Standard Issue

SATs, Grade Inflation, and Merit

Over the last three decades, liberals have dominated the power struggle in the academy more stridently with each passing year—what with the aging, baby-booming hippies coming up for tenure in large numbers, and the conservative old guard seeming to retire just as fast. Sure, squabbles are ongoing, but lately the left seems to be winning them even more often, and conservative resisters are looking punier and punier as the liberal power structure entrenches itself more deeply. Is outright victory in sight for the left? And if so, what will that mean?

First, consider an article that appeared recently in the New York Times education supplement, in which Emily Eakin, onetime senior editor at Lingua Franca, archly condoned the de-emphasis of the Western canon at several of our nation's leading colleges and universities. At an increasing number of such schools, Eakin reported, students may now earn degrees in English literature without ever reading Shakespeare. Eakin, a literature major, boasts of having passed over many of the classics, and argues that she is no better or worse off for it. So much, I guess, for that conservative sacred cow—the Western canon.

But there are other, more disturbing bellwethers. Recently, a group of top executives at a number of major American corporations sent a letter to various college presidents, advising them to pay less attention to applicants' SAT scores. Why? Because according to a survey conducted by the National Urban League, such scores have proved to be bad predictors of success in the business world. It seems that test smarts are not the thing they're looking for anymore in prospective hires. Arguably, that's the strongest collective assault on the SATs that academe has seen in years, and it came from the powers that be. Another point for the left? On a third front, there has been much talk of late about grade inflation. Harvard professor of government Harvey C. Mansfield has argued recently that the practice of giving very good grades for mediocre work, which he says has been rampant at Harvard since the early '70s, "deserve[s] to be a scandal.'' According to Mansfield, "one-fourth of all grades given to undergraduates are now A's, and another fourth are A-'s.''

Echoing this sentiment, Stuart Rojstaczer, associate professor of hydrology at Duke University, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "In an attempt to attract more students, I felt compelled to become the purveyor of easy, and easily graded, courses. . . . [But] I've decided to challenge my students again. I'm going back to giving A's only to students who are truly a cut above the rest. I cordially invite other instructors at Duke and elsewhere to do the same. Who knows? Maybe it is possible to collectively raise our classroom standards that way.'' Maybe. If you're not just a hoarse voice crying in the wilderness.

Now you might say that three losses for the right do not an utter defeat make—until, that is, you put them all together and ask yourself: What's the common denominator? The answer is the erosion of standards, the systematic elimination of measurements, the doing away with classification of some people and books as better than others.

Now, in the liberal worldview this makes sense. Since, as relativists, they don't accept the objectivity of these crusty scientific measurements. Moreover, as radical egalitarians, they don't accept, and, more importantly, want to do away with these classifications for another reason. Because classifications are inherently elitist. Meritocratic, but elitist nonetheless. Meritocracies are elitest institutions, after all, though laudable ones.

This, I suppose, is the part with the scariest implications. If liberals win outright, if they succeed in doing away with standards, what then? Try to imagine a world without standards. It would be a very strange place. Applications and diplomas would be of no use, since the scores and grades on them wouldn't mean anything anyway. Résumés, too, would become largely irrelevant, because they're just more numbers and facts that, if the CEOs are right, don't have any real bearing on whether you're qualified for the job at hand.

In such a world, how would schools admit applicants? How would employers hire prospective employees? It would seem there could remain only one fair and truly egalitarian method of decision making: lottery. Without standards, without judgments, it seems that chance can be the only fair arbiter. Is this where we're headed, and if so, can we accept it? We'd better start figuring it out.

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