By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: September 19, 2007
The social scientist Charles Murray has a knack for noisily tapping into cultural preoccupations. In his 1984 book, “Losing Ground,” he argued that welfare perpetuated dependency and should be eliminated. In “The Bell Curve” (1994), which he wrote with Richard J. Herrnstein, he argued that those who get ahead in America (mostly whites) are genetically endowed with more intelligence than those who do not (disproportionately African-Americans).
Now Mr. Murray is at it again, proposing in a recent article to abolish the SAT. This position cannot help but provoke a double-take. After all, while making his arguments about genes, race and intelligence, Mr. Murray promoted the I.Q. test as a reliable measure of aptitude. Yet he is suggesting that one of the most widely used assessment tests be eliminated.
With so many college officials and parents dissatisfied with the SAT, even those who think Mr. Murray’s other theories are misguided or offensive could find themselves agreeing with him on this issue.
Unlike other critics of the SAT, Mr. Murray does not see the test as flawed, nor does he think that the wealthy have an unfair advantage because they can buy expensive coaching. But he recognizes that most people do not agree with him and believe the test is rigged to favor the rich. “It is a corrosive symbol of privilege,” he said.
And so, he concludes that college admissions offices should reject the SAT and substitute other standardized tests: subject or so-called achievement tests that gauge knowledge in specific disciplines like history or chemistry.
“This is really a hot topic,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University. Mr. Fitzsimmons, who is chairman of a commission on testing organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, “We’re going to be talking about these issues” when the commission meets next week at the association’s annual convention in Austin, Tex.
Mr. Fitzsimmons said he sent every panel member a copy of “Abolish the SAT,” an article Mr. Murray wrote this summer in which he outlined his new idea.
The article appeared in The American magazine, published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where Mr. Murray is a scholar.
During a recent visit to New York from his home in Burkittsville, Md., Mr. Murray called his views on the SAT “a direct follow-up to ‘The Bell Curve.’ ”
His doubts about the exam started after he read a 2001 study and follow-up done at the University of California finding that the combination of high school grades and standardized subject test scores predicted success in college just as well as the SAT.
“I read that and said, ‘This can’t be right,’ ” said Mr. Murray, who has long credited the SAT with revealing his own aptitude in 1961, when he applied to Harvard from an obscure high school in Newton, Iowa. But after further study, he decided the research was right.
Mr. Fitzsimmons said subject tests were the best predictor of good grades at Harvard, high school grade point average was second and the SAT was third. Although few colleges ask for subject tests, Harvard requires applicants to take three as well as the SAT, to give students more ways to show their abilities, he said.
The College Board, which administers both the SAT and the subject tests, not surprisingly said both were important. Although many more students take the SAT than the subject tests, Laurence Bunin, the board’s vice president of operations, said, “For kids who take both, 30 percent do differently on them.” Black students in this group, he added, more often do a bit better on the SAT than on the subject tests.
Where Mr. Murray and some other SAT skeptics may part company is in explaining why students from wealthy, highly educated families are overwhelmingly the high scorers.
Mr. Murray said this had nothing to do with being able to afford coaching because short-term test preparation had an insignificant impact on results. Both Mr. Fitzsimmons and the College Board agree that research shows that commercial coaching affects scores only marginally. “The urban legends about test preparation hurt the face validity of the test,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said. “If we do nothing else in this commission except get out that information about test preparation, then it would be worthwhile.”
Although coaching would no doubt continue if subject tests replaced the SAT, at least students would be focused on content as much as test-taking strategies, Mr. Murray said. There would also be pressure to improve local high school curriculums so that students were prepared, he wrote.
These arguments make sense to Mr. Fitzsimmons, who said, “People are going to prepare anyway, so they might as well study chemistry or biology.” He added that “the idea of putting more emphasis on the subject tests is of great interest” to his group.
But Mr. Murray takes his argument a step further. “The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids,” Mr. Murray wrote. “They are smart because their parents are smart.”
It is in the genes, he believes, rejecting the notion that wealth, privilege and cultural familiarity might be responsible for success instead.
This is the same point made in “The Bell Curve.” Although the brief sections of the book devoted to genes and race dominated debates, the authors’ overarching theme was about the widening gap between the successful, wealthier “cognitive elite,” who are marrying each other and passing on their talents and smarts to their children, and the impoverished underclass, who are leaving their children a legacy of weakness.
“We are cognitively stratified in a very worrisome way,” Mr. Murray said over coffee. “It is meritocracy with a vengeance. We now have increasing isolation from each other that is different from the old socioeconomic stratification.”
Mr. Murray said he had been thinking about these issues for a book he is working on about higher education, titled “Simple Truths.” He has four of them: Ability varies; half of all children are below average; too many people go to college; and the future depends on how the gifted are educated. At the moment, he said, “our college system is broke.”
On one hand, a proposal to abolish what is arguably the single most influential criterion for admission to college sounds pretty radical. On the other, Mr. Murray is simply suggesting that admissions officers replace one kind of nationally standardized test administered by the College Board with another kind.
Yet wouldn’t the subject tests eventually fall prey to the same failings of the SAT? No, said Mr. Murray, arguing that tests in subject areas studied in school lack the mystique of the SAT.
“A low-income student shut out of opportunity for an SAT coaching school has the sense of being shut out of mysteries,” he wrote. “Being shut out of a cram course is less daunting. Students know that they can study for a history or chemistry exam on their own.”