How to stop hammering the nail that sticks out

Just make stuff up.  That is the best way to ace the essay portion of the SAT, according to Matthew J. X. Malady. This is because time-pressured essay graders don’t care about facts. Students just need to show that they have the writing competency. It’s an abomination to coach kids to write like this.

Still, “the ability to bullshit on demand” by whipping out five paragraphs, with an intro, body and conclusion, taking sides on issues you don’t know or care about will not hurt your chances to thrive in a salaried job as a paper pusher.

The ability to learn by rote (and not think critically), which is what’s required to do well on the multiple-choice section, is less prized.  Over the summer, I spent $1,700 and precious evenings and weekends honing that skill for the graduate version of SAT.

Sample question: “Julia’s savings account balance increased by 20% during the year after she received a raise. The next year, her account balance decreased by $200, for a 20% decrease in her account balance during the two years. What was the initial balance in her savings account when she received her raise?”

Choices: (A) $100, (B) $200, (C) $300, (D) $400, (E) $500.

“Backsolving” rules, because you can skip the algebra (and save time). Plug in an answer choice, starting with B or D to try out as few answer choices as possible. For example, if you start with choice B, and the value is too big, then you know automatically that A is the right answer. The rationale for trying out D works the same. My Kaplan instructor told me that if you start with B or D, statistically, you have 40 percent chance of getting the right answer without having to plug in other answer choices.

Not that any of these matters, since everyone, like robots, can be coached to rack up scores. The question is not if the writing section is less disgraceful than the multiple-choice section; it’s why we are so attached to these exams in the first place.

Tests like the SAT endure onslaughts of criticism because they fulfill the imaginary need for a common yardstick. If standardizing is the goal, by all means, we should stick to the status quo. Uniform testing inspires uniform skills. But if we care about a diverse and innovative student body in universities, we should find a better way to assess students.

Admissions exams are not just an American scourge. In China, military-like prep schools crank out high-scoring students, who flood their bloodstream with amino acids cramming for the university entrance exam “gaokao.” In South Korea, aircrafts are grounded and offices open later when youngsters take the multiple-choice exams that determine their life trajectories.

Culturally speaking, I understand why standardized tests might be popular in societies that value conformity (think Japan or Korea, for example). There, you strive to become like everyone else: get into the same prestigious university and firm, marry a spouse with the same impeccable credentials and have a kid as gifted as other kids. There is comfort in looking and thinking like everyone else.

But conformity cannot be achieved without punishing those who deviate from the standard. As the Japanese saying goes, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered back in.” Using test scores to disqualify students is like hammering the nail that’s sticking out.

If churning out professional automatons with identical skills is the aim, admitting applicants based on subject tests is efficient, democratic, even virtuous. But if universities care about creativity or originality, it makes zero sense to rely on the SAT or ACT.

There is no magical one-size-fits-all bar that can objectively compare students who have led completely different lives. A lower SAT score of 1200 could be the result of lack of intelligence or lack of resources. A score of 1900 at the higher end could be the result of six months of studying or no studying. No two students who have the same SAT scores are equivalent.

What should universities do instead?

First, adopt flexible testing requirements. NYU now accepts results from other nationally or internationally accredited exams in addition to SAT or ACT. This gives applicants an opportunity to flaunt their knowledge in topics other than math or English.

Second, seek multiple indicators of learning.  Bard College’s decision to give applicants the option to write four 2,500-word research papers is a progressive step. DePaul, which dropped the testing requirement in 2011, uses research-based essay questions to explore attributes such as leadership and long-term goals.

Third, don’t use cut-off scores as a quick-and-dirty way to filter tens of thousands of applicants. Devote resources to find a less lazy way. Malcolm Gladwell describes in his new book, David and Goliath, how students on the bubble who don’t get into their top-choice school actually fare better off than their peers at the bottom of the Ivy League stack, which goes to show the futility in having cut-off points based on frivolous standardized exams in the first place.

Finally, don’t use exam scores to offset grade inflation. Instead, look to students’ performance in college prep courses and the strength of their high schools’ curriculum. Don’t dismiss GPA as artificial or meaningless. It can be tweaked to find evidence that students have mastered the most challenging courses.

The essay is not the problem – it’s the rest of the exam, which rewards skills like memorization and backwards induction. A successful and productive workforce is one that thinks creatively on its feet, not one able to ace entrance exams based on how many correct boxes are checked.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2013. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.