Friday, March 11, 2005

Are the roots of the meritocracy being poisoned?

This week's Lexington column in the Economist makes an interesting argument about the US education system and the SATs. The argument is twofold:
  1. The SATs engendered the most radical revolution in US higher education by laying the foundations for meritocracy: students were exclusively judged on their grades. However nowadays

    Universities discount test results when it comes to admitting star athletes. Or else they give a “slight advantage” to the children of alumni or professors. Or else they admit minority students with lower SAT scores, only to see a disproportionate number of them drop out because they can't cope.

    In order to return to the meritocratic ideal US universities should stop these practices and consider only grades and test scores in the application process.
  2. The actual content of the SATs has changed this year to include an essay, more algebra and reading comprehension and less analogy questions. This is bad because it actually puts minority or poorer candidates at a disadvantage, by requiring more notions (which are harder to glean from underprivileged schools) and testing less for innate talent.

While both arguments have their merits, I think the first point is absolutely fundamental, and it is for that reason that I think the time has come to abolish affirmative action. I cannot think of a rational reason to practice something as radical as discrimination, according to the above mentioned criteria, in this day and age. However I am not as convinced by the second argument. I have not seen the new tests, but I took the old version, and I feel that math, writing and reading comprehension were not stressed enough. I have the feeling that at the moment US colleges are forced to invest significant resources in teaching subjects and skills, such as written communication and math, that more appropriately should be dealt with in high schools and that the admittedly patchy US high school system is failing to provide. This new version of the SAT may channel the focus towards these subjects within high school curricula and, while I recognize the risks of fiddling with such a successful system, I think that it will probably turn out to have been a step in the right direction.

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