Recent Posts



Monday, 16 July 2007
Abolish the SATs!
Charles Murray's article on abolishing the SAT was a fine piece of exposition, as is everything the Datanaut writes—a dazzling mix of the calmly commonsensical with the say-what? counterintuitive, the whole welded together with a deep, humane, and (in my opinion) quintessentially American concern that everyone get a fair shake, including people who don't do well in school.  

"The 17-year-old who is at the 40th percentile on the SAT has no other score that lets him say to himself, 'Yes, but I'm at the 99th percentile in working with my hands,' or 'Yes, but I'm at the 99th percentile for courage in the face of adversity.'  Conversely, it seems to make no difference that high intellectual ability is a gift for which its recipients should be humbly grateful. Far too many students see a high score on the SAT as an expression of their own merit, not an achievement underwritten by the dumb luck of birth. 

"Hence the final reason for getting rid of the SAT: knowing those scores is too dispiriting for those who do poorly and too inspiriting for those who do well. In an age when intellectual talent is increasingly concentrated among young people who are also privileged economically and socially, the last thing we need are numbers that give these very, very lucky kids a sense of entitlement."

I especially liked the casual kick in the butt he gave to the SAT coaching outfits:  

"No study published in a peer-reviewed journal shows average gains approaching the fabled 100-point and 200-point jumps you hear about in anecdotes. While preparing this article, I asked [coaching outfits] Kaplan and Princeton Review for such evidence. Kaplan replied that it chooses not to release data for proprietary reasons. Princeton Review did not respond at all.  ...  The most immediate effect of getting rid of the SAT is to remove an extremely large and bright red herring."  

On the commonsensical side, guess what?  Some kids are smarter than others, and it shows in pretty much any kind of test. 

"The truth about any achievement test, from an AP exam down to a weekly pop quiz, is that the smartest kids tend to get the highest scores. All mental tests are g-loaded to some degree. What was not realized until the UC study was just how high that correlation was for the SAT and the achievement tests."  

Still, reading it, I found myself wondering—as I always do now when reading new findings out of the human sciences—how Charles can get away with publishing such things in a nation as self-consciously optimistic and addicted to happy talk about human nature as this one.  Isn't it a bit too much reality?  

The SAT article, like Charles's other work, is, at root, reductionist and pessimistic.  It says (my précis):  "Some people are smart, some are dumb.  It's mostly innate.  Nurture doesn't account for much.  Smart people will do well on any kind of cognitive-skill test, dumb people will do badly.  Different populations with different ancestry will exhibit different statistical profiles on mental features, just as they do on physical ones.  Job slots for mental work will fill up accordingly.  That's how it is.  Any questions?"  

It's not just Murray, either.  In the human sciences, all the windsocks are blowing the same way.  I just finished reading Steven Pinker's forthcoming book for review.  Same same.  My précis again:  "The human brain's an organ.  It figures out how to move our bodies around in the two worlds they inhabit:  the physical world of things and motion, plants and animals, wind and rain, and the social world of siblings and strangers, friends and enemies, dominants and submissives.  The thoughts with which the brain does this are built up by metaphor from a few basic elements, mostly to do with movement and position in space.  Language is thought in fancy dress. Any questions?"

It's hard to like this stuff, but these guys seem to have all the data on their side.  If anyone knows how to turn cognitive ugly ducklings into swans, they haven't shown up yet.  If there is some test of cognitive ability on which every human group displays the same statistical profile, it's odd that no-one has yet come up with it.  If there is a ghost in the cognitive machine, it's awfully hard to find anything it explains.  

Welcome to the 21st century. 
Posted on 07/16/2007 1:09 PM by John Derbyshire
No comments yet.