Mark Safranski has another installment in his series on foreign policy and the American elite up at ZenPundit. In the post he has a claim that I don’t believe stands up to scrutiny:
The SAT and other measures to sift the best from increasingly larger pools of prospective students also had the effect of dramatically raising the mean ability level of the students in top tier and even second tier universities. Harvard students in 2006 would wipe the floor with those who went there in 1946 or even 1966 on any standardized test of IQ.
Actually, it’s the opposite: admission standards (as measured by standardized tests) are lower at Harvard today than they were 40 years ago. Harvard does not, apparently, release the average SAT scores of its students. But according to this and this the average SAT scores for students at Harvard was in the high 1400’s somewhere. In 1960 the average entering Harvard freshman had a combined SAT score of 1373.
Does this confirm Mark’s claim? No. The SAT scores have been renormed (AKA “recentered” or “rescaled”) since 1960. Here are the effects of the renorming. The renorming would have those 1960 scores somewhere in the mid 1400’s. Or, said another way, the scores have gone up but the kids are about as smart as they were.
You can argue over the validity of the SAT in any number of ways but the reality is that the Ivy League schools do not now and never have selected their students for ability. They have selected them for future prospects of success which are more complicated criteria that include ability, ambition, and family position—which is why the “legacies” like George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Al Gore (just to pick a few at random) made sense and continue to make sense.
In a very real sense the criterion of future success is self-defining: there’s been an observed tendency for Ivy League grads to value their own Ivy League experience (and undervalue the experience of non-Ivy Leaguers), a natural enough response. The Ivy League CEO promotes Ivy League juniors, who promote other Ivy Leaguers and the entire process becomes self-sustaining and self-validating.
But the reality is that the ability of any given Ivy League grad or even the average ability of Ivy League grads says nothing whatever about the ability of any given non-Ivy League grad.
The truly insidious thing about the elite school system is that, while I’ll acknowledge that the Ivy League and other elite schools’ admissions policies are probably pretty good at establishing minimum admissions standards—a floor, if you will, they’re also establishing a ceiling. Look at the test scores, grades, and backgrounds of those admitted to the elite schools in the United States. I find it hard to believe that Newton, Gauss, Mozart, Beethoven, Tom Edison, or Albert Einstein would have been admitted to any of them. Most of them were poor kids and all of them (except for Gauss) were indifferent students. Or worse. Further, most of them had psychological problems (mostly depression). I don’t believe the Harvard Admissions Office would have picked a one of them as the greatest mathematician, composer, physicist, or inventor the world has ever known.
It was hard for these geniuses to be recognized or published in their times. With our self-referential and self-reverential educational and social systems it’s that much harder now.
This is the problem with credentialism, generally: while it may provide a floor it will also create a ceiling and some of those who are potentially the very best in a field but are unwilling or unable to pursue the credential for one reason or another are screened out. You can observe this very clearly in upstart industries, as the small computer business was in the 1980’s. Many of today’s leaders, like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Steve Jobs, were college dropouts (Gates dropped out of Harvard; Dell and Jobs attended non-elite colleges briefly). As the nice, safe graduates of elite schools have come increasingly to dominate, the innovation has left the field.
Here are a couple of other interesting articles on the history of the SAT’s: