Home > Uncategorized > George Will Offers Insights into How Standardized Tests Relate to Inequality, Lacks Insights to Solution

George Will Offers Insights into How Standardized Tests Relate to Inequality, Lacks Insights to Solution

January 17, 2018

Late last week syndicated columnist George Will offered his thoughts on standardized testing, which were insightful. Opening his op ed piece “How Merit Based College Admissions Became So Unfair” with a brief history of how the SAT came to be introduced as the primary metric to sort students, he then offered analyses on how the test became inherently dis-equalizing, offering this nugget from a recent Chronicle Review:

…Wilfred M. McClay of the University of Oklahoma decries higher education’s “dysfunctional devotion to meritocracy,” which he says is subverting the ideal that one’s life prospects should not be substantially predictable from facts about one’s family. Meritocracy, “while highly democratic in its intentions, has turned out to be colossally undemocratic in its results” because of “the steep decline of opportunity for those Americans who must live outside the magic circle of meritocratic validation.”

Mr. Will then expands on Mr. McClay’s argument:

In “A Theory of Justice,” the 20th century’s most influential American treatise on political philosophy, John Rawls argued that “inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved.” So, social benefits accruing to individuals because of such endowments are justified only if the prospering of the fortunate also improves the lot of the less fortunate. And Rawls’s capacious conception of what counts as a “natural” endowment included advantages resulting from nurturing families. But as sociologist Daniel Bell warned in 1972, “There can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through the use of influence or simply by the cultural advantages their children inevitably possess.”

For the balance of the article Mr. Will effectively argues that this natural order is immutable, that testing is an absolute necessity, and that the best way to address inequality is to find ways for colleges to do a better job of identifying “diamonds in the rough”, presumably through some kind of profiling:

Something , however, has to sort people out, and we actually want the gifted and accomplished to ascend to positions that give scope to their talents. Furthermore, we do not want to discourage families from trying to transmit advantages to their children. The challenge is to ameliorate meritocracy’s severity by, among other things, nuanced admissions policies at colleges and universities that seek students whose meager family advantages can be supplemented by the schools.

From my perspective if we wait for colleges to supplement “meager family advantages” we will perpetuate the “system” we now have that relies on a succession of tests to sort and select the chosen few who might benefit from the kinds of subjects and ideas now taught in colleges and universities while letting a slew of undeserving students born into affluence remain in the higher echelons. Instead of sorting and selecting with greater precision early and often we should address what Mr. McClay identifies as “the steep decline of opportunity for those Americans who must live outside the magic circle of meritocratic validation.” Those born outside the “magic circle” do not necessarily lack the ability or desire to be successful in college… they lack only the opportunity to do so. And similarly, those born in the magic circle do not necessarily posses the ability or the desire to be successful in college. If we aspire to be the kind of just system John Rawls wrote about, we need to make certain the prospering of the fortunate… improves the lot of the less fortunate. That, alas, can only happen with more government assistance, for those outside “the magic circle”, a greater redistribution of wealth, and courage on the part of legislators and government leaders to create those conditions. In short, it is unlikely in our current political climate. But unlikely is not impossible.

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