit those with slightly lower test scores — were put in place to redress those longstanding disadvantages. But those policies provoke widespread condemnation. Universities across the country have been subjected to lawsuits seeking to end affirmative action in college admissions.

The practice of legacy admissions, however, has not prompted that sort of backlash. Nor has the practice of just giving an elite school a huge donation, the sort of legal bribe that probably helped Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, get into Harvard University, according to Golden’s book. He quoted a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, Kushner’s tony high school, who said, “There was no way anybody … thought [Kushner] would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it.” But Kushner’s wealthy father pledged $2.5 million to the school, and he was admitted.

It seems that less-affluent children of color aren’t smart enough to be admitted to prestigious institutions of higher education. They didn’t have sense enough to be born rich.