Setting the floor (and the ceiling)

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:

Malcolm Gladwell, “Getting In”

Paul E. Peterson, “Ticket to Nowhere”

10 comments… add one
  • hi Dave,

    Actually, while the SAT scoring has been “renormed” -mostly to boost minority scores and inflate the number of ” perfect” 1600 scores – the test itself has also been changed to eliminate ” cultural bias”.

    The effect of these alterations is to steadily tilt the test away from measuring the effects of schooling to that of reasoning by increasing the g-loading aspect of the test questions. Now, that doesn’t make the SAT an IQ test by any means but it gives innate reasoning capacity a greater edge than it once had. Now you can say that is a subte difference but where that difference matters most is at highly selective institutions measuring longitudinally.

    So, while perhaps ” wipe the floor” was a bit excessive I have to stand by my contention that you have a brighter pool of freshmen today, if perhaps less rigorously schooled, than previous generations when Harvard, Yale, Princeton solely were preserves of class.

  • I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this, my friend. Not only are the raw SAT scores roughly the same (taking the re-norming into account) but the standard deviation is higher now. That means that, although the average is about the same, there are more smarter and more dumber students at Harvard than there were 40 years ago.

  • “…That means that, although the average is about the same, there are more smarter and more dumber students at Harvard than there were 40 years ago”

    True. As I said, a brighter pool – albeit with a shallower end ;o)

  • lirelou Link

    I’m afraid I have to disagree that Harvard was soley a preserver of “class”. My aunt graduated from Radcliffe sometime in the late 20’s or early 30’s, and she was from a working class Irish family. I looked through her yearbook once, and noticed Jewish, German, Italian, and (I believe) Greek names, all according to my aunt, from families like her own. Obviously, there were a lot of classmates from the higher socio-economic strata, and I don’t know what percentage of working class was represented, but their existence is a nagging fact that belies claims that Harvard (Radcliffe) was soley for the daughters of the rich and powerful. As for the 40s generation, a judge and elder attorney I knew some years ago were both Harvard Law grads, the first an Italian-American son, and the second a Russian Jewish son, of immigrants. Both had served in WWII, but I failed to ever ask whether they had attended Harvard before of after the war (which might have made a difference from a GI Bill perspective).

    Sometimes we need to verify our paradigms.

  • I never claimed that Harvard was solely a preserver of class, lirelou. What I claimed is that the idea that Harvard grads of today are much smarter than those of 40 years ago is, at best, exaggerated. Harvard’s admissions office seeks “future success&148;, which is not the same as merit and is to some extent circularly defined.

    I believe that the idea that elite colleges are meritocracies is a mixture of the truth, self-fulfilling prophecy, and self-congratulation.

  • “…and noticed Jewish, German, Italian, and (I believe) Greek names, all according to my aunt, from families like her own.”

    Yes, there were always some ” outsiders” admitted to Ivy League schools – that is, for example, how George F. Kennan was able to get his foot in the door of the Eastern Establishment.

    But there were also quotas operating here, particularly in regard to Jews. We know this explicitly because antisemitic concerns were freely discussed and written down by figures no less than Charles Conant.

    Exceptions are not the rule.

  • lirelou Link

    Dave, We are in total agreement that any claim that today’s grads are smarter, to any degree, than previous generations is questionable at best. Reminds me of the 80’s Army where the buzz word was that the then “today’s Army had the best leadership we’ve ever had”. And you are 100% correct that elite colleges are not “meritocracies”. Private universities don’t have to be, but you would expect government funded institutions to be run on a principle of demonstrated merit rather than extraneous factors.

    Mark, Exceptions certainly are not the rule, but if you come up with enough exceptions, it’s time to re-examine the basic assumption. Exceptions do exist, and can be deceiving: even the Confederacy had a Benjamin Judah among its high government officials. I do recall a comment on television once about the elite universities not accepting Jews prior to WWII, yet one activity mentioned in my Aunt’s yearbook was, if memory serves, Hadassah. Remember, this was in the days prior to government mandated minority representation, so these non-establishment students got in on merit alone. I think it fair to assume that their numbers would at first be small, and my hunch is that the great majority of such minotiry elite students in the 1920s and 30s would have been first generation Americans. In any event, the television commentary was wrong.

    What good is a para-dime (sic) if it won’t buy a cup of coffee?

    Ah, Frog in a Well China links to the obituary of an eminent China scholar, and Oklahoma native, who was also a pre-WWII Harvard grad.

  • My Aunt Lillian Rosenblum Pines, graduated from Radcliffe in 1915. I was wondering how many Jewish women were in her class and if there was a quota. Curiously, I just read that half of the graduating class, more than 40 women never married or had children. She was in that group. I knew her well, as I was 32 when she died at age 100 in 1984. I knew that she had a very large Wedgewood collection, but I hadn’t realized that she was a jewelry designer. I also knew her mother Rebecca Rosenblum. Becky lived to be more than 100 as did my grandmother. They were all the cousins of Dr. Kermit Pines and the publisher Ned Pines. Most of the Pines boys of the same era were at Columbia while Lilly was at Radcliffe.

  • Charles M. Strauss Link

    A comment on the running comments: See Dean Bender’s remarks in the first chapter of The Bell Curve on how much admissions to Harvard changed in the single decade 1950-1960. I believe that my class was almost one-third Jewish and more than one-half non-prep-schooled (but memory grows furtive, as Colonel John R. Stingo used to say). Against that, my classmates sometimes muse about whether or not they would get into Harvard if they were young and applying today. And almost all of us are convinced to this day that WE were the one person that the admissions office screwed up on!

Leave a Comment