Although it has grown quite a bit over the past few decades, in the mid-1980s, Tulsa, Oklahoma was a much sleepier place.
In some ways, it reminded me of my hometown, Nashville: hot and ever-prayerful, with churches dotting the landscape and defining much of the community’s culture. In the case of Tulsa, that hegemonic Christianity was capped off by a 60-foot pair of bronze, praying hands outside Oral Roberts University’s “City of Faith,” a medical center built by the televangelist founder of the college, according to legend, after a 900-foot tall Jesus commanded him to do so.
No regular hospital, the center blended faith healing with medicine, operating under the impression that cancer would yield as readily to the power of heavenly entreaties as it might to chemo and radiation.
Which turns out not to be true, and which might help explain why the facility went bankrupt and closed a few years later. For those wondering, the 30-ton praying hands were then moved to the main campus of Oral Roberts University, a place where students must take pledges not to lie, curse, drink, smoke or engage in sexual activity, and where, therefore, a little divine intervention might well be needed.
In any event, it was the summer of 1986, the first time I visited Tulsa for the National Forensics League’s national high school speech and debate tournament.
On or about the second day in the city, three of us from Nashville and one debater from New York went across the street from our hotel to a Waffle House for breakfast. Although Waffle House was nothing particularly special for us, coming from the south, where it has long been a destination for hash browns cooked more ways than there are stars in our galaxy, for the New Yorker, it seemed more of a cultural revelation.
I can’t recall what Robert, Todd or I ordered, though I am sure it involved one or another style of the above-mentioned shredded potatoes, grease, and the requisite amount of toast needed to soak it up.
But I recall quite clearly what David ordered because he did it with such excitement, like a kid receiving a new puppy. He didn’t even need to read the menu. He had known what he wanted as soon as he walked in, and minutes later, enthusiastically looking up at the waitress, he ordered it in a manner befitting something from a Woody Allen film:
“I would like a grit, please.”
That would be grit, singular.
As in, just one grit, because having never had them before, how can one know if one will like them enough to desire grits, plural? Better to start slow and see what happens.
The moment was good for a laugh, and even David seemed to appreciate the humor of it once his culinary error was explained.
There was no shame in his not knowing what grits were, just as there would be no shame in a kid from Yazoo, Mississippi lacking familiarity with lox and bagels or any of several other things that Jewish kids in New York, like David, have grown up with for generations.
The experience was a reminder that what we know — what any of us know — is a function of that to which we have been exposed. It says nothing about our capacity for learning. It is merely an indicator of what we know at a particular moment in time.
And this is what brings me to the SAT and the subject of standardized testing because this story is relevant to that subject on two levels.
First, because as with the knowledge of grits or lox, knowing the material on standardized tests says little about someone’s ability to know the material. It merely reflects the kind of content with which test-takers are familiar because it reflects their backgrounds or the quality of schooling they received. It says nothing about aptitude for learning, which is probably why even the makers of the SAT decided many years ago that the letters no longer stood for anything. The A no longer stands for aptitude. It stands for nothing, as with the S or the T, at least to hear the folks at the College Board tell it.
Oh, and speaking of the College Board, which owns and administers the SAT?
It’s headed up by its ninth president currently, the holder of a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale, a Masters in Ancient Philosophy from Cambridge, a well-respected, intelligent and thoughtful education reformer, once named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
He was also a former debater at New York’s Stuyvesant High School.
And, most importantly, the infamous orderer of one single, solitary grit in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the summer of 1986: David Coleman.
The same David Coleman who recently shepherded in the College Board’s decision to report an “adversity score” to colleges so as to provide admissions offices with information about the advantages or disadvantages experienced by test-takers, thereby helping schools better assess a student’s actual ability.
On the one hand, I can’t help but nod in agreement with David’s acknowledgment that, as he put it recently to the Associated Press:
“We’ve got to admit the truth, that wealth inequality has progressed to such a degree that it isn’t fair to look at test scores alone…You must look at them in context of the adversity students face.”
Very much so and well said, reflecting a practical and ethical logic befitting a Yale and Cambridge Philosophy grad.
On the other hand, and putting aside his genuine desire for more equitable educational outcomes, Coleman’s rationale for the adversity index is also easy to imagine as a form of damage control; as a way to maintain the public’s confidence in standardized testing at a time when scandal has only deepened skepticism about the value of such instruments.
After all, it was just this spring that the Varsity Blues mess erupted, exposing the way that wealthy parents were paying others to take tests for their kids or otherwise fabricate credentials to get their children into schools where they didn’t belong.
Against this backdrop, and in an environment where over 1000 colleges have gone test-optional — with no negative impact on academic quality or subsequent performance differences between those who submit scores and those who don’t — one would imagine the College Board might wish for a way to restore public confidence in the legitimacy and fairness of testing.
But while the adversity score at least winks at fairness and equity, by suggesting the importance of a more holistic admissions review, in practice, it will do little to address the underlying flaw in the SAT and other standardized testing batteries. Indeed it reveals that flaw and proves what critics have long suggested: that the test merely reflects and then replicates existing societal inequities. It is not a “common yardstick” by which student ability can be truly measured.
If the SAT is a valid predictor of college success, and always has been, even without an adversity index — which is what the College Board claims and has previously gone to great lengths to “prove” — then students with higher scores, regardless of the advantages that produced them really do make better college students, and those with lower scores, irrespective of the disadvantages that explain those, really are less capable.
Of course, I think that’s all bullshit, but for those who administer these tests, how can they not believe it? And if they do, how can they make a case for adding the adversity index?
After all, if reporting adversity scores results in the admission of students who scored lower but are seen as capable because of the obstacles they overcame, one of two things will happen: either those students will succeed, in which case the test was never predictive of ability; or they will not succeed, in which case the College Board is setting them up for failure.
And regardless of which is true — and I’m betting it’s the former, rather than the latter in most cases — the College Board comes out looking shitty.
Either they are peddling a test that means little abstracted from a range of social factors, and which cannot predict which students are capable of success (in which case there is no value to it), or they are making adjustments that will cause students to be admitted to schools for which they are not prepared. In which case they’re being real assholes. But whichever it is, one thing is clear: they are either undermining the practical case for the continued existence of the College Board, or the moral case for it.
If Coleman believes (as I suspect he does), that the adversity index will reveal many capable students who deserve a shot at more selective universities, and likewise reveal many privileged students for whom that 1450 really ought not to be seen as all that impressive, then what is the real value of the test anymore?
If high school grades are much better predictors of student success in college than SAT scores — despite vast differences in school quality — such that once we compare students with similar GPAs, there is virtually no additional predictive validity to be gained by considering test scores, then why continue to use the test?
And if high school grades are far less related to one’s family economic status than test scores, such that focusing on them will allow for better class and racial diversity in college admissions, then why not encourage schools to look principally at prior academic performance over four years, rather than the four hours needed to take the SAT?
As for rewarding the overcoming of obstacles, why do colleges need the College Board and their rigid adversity index score as a middle man in this process?
Why not merely ensure that their admissions teams know how to assess student determination and perseverance themselves, perhaps by adding non-cognitive variables that test directly for these things in their evaluations?
And not just perseverance in the face of economic obstacles but also obstacles overlooked by the adversity score like the pressures of stereotype threat.
As social psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues have long demonstrated, even middle class and affluent black students score lower on standardized tests than whites, not because they are less capable or unprepared but because of additional test anxiety related to the fear of doing badly and thus confirming negative group stereotypes in the eyes of others.
Viewing obstacles to higher test scores as merely class-related takes a complex, plural problem and simplifies it to a single adversity number that overlooks these independent racial dynamics.
Please understand, I appreciate what David Coleman is trying to do and the fact that for years he’s dedicated himself to the goal of producing greater educational equity. I respect his recognition that when assessing student abilities it really is important to understand the obstacles they faced and their determination to overcome those obstacles.
But when it comes to colleges’ ability to assess the determination of applicants — or, ya know, their grit — it is worth remembering that as at the Waffle House that grit is never singular, but rather plural and far more complicated than some might realize.