Saturday, March 12, 2005


MHC to SAT: Cram It

Amid this week's slavish press coverage of the addition of an essay portion to the SAT -- Gosh! A whole five paragraphs, graded by underpaid drones! -- few aside from Inside Higher Ed seem to have noticed that Mount Holyoke College is doing just fine without any SAT at all:

Mount Holyoke College, which decided in 2001 to make the SAT optional, is finding very little difference in academic performance between students who provided their test scores and those who didn't. The women's liberal arts college is in the midst of one of the most extensive studies to date about the impact of dropping the SAT -- a research project financed with $290,000 from the Mellon Foundation.... "The fact is that the SAT does not add enough value for us to require students and their families to make such a large investment of time, energy and money in this single, high-stakes test," said Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations.....

Mount Holyoke's study is generally consistent with a study by Bates College, which made the SAT optional in 1984 and last year released an analysis of the impact of its shift over a 20-year period. Among the findings: The difference in Bates graduation rates between those who submit the SAT and those who don't is 0.1%. The difference in overall grade point averages at Bates is .05 (five-hundredths of a GPA point); the exact difference is 3.06 for those who did not submit the SAT and 3.11 for those who do.

For those wondering whether the ETS is merely the latest in a long line of scholastic snake-oil salesmen, I highly recommend A.R. Grant's article "The Evils of Competitive Exams." An excerpt:

It enlisted ambition in the service of learning, and made students for love – not of knowledge but distinction... the force of learning for its own sake was often overpowered in the few who had it, by the superior force of the secondary motive. Moreover, the teacher... was tempted to teach, not in order that his pupil might know, but that he might get marks: not that his knowledge might be sound and deep, but that it might be producible on demand. And the teacher soon found that knowledge need not be deep or even sound in order to be readily producible.

Hence originated ‘cram’ – i.e. teaching with a view to a specific examination alone, of various degrees of literary dishonesty, but in all cases aiming at passing off a counterfeit instead of real knowledge. Nor was this the only evil of the ascendancy of examinations. It killed or disabled promising students, but would only make dunces work by the imminence of disgrace.... Lists of successful candidates for honours supplied a tangible testimonial of efficiency; while no record appeared of brains or energy exhausted, of intellectual indigestion of knowledge for distinction, but perfectly useless in after-life. And there was no list of those who had perished by the way, or had dropped out of the running, more or less damaged by the killing pace.

The man who succeeds in examinations has a quickness in acquiring, memory for retaining, and readiness in producing knowledge; but he may be altogether deficient in reflection, in grasp of mind, in judgment, in weight of character. The man he outstrips may be one whose faculties are not so flexible, and therefore will not take training so well, who thinks too much to acquire knowledge rapidly, who refuses to accept other men’s views without verifying them for himself, who, when he has acquired knowledge, is awkward at producing it, and has none of the tact which makes the most of what it possesses, and instinctively avoids exposure of ignorance; who, in fact, is too truthful and straightforward to write what he is not sure of, and is above making random shots.

The first man has probably reached his highest point. The second may have a long period of development before him... The examination test gives only the amount, not the capacity. In such a case, the after-life will almost certainly reverse the verdict. It appears to me that the examination system tends to select minds acute rather than deep, active rather than powerful.

If you'd like to read the rest of the article, you'll need to go deep into the library stacks: it appeared in Nineteenth Century magazine's issue of November 1880...

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