On Tuesday, March 12 2019, federal prosecutors exposed a crooked college admissions consulting operation that bribed SAT administrators and college athletic coaches in order to get wealthy, underqualified applicants into elite universities. Also charged were 33 wealthy parents who had paid for admissions bribes, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, Gordon Caplan, a co-chair of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, and Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of Pimco.
As this story unfolds, there will be numerous takes and analyses about what the exposure of such widespread corruption in college admissions could mean. People are going to say that this scandal is proof that the meritocracy is broken and corrupt. And it’s likely that many commentators will use this event as an opportunity to attack the SAT and the ACT. Progressives view test-based admissions as inequitable because some marginalized groups are significantly underrepresented among the pool of top-scoring college applicants. But millionaires and elites also hate standardized admissions tests, because their children’s admission to top colleges is contingent upon test scores.
Under pressure from both the academic left and wealthy parents, hundreds of colleges have become “test optional,” allowing students to submit applications without test scores. Some elite schools, including Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr and the University of Chicago have adopted these policies.
It is absolutely true that the SAT is the reason this scandal occurred. But for standardized testing requirements, the millionaires and celebrities charged in this scheme would not have needed to search for “side doors” to get their children into elite colleges; they could have walked right in through the front.
Here’s what arguments against testing look like
A short viral Twitter thread from actress, playwright and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, which amassed over 20,000 likes, indicates one way this scandal will be used to attack meritocracy:
without that systemic leg up, i doubt i would have gotten into yale, from which i graduated with honors etc. i was exactly the same applicant pre & post tutoring. i just looked different on paper. well aware most of my peers’ families could not afford to give them that advantage.
— zoe kazan (@zoeinthecities) March 12, 2019
not saying it’s the same AT ALL as breaking the law/bribing/etc. but let’s not pretend money isn’t helping kids get into college all the time, in ways big & small. even if one’s parents didn’t, say, give 2.5 million to one’s college of choice: https://t.co/mibkC3OTlQ
— zoe kazan (@zoeinthecities) March 12, 2019
Zoe Kazan is a talented writer, and in three short tweets here, she manages to:
- Remind everyone that she went to Yale and graduated with honors from its theatre program,
- Check her privilege by acknowledging that she would not have been admitted to Yale if she hadn’t had the resources to pay for an expensive SAT tutor who helped raise her math score 200 points,
- Suggest that her Yale classmates who got in on the basis of stellar SAT scores also owe their admission to privilege, rather than extraordinary aptitude or effort, and
- Dunk on Jared Kushner, who was famous for buying admission to Harvard long before his father-in-law was elected president.
Zoe’s arguments don’t hold up, however, and her experience is actually a perfect encapsulation of why standardized tests are so important, and why it is necessary to defend the meritocracy against assaults from elites who would prefer not to have to participate in a competitive admissions process.
This argument falls apart on examination
Opponents of tests like to argue that tests primarily measure socioeconomic status and parental resources, but it’s not true that rich parents unfairly distort the college admissions process by outspending other people on test prep. There’s not a clear causal relationship between income and test scores, and there’s no evidence that expensive test prep gets better results than cheap or free alternatives.
According to data released by The College Board, the median SAT test taker in 2013 scored a 496 on the SAT’s critical reading section and a 514 on the math. The median student whose family earns less than $20,000 will score a 435 on the critical reading section and a 462 on math, considerably below average. Students from families earing $60,000-80,000 perform similarly to the overall distribution, and median scores continue to rise about 10 points for every marginal $20,000 of family income. The median student from a family earning more than $200,000 per year scores a 565 on critical reading and a 586 on math. The richest students perform a little more than half a standard deviation above average, while the poorest perform a bit more than half a standard deviation below.
But while it’s true that higher-income students get better scores on average and lower-income students do worse, it doesn’t necessarily follow that money raises test scores. This is a mere correlation, and, as anyone who did well on the SAT knows, correlation doesn’t imply causation.
SAT scores correlate strongly enough with IQ that the SAT is interchangeable with IQ as a test of general cognitive ability. Cognitive ability is highly heritable; the single strongest predictor of a child’s IQ is the IQ of the child’s parents. There is also a correlation between income and IQ. That means smarter than average parents are likely to have smarter than average kids and higher than average incomes.
The educational attainment of an SAT taker’s parents is about as strongly correlated with higher scores as high income is; the median student whose parents hold graduate degrees scores a 560 on critical reading and a 576 on math, only slightly lower than the richest students in the dataset by income, and a full standard deviation higher than students whose parents hold only high school diplomas.
There’s also little support for the contention that inequalities in access to test prep is the mechanism by which richer students secure their advantage.
It is true that prep can help; working practice tests can help students get comfortable with the tested concepts and get familiar with the test format and the way the test writers reason. Practicing can also improve the speed at which testers can work the problems, and help them become more confident and comfortable taking the test.
However, it has never been true that poorer students lack access to test prep; most students prepare for the SAT, and high quality materials and practice questions drawn from old tests have been available in inexpensive test-prep books for decades. In 2015 the College Board partnered with Kahn Academy to provide free online test prep resources, and about 60% of test takers now utilize the free official test-prep resources.
Despite what commercial test prep companies might claim in their marketing materials, there is no evidence that expensive commercial prep materials or private tutoring yield better results than test prep with inexpensive practice materials or the free official online resources.
It’s worth noting that the scores most rich kids and most children of highly educated parents earn are still far too low to get into elite colleges. The median child from a family earning $200,000 scores an 1151, which puts you in the bottom half of the admitted class at a school like Ole Miss or University of Alabama, and is far short of the 1500 earned by the median student who enrols at Yale.
If rich people could just spend their way to high test scores, then they wouldn’t be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe their way into elite schools.
Zoe Kazan checks her privilege, but not all of it
While her assertions about money and access to expensive test prep don’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s particularly ridiculous for Zoe Kazan to claim that the primary privilege factor — the “systemic leg up” — that secured her Yale admission was her ability to pay for SAT tutoring.
Zoe Kazan’s parents are Hollywood writer/director Nicholas Kazan and screenwriter Robin Swicord. Nicholas’s father — Zoe’s grandfather — was legendary director Elia Kazan, who made On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire. Elia Kazan’s wife was the playwright Molly Day Thacher. Elia and Molly met while they were students at Yale, and Molly was, as it happens, the granddaughter of the revered Yale professor and administrator Thomas Anthony Thacher, who was a descendant of the Rev. Thomas Buckingham of Saybrook, one of Yale’s founders.
Legacy applicants — the children or grandchildren of alumni — get an admissions advantage worth about 160 SAT points. By contrast, the median student with a family income over $200,000 scores about 140 points higher than the median student in the overall dataset. Another way to describe the legacy advantage is that legacies get in if they can score at the 95th percentile, while unhooked applicants must score above the 99th percentile. But “legacy” is insufficient to describe Zoe Kazan’s pedigree. She’s something closer to royalty at Yale. When an applicant like this comes before an admissions committee, they will be very motivated to admit her.
What is extraordinary is that she almost didn’t get in. The test score bar is much lower for special cases like hers, but there’s still a bar, and she had to struggle and cram and hire an expensive tutor to get over it, and she had to sweat out her college admission just like the rest of us. And there are other applicants who are the children and grandchildren of exalted and famous families who can’t get their scores high enough, and they don’t get in, and that means there are more seats at schools like Yale that are available to the rest of us.
You can tell an objective, meritocratic system is working when it pushes out people that the establishment would prefer to admit (people like Zoe Kazan), and it admits the people that the establishment would prefer to reject (Jews and Asians). It is phenomenal that CEOs and power brokers and celebrities are getting indicted for desperately trying to bribe someone to get their mediocre kids into good schools, because that means meritocratic systems are throwing barriers in front of the children of elites when they can’t compete on an objective test.
There’s a reason Zoe is attacking the SAT rather other controversial aspects of the college admissions process like the preferential treatment of legacies: Testing impedes the success of people like her. If Yale goes test-optional, what else is there in the admissions portfolio that could possibly scuttle the application of somebody like Zoe Kazan? When millionaires and celebrities attack the testing establishment, they pretend to do so on behalf of the marginalized and disadvantaged, but they really want to destroy the SAT because it is the only mechanism by which your kid can get into an elite college ahead of their kid. Even if you assume, for the purpose of argument, that Zoe Kazan is right in her claim that standardized tests give “a systemic leg up” to “upper middle class” applicants who can afford commercial prep services, what is the alternative?
Without some semblance of competitive admissions based on objective criteria like standardized test scores, a college like Yale becomes an exclusive nightclub and the admissions committee is just a bouncer. People like Zoe Kazan — the children of senators and governors and CEOs and celebrities — get to walk right in. They’re on the VIP list. And the rest of us have to wait our turn for the bouncer to look us over and subjectively decide if we’re cool enough or hot enough.
Daniel Friedman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter @DanFriedman81
Featured image: Zoe Kazan at the New York Film Critic Series screening of “What If”