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What’s the Score?

What’s the Score?


Well, that didn’t take long. Following the short burst of SAT-optional college admission policies spawned by the pandemic, the testing race is back at full throttle, at least at some Ivies.

Among the rationales this time around is the preposterous claim that SATs actually enhance diversity. The argument goes like this: Not submitting test scores prevented many Black students from showing how capable they are, causing many swell Ivy League schools to miss identifying diamonds in the rough. Minority students too often lack other opportunities to shine, so high scores serve as proxy to represent probable success. This theory was promulgated by research done by Dartmouth College and a few others.

That facile analysis intentionally omits a crucial additional fact. Requiring SATs may identify a few diamonds, but markedly decreases the overall number of minority applicants, thus lessening the chances of mere opals, garnets, topazes and amethysts. This article effectively debunks the whole scheme.

Even if the claims were entirely true, it asks that one concede that ability as measured by a standardized test is an important thing. I don’t concede. It is certainly true, however, that emphasizing test scores as a major criterion in admitting students of color will keep those college ranking statistics elevated. And it is inarguably true that a testing race at full throttle is very, very good for the $1 billion beast known as the non-profit (very funny) College Board.

Unfortunately, the notion of assessing worth by number is not limited to the exalted realm of Ivy League college admissions. Witness the reality of end-of-school routines in Colorado – and most other states – public schools.

During our recent weekly dinner with grandkids, our 3rd grade grandson and 7th grade granddaughter quibbled over who was spending more time on the i-Ready tests. These thrice-yearly “assessments” are yet one more highly profitable regimen that takes up hours and hours of time that would be much better spent on – well, anything else. These computerized, tedious, meaningless exercises are joined through much of April by the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS); tests that our grandchildren also compare by burden.

As an astute observer of educational policy mischief over many decades, I state confidently that all of these testing and assessments schemes have failed to improve student success in any way; not even raising performance on the damn tests themselves. The only lines trending up are revenue, profit and executive compensation. Even if the schemes improved test scores, it would only serve as a circular, self-satisfying exercise, signifying nothing.

That practice taking these tests doesn’t even make better test-takers may indicate that taking standardized tests actually kills brain cells! My grandchildren would say that is so.

There is deeper, perhaps overlooked damage caused by testing dominance. While it is one thing to note that the tests and results are useless, it is quite another to realize the impact these tests have on children. We have succumbed to the tyranny of measuring worth and providing opportunity based on numbers. My granddaughter, for example, says that she and her friends know where their i-Ready scores place them in the pantheon of peers. It may already be determining their identities in the eyes of the education machine and, more importantly, in their own senses of self. In both ways, this has consequences, perhaps for a lifetime.

In this way, education by the numbers is a harmful act of commission. But it is also an act of unfortunate omission, in that the most valuable among human traits are relegated to ancillary importance or dismissed entirely. It is a unverifiable claim, but I’m certain that the most remarkable among my 19 years of diploma recipients came disproportionately from the ranks of modest traditional “performers.” The qualities that animate inspired lives are utterly distinct from those that lead to high SAT scores. It is not that conventionally “bright” students are necessarily uninteresting or uninspired. But their quick facility with various academic tasks is never an important distinguishing characteristic.

What I appreciated, and the world needs most, are young people with passion, integrity, humor, kindness, imagination, creativity and empathy. People whose “intelligence” is perspective, creation of beauty, seeing what others cannot, acute instincts and curiosity that leads to unique discoveries.

We have a system that values conspicuous performance over all of those qualities. Admission policies that perpetuate that system impoverish a campus, not enrich it.

And what are our young children learning about what matters in life when their i-Ready scores define them?


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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