Bowie: Flaunting the SAT fetish

Some people are turned on by whips and leather. And as I learned from last Thursday’s News’ View (“Yale should keep the SAT — but only for now,” 9/25) on the SATs, even standardized tests can get some Yalies aroused.

Taking the role of fetishizer in stride, the News refused to be turned off by recent studies that discounted the role the SAT should play in admissions or the fact that SAT scores could be replaced by parents’ tax returns with no loss in information for admissions officers. As with any good fetish, the concept of standardized tests captivates the News more than the “sexy” but “gimmicky” plan of making such tests optional.

But why?

The News claims that testless and “purely qualitative” applications would un-level the figurative playing field, reducing the quality of admitted students. The News also happens to be a newspaper whose own application process for potential journalists is, well, purely qualitative. Hmm. So could the News improve the quality of its journalism by instituting a standardized test of its own? Let’s use an SAT question to figure it out:

“The Yale Daily News is currently recruiting 25 new staff reporters. There are 5 juniors, 10 sophomores, and 40 freshmen who applied. If the News forces all of its applicants to pass a standardized test that requires answering some Algebra II problems, completing a few reading responses and being six-feet tall, how many Yalies will invest in leg extensions or thick weaves to get accepted?”

The answer is probably (C): A few. But many of the applicants would likely ask the sensible question of how any aspect of that objective, quantifiable and standardized test relates to being a good journalist.

A similar question was asked of the Los Angeles Police Department several years ago, when it also included a height requirement as part of its application. After being sued by disqualified female applicants, the LAPD could not conclusively demonstrate how candidates shorter than 5’6” were not qualified to be good police officers. So instead of leveling the playing field, the standardized test was systematically — but objectively — discriminating against women.

The same principle applies to standardized tests: Just because a test is objective does not make it useful or harmless. A straight-A student from Nebraska may have gone to a poorer school than a straight-A student at Choate, but the SATs cannot fix this problem. Instead, they might exacerbate it, as one student could have more time to invest in test prep while the other feels performance anxiety because of her ethnic background. In either case, both students would lose out by having to invest energy toward a senseless exam.

On the other hand, the Nebraskan’s GPA and the recommendations of her teachers would likely (and statistically) tell much more about what type of student she is than the professed impartiality of any standardized test.

And even if the Nebraskan is a worse student — so what? This is a college, not a modeling agency. If Yale prides itself on educating students while they’re here instead of just selecting the most attractive applicants before they show up, what is actually wrong with a purely qualitative assessment of its applicant pool?

So long as we fetishize standardized tests as rational solutions to the problem of admissions, we will continue to confuse test scores with merit and objectivity with fairness and, as the News did last week, mistake the concept of testing with something “noble.” As with leather whips, standardized tests are harmful when mishandled, and universities should be embarrassed to use them in public.

Niko Bowie is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at


  • ELi

    "… while the other feels performance anxiety because of her ethnic background."

    WTF??? What kind of weird paternalism is this?

    Stop making excuses for people.

  • Niko
  • Y11

    @Y09: I agree wholeheartedly. When an administration goes out on a "mission" to diversify its numbers, qualifications WILL be overlooked. My personal top 2 for this job DO happen to fall under the diversification category, but I truly believe them to be the most qualified. If they were not, however, their gender and race alone would NOT be a reason to catapult them into the standings.

    It's well and good to desire a diverse group running our school, but not "just because" and certainly not in lieu of other less diverse candidates who may be more qualified. Let's be careful.

  • PP, Pierson '90

    Tokenism is is a beautiful thing.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it's just me, but I can't help but feel that this test-prep-course hysteria is overblown. It's certainly true that it's possible to do well on standardized tests without taking them or being from a standard Ivy-prep background.

    The question, for me, is what signals to a student that he/she OUGHT to apply to Yale, because there's actually a chance she'll/he'll get admitted. Some people never think of applying to Ivies because they assume they could never get in; some dream of it but, suspecting they're not actually as smart as those rich people, don't apply. (Heck, I'm still convinced that I would've gotten worse grades at an Ivy feeder than I got at my decent Midwestern public school.) I get that standardized test scores occasionally reinforce that inferiority, but on other occasions they prove it wrong. How would you propose convincing a student that, whatever her doubts, she is actually good enough to come to Yale?