Mandatory SATs and Upward Mobility

Combining universal and mandatory (and free) college-board exams with a program for targeting college recruitment of disadvantaged groups could--if coupled with a commensurate financial commitment by the state to such groups--go some distance in bringing more qualified economically disadvantaged groups into higher education. 

 

The American Dream is inextricably linked with the prospect of ordinary Americans for economic and social upward mobility.  Few American statesmen stated this idea more succinctly or to better political effect than President Bill Clinton, who said, “The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.”

Now if one is willing to make the reasonable assumption that God is not a card-carrying Republican but instead chooses to distribute native or potential talents to peoples across social classes like honey poured on toast, then it follows that the twin social goals of democratic inclusion and economic meritocracy need not be contradictory.  Keeping both of these goals in mind, public policy should be designed to remove artificial impediments from economically and socially marginalized persons to provide them with the means and incentive for their entry into the fullness of social and economic life.

Unleash people’s abilities and incentive to work hard and play by the rules, and upward economic mobility will take care of itself, so goes this line of thought.

It’s widely understood that an important institutional motor driving democratic inclusion and meritocracy is education—especially public education, and in particular affordable and democratic access to higher education.  Economic mobility across class lines is virtually unthinkable if higher education practices reinforce rather than break down economic privilege.

Houston, we have a problem.

Suffice it to say that the actual relationship between higher education and upward mobility is not simple.  While it is true that higher education for poorer students is often rewarded after graduation with considerable economic gain, it is also lamentably true that access to higher education itself is dramatically skewed in favor of the rich.   Worse yet, the better the school’s reputation, the greater the tilt in favor of the wealthy.  The likelihood of going to college is not only much higher for those with economic means, but the most selective schools—the schools whose alumni inhabit the economic, cultural, and political establishments that govern society–are overwhelmingly populated from students drawn from the ranks of the wealthiest of families.  And on and on it goes.

Those who recently have either been to college or who have observed their own high school graduate children do so are well aware that the college application experience can feel overwhelming.   The process is conducted online, and the amount of work to apply required in some cases is daunting.  Many college applications entail multiple deadlines (for early decision; for early admission; for regular admission; for various scholarships; for letters of support; for the ACT or SAT; for the dreaded FAFSA; for enrollment deposits, and so on).  The applications and SAT tests are pricey, too.  I work in higher education, and I confess to shepherding my perfectly capable kids through the process.  It was a protective choice that not every parent would make for their children, and I respect parents who let their kids sink or swim on their own.  But for many parents offering such guidance is not a realistic option even if they wish to provide it. For many folks the process is alien and intimidating and expensive.  As a result, many capable young people do not go to college not because they do not have any interest in doing so but because they fail to complete the application process properly.  For many schools with a large surplus of talented students knocking on the door, eliminating applicants who’ve missed a deadline or who’ve failed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s is an easy and seemingly fair way of culling the pack.

This is not the column to explore the root causes of these problems or to discuss in length a comprehensive solution, as if there actually were one.  But at least one simple recent prescription might prove to be at least modestly beneficial.  Last week the Brookings Institution proposed that every state adopt making the SAT or ACT a state-paid free exam, administered during regular school hours, and mandatory for every student.  Presently about a dozen states already enforce similar measures, and according to Brookings, the results are modest but significant and positive.  According to Brookings, in Michigan the test has been an effective tool for “discovering” talented low-income kids who otherwise would not have taken the exam and would have unlikely gone to college:

“Among low-income students, the effect was even more dramatic: for every 1,000 low-income students who had taken the test before 2007 and scored well, another 480 college-ready, low-income students were uncovered by the universal test.”

Combining universal and mandatory (and free) college-board exams with a program for targeting college recruitment of disadvantaged groups –if coupled with a commensurate financial commitment by the state to such groups–could go some distance in bringing more qualified economically disadvantaged groups into higher education.  The access gap between rich and poor would remain large, but this policy could be an important step in the right direction.  Of course, securing a “commensurate financial commitment” for low-income students poses another nettlesome problem altogether–and one becoming more Sisyphean by the year.   Public opinion shifts over time, of course, but dramatic lurches are relatively uncommon.  Which is why the precipitous drop in regard for higher education among Republicans is truly troubling.

But that’s a topic for another day.

 

 

 

FILED UNDER: Education
Michael Bailey
About Michael Bailey
Michael is Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, GA. His academic publications address the American Founding, the American presidency, religion and politics, and governance in liberal democracies. He also writes on popular culture, and his articles on, among other topics, patriotism, Church and State, and Kurt Vonnegut, have been published in Prism and Touchstone. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas in Austin, where he also earned his BA. He’s married and has three children. He joined OTB in November 2016.

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    It seems harmless on the surface, but kids today are already been taught to the specifications of one standardized test after another. This is one day lost for the test itself, probably another day for a practice test, and some time for test prep — in the end, I think it will mostly just subsidize the SATs and SAT prep for middle income students.

    And, since the SAT is on a curve, adding a bunch of low scores is going to compact the higher scores and disrupt the bell curve — the second tier will be entirely different, with the expected second tier being wedged into the first. But I am assuming that the lower income students at poor schools will score lower on average.

    All of this is fine, I suppose, but it should be a very deliberate choice to do this.

    My real concern is that this is much too late, and that the SAT scores get used as a rationale to not bother investing in schools in poor neighborhoods further.

    But, when and if you get to the post about the Republican antipathy towards higher education, look into whether this is translating into more kids choosing vocational schools. We need plumbers and electricians almost as much as we need doctors and engineers. It would be wacky and exciting if people were sorting themselves into occupations based on their (parents’) political leanings.




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  2. Ben Wolf says:

    We would do far more to secure economic opportunity to a far greater number by establishing a worker-owned sector of the American economy rather than focus on scholastic training to increase the very limited number of jobs available in the white-collar professions. Only 10% of the American population can be in the top 10% of the income distribution, and all the educational access in the world won’t change that.




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  3. Michael Bailey says:

    @Gustopher:

    My real concern is that this is much too late, and that the SAT scores get used as a rationale to not bother investing in schools in poor neighborhoods further.

    It’s not too late, though it’s too little.

    Anything can made a pretense for bad behavior, right? But that’s not reason enough, it seems to me, not to make those small steps that might help when we can. Your critique that this may help middle-class students has some force, though once again I don’t think that disqualifies this prescription.

    I share your concern about schools becoming obsessed with standardized tests. Since we live in that world, however, and it’s tilted toward benefiting richer schools, I don’t see reason not to move the balance a titch in the other direction.




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  4. Michael Bailey says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Only 10% of the American population can be in the top 10% of the income distribution, and all the educational access in the world won’t change that.

    Yep. It’s a real problem. I maintain, however, that a few steps in the right direction is better than none.




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  5. Ben Wolf says:

    @Michael Bailey: I agree and think that establishing a worker-owned sector would be easier than higher educational attainment. Only a relatively small change to existing finance laws is needed for the former, while the latter not only has to navigate the myriad competing interests in the education-industrial complex but must also contend with the rapidly growing sentiment among Americans that higher education isn’t worth the expense.

    Education for economic opportunity just shuffles the queue with person A getting the job rather than person B; it can’t result in a significant net benefit for society.




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  6. KM says:

    Instead of insisting on everyone going to college for jobs that will be replaced in a few years with automation, how about we de-stigmatize skilled labor jobs? I used to do academic advisement and I can’t tell you how many kids wandered through my door that had no place in college. They didn’t want to be there but their parents said it was “necessary”, they weren’t academically inclined and frankly were running up thousands of dollars in debt while learning nothing of value. We’ve raised several generations now who think a college degree is a must and for what? To work in a cube at a job that is easily replaceable by someone who will work for less or worse, a computer program that’s being written right now?

    Say it with me folks, you don’t need a degree to use a computer. Most office jobs can be done by high schoolers once they are taught the specifics of the job – the only reason you need to waste thousands of dollars to score a cube is a snobbery carry-over from the days of blue vs white collar. Society as a whole needs to let go of the concept that everyone MUST have a college degree to be successfully middle-class as it’s simply not true. It drives our youth into poverty and devalues degrees since everybody and their mother has one. Degrees used to indicated education and competency, not paid attendance in a classroom. The number of people with Masters slinging fries or pushing carts into a parking lot corral is truly depressing. They’d have been better off learning to be a plumber, electrician or even a hair-stylist. You may not get love from society as a whole but it pays the bills




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  7. Franklin says:

    Various random thoughts:

    As a result, many capable young people do not go to college not because they do not have any interest in doing so but because they fail to complete the application process properly.

    While you and I know the many reasons behind this, I guarantee you’re not going to get any sympathy from right-leaning people for those who “fail to complete an application process properly.” (I’ve already seen comments on a similar proposal in our local online news.)

    According to Brookings, in Michigan the test has been an effective tool for “discovering” talented low-income kids who otherwise would not have taken the exam and would have unlikely gone to college.

    Hooray for the rare positive shout-out to my home state. Adding to this, the University of Michigan will now be free to in-state students whose families earn less than around $65k, IIRC. Hopefully some of those “discovered” kids will find success at one of the best universities in the world.

    @KM:

    You may not get love from society as a whole but it pays the bills.

    You’re framing your argument as economical, but in modern society it could also be philosophical. Do we want to raise kids to be rich, or do we want them to be happy? Based on the number of people using antidepressants (plus many more who probably should be), society has been making the wrong choice.




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  8. michael reynolds says:

    SATs and standardized tests in general are bullsh!t measurements of little to no value. I took mine a year after dropping out on the first day of 11th grade. 790 of 800 verbal. 610 on math. The math was actually high enough that Princeton offered me a slot – and my last math class had been geometry where I refused to do any homework and the teacher gave me a passing D because why? Because he’d seen my Iowa test scores and didn’t have the balls to flunk me. Also took the GED that was supposed to take two days, banged it out in half of one day and scored near perfect.

    Gosh, so terribly smart. Spent the next 20 years committing property crimes, waiting tables, getting laid and cleaning toilets. All of these tests are just stand-ins for IQ. If you have enough raw IQ you can beat just about any test. I used to take my girlfriend’s college psych tests (till I was caught – with an A-).

    My eldest, basically identical IQ and test scores, dropped out in spectacular fashion in 7th grade, and got the ‘too-smart-to-fail’ treatment in high school which allowed her to skate by with – literally – a 40% attendance rate in 11th and 12th. Briefly attended college, now busy doing nothing in our spare bedroom.

    My wife, same IQ/test zone, actually finished college before setting off with the first fugitive she ran into (me) and did low-status, low-pay jobs (badly) for a full decade before she started writing.

    You know what I learned in my 10 years of school plus a semester of college? Not a single thing. No, really. My mother taught me to read, my circumstances taught me French, I still can’t get beyond long division, and the history I was taught was all baloney. I can’t do any of the things I was taught to do in English – can’t diagram a sentence, have no idea what ‘participle’ means, still don’t know what to do with a semi-colon, I just toss ’em in at random for kicks. And yet I’ve lived off nothing but writing for 28 years now.

    SATs are a stupid way for stupid people to identify smart people, based on the spurious belief that an ability to game a test somehow equals anything beyond an ability to game the test. SAT = IQ = GED = LSAT = every other standardized test. Twisting the course of education further toward standardized testing is destructive of actual learning.




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  9. Just 'nutha ign'int cracker says:

    @KM: While we’re destigmatizing skilled labor, we may want to also start pushing some of the vast capital reserves the 0.001% have been accumulating to improve wages for those newly destigmatized jobs because I can tell you that what I’ve seen over the past 30 or so years since I left blue collar labor is that most “middle class” jobs don’t actually pay “middle class” wages anymore. Nothing says “not really middle class” more eloquently than earning a “middle class income” that doesn’t allow you to qualify for a new car loan or mortgage but does qualify your kid for a subsidized lunch at school. In the town I live in in SW Washington, about 70% of the students qualify for reduced priced lunches. Many of their parents have what qualify as “good middle class jobs” and some are in two income families.




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  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Franklin:

    Do we want to raise kids to be rich, or do we want them to be happy?

    Society’s answer is obvious: rich. Money is the only value we still hold onto in this country. But I don’t believe we have the ability to make kids happy. Honestly I think grades from around 4th to 12th are an absolute waste of time and money. We warehouse kids because their parents have to work. We push testing because high test numbers = high real estate values. The entire system is a charade, a smattering of useful knowledge, a lot of misinformation, a lot of bad habits and way too much awful social interaction.

    The system tosses out easy rewards to smart kids, which corrupts them, and crushes everyone else. It is an awful system for the 21st century.




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  11. Just 'nutha ign'int cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: While I can see your argument–and have even raised it on from time to time–I think that the more important question is what should we do (that we are willing to spend money on, of course) to correct the mistakes or shortfalls. I am totally in agreement on the whole “prepare all the kids to go to State U” as a kind of witless approach. But what are we gonna do instead? Yeah, all education beyond 4th grade (I would have said 6th, but I want a higher reading comprehension level and better computational skills maybe) is elective for practical purposes,but there are some who willing elect it if for no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity. Others will be college bound–whether because of cultural pressure or sense of calling. There are a lot who won’t be who are currently cluttering up the system and marking time. What do we do with those? Letting them sit at home and hone their skills at Grand Theft Auto and Farm World for 5 or 6 years seems questionable, and the society is already too good at creating surplus labor to drive down wages to allow an influx of workers who will be barely worth paying $5/hr to and will think that’s big bucks relative to their need.

    By the way, I don’t know what the answer is and I support efforts to encourage qualified non-traditional students to attain social mobility. I also see very clearly that we have too many students attending university for careers that used to be filled by high school graduates–or even dropouts–a point driven home to me when I saw an ad where Target was looking for graduates with BBA’s in marketing for positions as night freight unloaders. The social Darwinist in me doesn’t care what happens but the part of me that isn’t a sociopath realizes that attitude isn’t good for society. Suggestions? (And remember, they have to be things that Republicans will spend money on.)




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  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha ign’int cracker:
    I don’t have answers, unfortunately. I’m better at diagnosis than treatment.

    But as a start I would vastly increase and improve the teaching of practical skills – welding, carpentry, mechanics. I’d have way more apprenticeship and on-the-job learning. I would stop crushing kids with expectations of Harvard and take a closer look at natural abilities and affinities.

    I have a daughter who is great with physical tasks – she kills it in ceramics – but is never going to Harvard. And every day she gets some version of the go-to-college pressure. To what end? Does she need a daily reminder of society’s contempt for anyone who works with her hands? Were it up to me I’d look at the French model (as I remember it) in which kids are tracked toward academics or practical skills fairly early. To the American ear that sounds like cutting kids off from opportunities, but of course that opinion rests on our general condescension toward working folks.




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  13. Lynn says:

    @michael reynolds: “But as a start I would vastly increase and improve the teaching of practical skills – welding, carpentry, mechanics. I’d have way more apprenticeship and on-the-job learning. I would stop crushing kids with expectations of Harvard and take a closer look at natural abilities and affinities.”

    I like the idea of doing this the way some other countries do and having kids choose, at some appropriate age, which direction they want to go. My only concern would be to build in some mechanism through which they can change course later on, if they find that the initial choice was not right for them.

    BTW — the SAT worked well for me. It got me into college, which wouldn’t have happened based on my grades. The GRE later got me into my PhD program and into a career that fit very well.




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  14. Tyrell says:

    The biggest economically disadvantaged group is the middle class working people.




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  15. Tyrell says:

    @Franklin: “fail to complete the application process… you and I both know the reasons behind this” – what are you inferring here? Here is what I have seen: it is kind of hard to get the application process going when I see some young people who will not get up off the bed or couch and leave their cell phone – texting – Facebook – Instagram long enough to even look at the application, or to go to their high school or college admissions office to get the help that they are more then welcome to and encouraged to get. Or is it that they just do not want to write out a half page composition required in the process? (“I just don’t have the time” I have seen one text as they were driving to the gym for their daily workout after getting up at 11:00 am). When I applied for college, I did not ask for or get any help except the stamps for the envelope.
    I know one person who received a very nice scholarship but chose to “sit out a year” for some unknown reason (social life?). Now they are sitting around their parent’s home, watching tv and playing “Call of Duty” all day. (“Assassin’s Creed” – now I like that game).




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  16. Just 'nutha ... says:

    @michael reynolds: I can see that we both suffer from the same biases and shortcomings. I empathize with your daughter even though I’ve never been able to do anything more sophisticated with my hands than pick up things but have to note that schools are reflections of the communities they are in. I wish we had better communities, but we elected Trump, so I’ve given up on that possibility. I am left to hope that the next brain trust that decides to reinvent the wheel of pedagogy tries round as a design motif.




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  17. Just 'nutha ... says:

    @Tyrell: Only to the extent that the terms “middle class” and “working people”are currently mutually excllusive but we refuse to acknowledge that fact.




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  18. Tyrell says:

    How can they mandate that a student take the SAT? What are they going to do if they refuse? Make them run around a track carrying some of those SAT study books, the ones that guarantee a 1500?
    I had a friend and his pickup line was: “What did you make on the SAT?”




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