Get Ready for the Coming War Against Merit

What if the Supreme Court rules decisively against Harvard in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College? Will racial preferences fade into history as has Prohibition? Or will universities employ legally safe proxies such as social class to admit less qualified minorities?

Let me suggest one resistance tactic not yet on the agenda but, rest assured, it will show up: challenging the definition of “merit” that underlies the SAT, MCAT, GRE’s and similar tests. To be sure, racial and ethnic differences in these scores are probably intractable but developing new tests to replace old “racist” ones might narrow gaps sufficient for judges to conclude “close enough” to escape the verdict of racial discrimination.

For fans of preferences, this quest is relatively simple, and I suspect that woke Education Testing Service (ETS) psychometricians are already at work, given the firm’s financial incentives.

Let me try to predict the possible transformation of “merit.”

[Bow Down to Diversity or Risk Your Academic Career]

First, regardless of opinions regarding racial preferences, we can all agree that no Platonic “merit” exists akin to the precisely defined meter. The Bureau of Standards could hardly be asked to develop such a measure, so the ETS (or anybody else) can freely offer its own, scientifically appearing tests. “Merit” is socially constructed.

Second, test construction resembles sausage-making sans any labeling of ingredients; recipes are constantly being reformulated. Even the federal government once played this deceitful game beginning in 1981 with a tactic called race norming until it was banned in 1991. Here the top scores of blacks were equated with the top scores of whites even when blacks scored substantially lower to give the illusion of zero racial differences. Remember when SAT scores were “re-centered,” a highly technical, almost impenetrable process, and perhaps purposely so. The ETS may insist that their tests are the gold standard, but the value of gold can often be invisibly manipulated, and purity cannot be assumed.

One feature of the SAT is especially rich for fiddling racial gaps concerns incorporating test items heavy on abstract cognitive ability (“g-loaded in psychometric parlance). These items are both excellent predictors of academic success and, critically, award Asians and whites advantages over blacks and Hispanics. That understood, who determines the “correct” proportion of high g-loaded questions to those that measure cultural knowledge disproportionally found among African Americans?

What about adding vocabulary probably unknown to culturally unsophisticated Asians? Recall the almost forgotten debate over the term “regatta” in the SAT since few blacks, allegedly, were unfamiliar with that “Waspy” term. Conversely, there are so-called “black IQ” tests where African Americans outscore whites. It would not take much effort to eliminate questions that show sizable racial/ethnic differences provided everything was done slowly; test-takers, even admission officers, might not notice a radical altering of “merit.”

Even staunch defenders of today’s ETS-supplied “merit” version admit its shortcomings. There are college drop-outs with perfect 800 scores and those who excelled academically though with middling test scores (e.g., President Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate). While the SAT and similar tests generally predict worldly success, they are far from perfect, so there is always a constituency for making changes.

It is especially important to realize that standardized tests are totally unregulated and while ETS has been sued over the SAT, these suits are about cheating or access for the disabled, not the test itself. No FDA-like government agency certifies validity or that the test is “fair” or meets as credible scientific standard. This hardly gives ETS a free hand, but constraints are market driven—ensuring that schools require it for admission.

Let me suggest a possible intellectual framework that will guide transforming. The coup de grâce to the current definition of merit may well be the introduction of a three-decades-old idea with an excellent intellectual pedigree—multiple intelligences, as explicated by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. In a nutshell, Gardner argues that other “intelligences” exist (at least eight, maybe nine) besides the cognitive one measured by IQ. These include visual/spatial, linguistic/verbal, musical, interpersonal with logical-mathematical intelligence being the closest to the standard understanding of IQ. (A similar alternative to IQ is “emotional intelligence.”)

[Loyalty Oaths, Diversity Mandates, Faculty ‘Training’ at San Diego State]

To be sure, Gardner’s “intelligences” have been roundly criticized (usually as being just talents) but it has defenders, especially in schools of education, and there is no reason why his ideas cannot be incorporated into the admission process just as Harvard currently employs personality measures to exclude Asian applicants. More to the point, Harvard already uses two of Gardner’s “intelligences”– bodily-kinesthetic that favor admitting athletes while musical intelligence is the standard for accepting band members or those who will study music. And let’s not forget the cousin of Gardner’s approach—the already popular “holistic admissions” in which an otherwise academically unqualified applicant receives credit for a mishmash of non-cognitive talents. Surely it is arguable that the incorporation of at least some of these traits into the SAT itself is hardly racial.

And what if these new tests fail to predict with 100% accuracy classroom performance and that admitted minorities disproportionally flunk out? The rejoinder is simple: ditto for the current tests. Keep in mind that most of the controversy about test construction is about admission and not degrees (including degrees in majors such as Black Studies), and at least those admitted with these new “more encompassing” tests get an opportunity, and who can oppose opportunity? You can always just blame the school and professors for not paying greater attention to wider ranges of “intelligences” and perhaps demand special training for the faculty.

Yes, adding questions tapping Gardner-like multiple intelligences to the new and improved SAT would certainly be criticized as fakery, but as a political matter forget about challenging any test results that narrowed the racial/ethnic gaps (“turning back the clock” on diversity and inclusion). Critics might easily be silenced by cries of “you just don’t want blacks attending Harvard!” Further, add the benefit to schools in escaping litigation resulting from gross race-related disparities in test scores. Nor would judges automatically strike down this “new and improved” rigged test on the grounds that their sole purpose was to help black and Hispanic applicants at the expense of whites and Asians. In short, incorporating multiple intelligence (or something similar) in the admission process via a seemingly scientific instrument would be a political triumph of the first order, require only modest effort, and difficult to oppose on both historical and technical grounds.

The depressing conclusion is that racial preferences may well march on despite a favorable outcome in the Students for Fair Admission case. Why shoot the messenger when he can so easily be forced to lie?  Never underestimate the zeal or cleverness of ideologues. Think of it this way: if PC zealots can convince millions that biological sex differences are just socially constructed, corrupting “merit” into something that does not vary by race or ethnic group is a snap.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

8 thoughts on “Get Ready for the Coming War Against Merit

  1. This will “work” for about five years. After five years, white students will be taking “test prep” classes that teach the targeted “culture”, g will take back over, and we will be right back where we started.

    You can’t beat g. It is smart enough to route around any obstructions you place.

  2. The coup de grâce to the current definition of merit may well be the introduction of a three-decades-old idea with an excellent intellectual pedigree—multiple intelligences, as explicated by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner.

    Last I read, the intellectual pedigree is far from “excellent.” It’s a vague, hand-waving “just so story” and attempts to demonstrate it have shown that all the other supposed “intelligences” correlate strongly back to g.

  3. There are 2 plausible reasons why someone with 800/800 scores drops out of college. First reason- they are as bored in college as they were in HS. No challenge. Second- they sailed through HS without ever studying, and went into a rigorous program that required studying, even for them. A skill they NEVER learned. It’s tough to pick up.

    It’s likely that half of all people in the 99th percentile of the SAT never studied in HS. In 1973, 750/760 placed you there. I never studied. My BS is in political science, an easily self taught major. I started out in marine engineering. LaPlace transforms and Fourier equations were my downfall in math. And my reactor physics prof gave me a “D” as long as I promised I wouldn’t go into reactor design. Couldn’t teach myself that higher level math and the classroom instruction wasn’t enough. Classroom instruction got me through HS calculus. Couldn’t teach that to myself either.

    If all students were tracked from the gitgo and the brightest constantly taken out from the regular classroom and lumped in with others like them, and then the brightest of those taken out and lumped with people like them- we’d be much better off. Probably as early as 4th or 5th grade boarding schools would be needed to bring the most academically adept together and in competition with others like them. It would also aid in that other concept educators love to bandy about- socialization. A kid two standard deviations above his classmates in intelligence has trouble communicating with them. A kid 3 or more is an outcast. And the teachers will ALWAYS blame him (or her) for their outcast problem, saying they need to try harder to get along with others. Why the others don’t need to make a similar effort is never discussed….. If everyone around them is at the same level, socialization comes easier.

  4. This idiocy stems from an ignorance of economics. It is not just goods that are in short supply, it is also ability and intelligence. Any society that squanders it educational resources upon any but those most able to use them, will suffer in many but invisible ways. Inventions will not be invented, cures will not be found, and the level of education available will of necessity decline to the level of the least qualified. We will all be impoverished by the profligate wasting educational talent as well as the intelligence of the most able.

  5. Wouldn’t a far simpler solution be to focus on zip codes? Residential zip codes are directly related to economic wealth, and also racial/ethnic composition. If elite schools gave preference to “poor zip codes” rather than straight race quotas, you would largely accomplish the racial goals of the schools, without the direct quota stigma. It would also incentivize parents to move and improve into bad neighborhoods, as opposed to fleeing to suburbs.

  6. “You can flunk them, but you not only run into upset parents complaining to the principal and superintendent but Federal laws (unique to K-12) which require you to provide a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) to every child. ”

    You will also run into the simple fact that there’s not enough room to warehouse them. 30 years ago, my mother and the rest of the staff were being told “You can only flunk them once at each grade level whether they know the material or not; we just don’t have the classroom space to keep them.” There was also the largely unspoken fact that keeping a kid who’s 2-3 years past grade level in age is a discipline nightmare.

  7. I look at this a little bit differently — when you have mixed ability grouping, combined with an expectation that the majority of your students will pass your course, you wind up teaching to the lowest common denominator. You really have no choice.

    This is what heterogeneous grouping (i.e. the elimination of “tracking”) has already done to the high school classroom. You have to teach to the bottom ability level because otherwise you will leave those students behind, and not only will they disrupt your classroom in an attempt to slow things down to their pace (and they will) but in K-12 you really aren’t allowed to flunk anyone.

    You can flunk them, but you not only run into upset parents complaining to the principal and superintendent but Federal laws (unique to K-12) which require you to provide a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) to every child. “Appropriate” means teaching the child at the child’s ability level, and as the child is in a mixed ability level classroom, teaching the entire classroom at that level. Yes, you can give the brighter children extra busywork to do, but you really can’t teach them at the level that is appropriate for them — usually the bright ones are bored out of their minds.

    What eliminating selective (ability level based) admissions, by whatever means, serves to do is create the same mixed-ability heterogeneously-grouped classroom on the college level. This really is the underlying precept here — these games are really only valid if you do not believe that there are inherent differences in intellectual ability between different individuals, if you believe in the myths behind heterogeneous grouping. And that’s what I think they really do believe…

    The professor thus winds up in the same position as the high school teacher because while FAPE doesn’t apply, no institution would (or could) tolerate a significant fraction of its students flunking out*. Colleges and universities worry about attrition, they worry about it in terms of statistics and academic ratings, and they worry about in terms of finances. And departments worry about it in terms of headcounts and faculty budget lines — it’s hard to justify offering courses without students choosing to take them…

    Hence true academic rigor gets replaced with busywork and the quality of the education gets diluted. What’s not being said is that in playing games with admissions — by whatever means — Harvard is no longer admitting a select cadre of the best & brightest. And thus Harvard’s faculty can not teach at the level that the best & brightest are able to learn at, they have to “dumb down” the curriculum to the level of the less able students in their classrooms. And that serves to dilute the quality of education for all.

    Yes, Harvard’s been around since 1636 and has lots of money, but should its standards decline enough, its degrees will cease to have the intrinsic value they currently enjoy. It’s like the economics example of the highly-regarded brand of sausage which is increasingly made with inferior-but-cheaper meat over time to the point where it no longer is a highly-regarded brand able to command a premium price. Harvard may be “Harvard” but its degrees are only worth what people (including employers) are willing to pay for them.

    Taken to the extreme are things like the
    MAICEI program at UMass Amherst which “provides high school students aged 18-21 with significant (typically autism or intellectual) disabilities the opportunity to have a college experience alongside their non-disabled peers.” (In an earlier and far less sensitive era, “Intellectual Disability” was called “Mental Retardation” — it’s still defined as below average intelligence and lack of skills necessary for daily living, MAICEI defines it as having an IQ of less than 70 to 75. )

    Yes, let’s put profoundly disabled individuals — so disabled that they not only are unable to participate in a regular high school curriculum but are still in high school up to the cut-off age of 21** because of the severity of their disabilities — in college classrooms… I’m not making this up, UMass Amherst really has a program that gives them access to “all undergraduate UMass courses” and it’s really nothing but the myths behind heterogeneous grouping carried to their logical conclusion. The only real difference between Harvard admitting lower-IQ students and UMass’s MAICEI admitting lower-IQ students is the extent to which the IQs (and hence presumed abilities) are lower…

    But if you don’t think that matters — if you don’t believe that IQ affects ability to learn or the inherent benefits of homogeneous (ability level) grouping, then there is nothing wrong with having a kid with an IQ in the 60s literally sitting next to kids whose IQs are twice that. And if you don’t think that matters, then all of this makes sense — because we don’t want to be racist, because we don’t want to be abilist, because we are nice people who don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

    But if we care about providing an appropriate education to the best and brightest of the next generation, we’d damn well better care! And this really isn’t about race — not really — it’s more of the collectivist belief that everyone is identical, something truly ironic because it’s being promoted by those whose mantra is “diversity”, but then we already know the limited scope of the “diversity” which they seek.

    And this is going to get nasty, I fear….
    * Most of the students I’ve seen flunk out simply didn’t go to class (for a variety of reasons). The days of freshmen being told to “look to your left, look to your right” are long over — even law schools now have “retention specialists”…

    ** Age 21 is the point where high school special education ends for those who haven’t already earned a diploma.

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