The idea of merit is at the heart of the recent lawsuit against Harvard admissions, and the US Supreme Court bought into it, selectively, to end the use of affirmative action in college admissions. Merit, however it is quantified, has immediate appeal and attracts attention. But scores of any merit test, in America and elsewhere, must be understood carefully and interpreted properly to be meaningful.
The merit test at the center of the Harvard lawsuit is the SAT, a standardized test that has been used in the American undergraduate college admission process for some time. There are questions about the legitimacy of SAT or other similar tests as an indicator of merit, so many colleges are moving away from using the tests. While such questions are reasonable and deserve good answers, this writing focuses on how such a test, if required, should be used for screening a vast number of applications.
Few understand the details of the SAT scores of Harvard applicants that led to the lawsuit, and fewer understand what the scores mean. So first some background. The college board that administers the SAT changed the test drastically, beginning in 2015; the new SAT is not relevant, since the data used in the Harvard lawsuit is based on scores of 18 cycles from 1995 to 2003. The scores of admitted (as opposed to who merely applied) students across all three sections of the test, where the maximum for each section is 800, averaged as follows: Asian Americans 767; Non-Hispanic whites: 745; Blacks: 704. Roughly, Asian Americans averaged 60 points more than Black students. That Asian American admitted students have higher scores is statistically significant, meaning it is not a random coincidence.
What exactly do the SAT scores mean? Approximately, a score of over 700 out of 800 classifies the student as being better than 90% of the test takers. All Harvard admits, including Black students, were above this bar. Here is the meaning of the difference between a student who scores 700 vs one who scores 750 on the Math section: Answering 48 out of 58 vs 52 out of 58 questions correctly. Out of 58 questions, admitted Black students on average answered correctly about 4 fewer questions than white students who averaged 2 fewer than Asian American students. When we note that those who can afford can receive tutoring and can take the SAT multiple times in addition to being taught at better-resourced schools and guided by more educated parents, that one student answers 5 more questions than another out of 58 questions becomes a less compelling claim for relative merit. Add to it that most Harvard admitted students of all races have a near perfect Grade Point Average, meaning they have received an A grade or equivalent in almost every course they took in four years of high school. Certainly, this is not a case about admitting morons when geniuses abound!
For colleges inundated with applications, an individual case-by-case analysis, though may be ideal, is resource intensive and not practical. So, despite their drawbacks, SAT-like tests may have value for initial screening to separate out students who are likely to succeed at a college. But using strictly and only the scores of a test would lead to arbitrary decisions, such as admitting students with 94% points and rejecting ones with 93%. Every teacher will tell you that all those students are in the same class, and the raw score makes distinctions when there aren’t any.
A better, more meaningful merit-based idea is to pick from among students who pass a high bar. Perhaps, that bar is 700+ average SAT scores, i.e., “A” grade students, for Harvard and maybe 600+ SAT scores for another college. From among those who clear their high bar, colleges can consider their achievements within the context of their opportunities and challenges (a probabilistic idea): first generation college students, students from rural schools, students from public schools in impoverished areas, students from a state such as Alabama with a poor educational support system, children of single parents, Black children, native American children, and children on a (figurative) island. Race and education are intertwined topics. No system is perfect. But the process should not unfairly reject the many who are already disadvantaged, by relying on a simplistic notion of merit.
I give a rock-climbing analogy. When you see a snapshot of climbers on a wall, some have reached higher than others. Are those who have reached the highest the best of the bunch? Climbers will tell us not. Some challenge themselves, albeit purposely, and take only a select subset of handholds and footholds, even as others use all available supports. Once we factor this in, we see that any sensible comparison needs to include both how high they have reached and what their means were. This is roughly the case for affirmative action — understanding the varying support systems and the idea of relative merit — considering only those who clear a high bar of quality!
It is not that complicated: Being Black in America today is disadvantageous. That a majority of justices on the Supreme Court used an amendment meant to enshrine equal rights for the enslaved to eviscerate affirmative action for the descendants of the formerly enslaved is a tragedy. It is a tragedy that colleges must overcome, beginning with explaining why meaningful merit is not and should not be simplistic.
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