Friday, July 13, 2007

Greg Mankiw's Blog: The Big Test

I'm pretty cynical about schools, standardized tests, grades, and degrees. None of those things seem to signal very clearly if someone is competent, trustworthy, or potentially successful. So even though I scored over 99 percentile in my SAT & GMAT, graduated from an Ivy League school, and come from an immediate family of five where 60% earned PhDs (2 in hard sciences) and another 20% earned 2 Masters degrees--I just don't believe in it. I'm just an average dysfunctional guy from an average dysfunctional family.

I've seen jock and frat goofballs from state schools with tremendous analytical and leadership ability go really far in my 2 decades on Wall Street, much farther than I have. They know how to create value and jobs--so much more than the Ivy Leaguers who ended up working for them.

Via Greg Mankiw, Charles Murray now takes down one of the sacred cows of the academy; the SAT:

How are we to get rid of the SAT when it is such an established American institution and will be ferociously defended by the College Board and a large test-preparation industry?

Actually, it could happen quite easily. Admissions officers at elite schools are already familiar with the statistical story I have presented. They know that dropping the SAT would not hinder their selection decisions. Many of them continue to accept the SAT out of inertia—as long as the student has taken the test anyway, it costs nothing to add the scores to the student’s folder.

In that context, the arguments for not accepting the SAT can easily find a receptive audience, especially since the SAT is already under such severe criticism for the wrong reasons. Nor is it necessary to convince everyone to take action at the same time. A few high-profile colleges could have a domino effect. Suppose, for example, that this fall Harvard and Stanford were jointly to announce that SAT scores will no longer be accepted. Instead, all applicants to Harvard and Stanford will be required to take four of the College Board’s achievement tests, including a math test and excluding any test for a language used at home. If just those two schools took such a step, many other schools would follow suit immediately, and the rest within a few years.

It could happen, and it should happen. There is poignance in calling for an end to a test conceived for such a noble purpose. But the SAT score, intended as a signal flare for those on the bottom, has become a badge flaunted by those on top. We pay a steep educational and cultural price for a test that no one really needs.

The SAT is a lot like government economic statistics. Most of them can contain a lot of noise and error, and people who don't like what they are indicating tend to dismiss them out of hand when trying to make a case, with some convenient conspiracy theory sprinkled liberally with SAT vocabulary words.

But unless better measures become available, we should keep the ones we have for the moment. Murray's suggestion of 4 achievement tests, including a math test, could be more predictive of academic success. (But the language tests probably need to be excluded--who knows what some student's grandparent taught them while they were still in diapers?)

In a sense, degrees, schools, SAT scores ... are all (poor) predictors for a person's future success. The signal about one's ability the marketplace, in charity, and the in family (my preferred arenas of success measurement) has about a ~0.1 correlation.

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