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Harvard’s Lani Guinier: Do away with ‘testocratic merit’ in college admissions

You may remember Lani Guinier as Bill Clinton’s nominee for assistant attorney general back in 1993.

Eventually, Clinton withdrew Guinier’s name from consideration after some of her more controversial opinions came to light.

She is now at Harvard Law School and her new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America takes aim at exams like the SAT used in college admissions.

She says, “Testocratic merit makes the assumption that test scores are the best evidence of applicants’ worth, without paying much attention to the environments in which one finds those individuals. It thereby ignores several built-in biases that privilege those who are already quite advantaged.”

Not quite, argues The Pope Center’s George Leef:

What Guinier’s book does is to couple the jaded argument that standard testing is unfair (because students who come from affluent families tend to do better) with a new complaint, namely that such tests are mistakenly regarded as a measure of an individual’s worth.

Neither part of that argument holds up.

While student scores on tests like the SAT or ACT are not a perfect way of assessing their academic capabilities, they are a pretty good way of evaluating how they rank against others. A student with an 800 on the math section of the SAT is undoubtedly much better able to deal with college math courses than is a student who scored 500.

It makes sense to put students of roughly comparable intellectual ability together in the same school for the same reason it makes sense to put, say, tennis players of roughly equal ability in tournament flights. Pitting strong players against weak ones is not good for either. The same is true for students.

But much more troubling is Guinier’s claim that we take a student’s test scores as evidence of his or her worth. Is that really how Americans look at differences in how well individuals fare on tests—that high scorers are superior to those with lower scores? I know of no one who believes that and all that Guinier does to bolster her assertion is to give the reader a made-up anecdote about an ill-mannered student who keeps bragging that he got a high score—not at all persuasive.

Testing to evaluate a person’s abilities is reasonable and necessary. It’s a red herring to claim that doing so is unfair and denigrating to those who don’t do well.

Nevertheless, Guinier thinks that our educational institutions should abandon their embrace of “testocratic merit” and instead “develop democratic merit because the latter is the foundation upon which our national values ought to rest.”

If you’re wondering just what “democratic merit” is, so does Leef: “How do educational institutions decide which students have it and thus deserve admission? How do they then develop that merit further?”

Read the full article.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 18 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.