Should America Move To A Test-Based College Admissions System?

The politics of college admissions continues to fascinate me. This past week, a group of Asian-American students sued Harvard University, arguing that the school discriminates against them by keeping "quotas" for the number of Asian students allowed through the ivy-covered gates.

The statistical evidence, at least based on SAT scores, is pretty strong. Studies have shown that admitted Asian students have higher SAT scores than other racial groups, implying that the bar for admission is higher for them. We also have natural experiments in California -- where affirmative action was banned -- and the percentage of Asian students in University of California schools rose dramatically.

Those with an eye on history would know that university admissions relies on a "holistic" process. The design of that process was spearheaded by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton almost a century ago as a means of preventing academically-successful Jewish students from entering these bastions of Protestant thought. (For a really, really long historical take on this, read The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion by Jerome Kerabel).

I cannot support the current model of holistic admissions given this history. So necessarily, one has to look for alternatives, and the obvious choice is a college entrance exam model, used by countries throughout the world including Korea, China, Japan, France, and much of the Commonwealth nations.

These models are fundamentally more fair and democratic, ensuring that in societies where relationships are often more important than numbers, that fairness reigns supreme.

There are two main strains of argument against this model. The first is that it narrows education to exclusively book learning, at the expense of the arts and athletics that are a hallmark of an American education. The other is that these systems are not fair, since access to resources to study for the exam are not evenly available.

On the first, I think part of the problem with the US education system is precisely how little value we place on academics compared to everything else. This may not be true in high-powered high schools like Stuyvesant or Palo Alto High, but seems to be typical in much of the rest of the country.

Furthermore, in a country in which states are continuing to reject globally-competitive curriculums (Common Core or otherwise), a college entrance exam model can be an impetus to maintain a high quality education program for students.

On the second point, I think critics are being narrow in their conception of the cost of admissions. Test prep costs money, sure, but so do music lessons, sports clinics, and art classes that are essentially de rigueur in our current model. Parents assume that having an international trip on a resume is helpful in admissions, and so we see scores of high school students headed to exotic locations to help their admissions chances. At least with a test, means are not the primary thing being measured -- academic knowledge and thinking is.

I am not saying that we wouldn't create new problems in our bid to solve old ones. But I do think we need to accept that the current holistic admissions model was designed to be discriminatory, and remains discriminatory today. A simpler system built around a well-understood test would be, in my view, a step forward.

Image by Wally Gobetz used under Creative Commons.


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