Test-ocratic Merit vs. Democratic Merit?

What are the benefits of a college education in a diverse democracy? Research indicates that these benefits include the ability to strengthen critical thinking, to provide students with the capacity for leadership, problem-solving, and creativity, and to strengthen social agency and pluralistic orientation for careers and citizenship in a global society. Yet is the inordinate emphasis on college entrance aptitude tests really a measure of merit and of the abilities of potential college students to develop these needed competencies?

Lani Guinier’s new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon Press, 2015) describes how higher education has drifted from a mission-driven to an admission-driven system, focused almost exclusively on the predictive value of the SAT-type tests for success in the first-year of college. In fact, as she notes, the SAT only has a modest correlation with freshman-year grades, whereas grades in the four years of high school are a much stronger predictor of academic success. Guinier asserts that the SAT’s most reliable value is as a proxy for wealth in its norming to white, upper-middle class performance, as shown by the average SAT test scores based on ethnicity.

Alluding to the “Volvo effect” in Andrew Ferguson’s book, Crazy U Professor Guinier refers to the inordinate amount of funding and effort placed by wealthy parents on preparing their children for college entrance exams. As she explains, “Aptitude tests do not predict leadership, emotional intelligence, or the capacity to work with others to contribute to society” (p. 26). As a result, she calls for a culture shift in terms of how we evaluate merit in terms of “democratic values” rather than “testocratic machinery.”

An important insight from this thought-provoking book is that democratic merit within an institution of higher education is defined by context. As such, the definition of merit crystallizes the mission and purposes of the institution and necessarily involves choices about which characteristics of the applicant pool are valuable. This definition is particularly germane to discussions about affirmative action in the wake of the 2013 Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin Supreme Court case that will be reheard this fall on appeal.

In the Fisher ruling, the Supreme Court has determined that colleges and universities must exhaust race-neutral alternatives before consideration of race-conscious factors in a holistic admissions process. Guinier indicates that Fisher and other affirmative action opponents have singled out race, before any other admissions criterion such as musical ability or athletic accomplishment, as undeserving of consideration. A perhaps unintended benefit of the Court’s ruling, however, is that colleges and universities must proactively re-examine their mission statements for the ways in which these statements articulate the importance of diversity. As Alvin Evans and I point out in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward (Jossey-Bass, 2015) the Fisher decision brings the institutional context for diversity into the foreground, since a college or university’s specific rationale for a diverse student body needs to be framed in the context of mission, vision, and values statements.

In Guinier’s view an “obsessive culture of testing” obscures the emphasis on developing student potential and results in institutions that lack meaningful race and class diversity. From this perspective, the attainment of democracy learning outcomes in the undergraduate experience cannot rely on a single, weak predictor of first-year success such as the SAT, but instead requires an educational focus consistent with institutional mission that nurtures individual talent and fosters the access and success of a diverse student body.


  1. dc401

    While I would agree with the assessment about aptitude test as a focus on college admissions. There is still the issue of mismatching many African American students to schools where they are likely to dropout, fail or have their major switched because they did not have the advantage of attending a high school where they had pre-college courses or the high school’s overall curriculum was beneath that of other schools.

    For instance, I attended private school all my life and many other African Americans from public schools in inner city areas that attended my elite university were not equipped with the advanced math skills that were necessary to pursue hard science, business and finance majors that others could like myself could. They were regulated to social science and liberal arts majors that did not require much math at all.

    Meaning that the prerequisite lower-division math courses one needed to complete to declare a Business, Computer Science, Molecular Cell Biology or Engineering Major would generally be something of a struggle for them (if at all) to pass. This means that you end up having fewer black people graduating with degrees in these fields and it has an overall effect on economic vitality of African Americans.

    Thus, while one may achieve picturesque diversity on an elite college campus they undermine our ability to graduate more Engineers and Computer Scientists that are the most vital part of where the economy is going. It also undermines the earning potential for more African Americans who are essentially locked out the digital economy due to having degrees that are either useless (with a lot of debt) or have a low market value (with a lot of debt).

    So, I am less concerned about achieving diversity on elite college campuses as I am about preparing more African American youth to have the best k thru 12 education that will put them into the position to secure majors with the highest earning potentials if they wish.

    Because here’s the deal. You will have an African American valedictorian from some inner city public school where the academic metric is much lower than those in a suburban, parochial or private school. And so that valedictorian is actually +C level by those standards. They enter an elite university and finds themselves not flourishing when their goal was to attain a biology degree and then head off to med school to become a doctor.

    Now if this same student had attended a secondary four year institution, they would have a better chance at succeeding in attaining the degree in the major of choice because elite schools are not going to dumb down the curriculum or change the metrics so that the student from the less-than-idea high school (who happens to be black) can pass.


  1. Meritocracy, imprinting, and love: an ode to community college | Glitter and Gray Sidewalks
  2. The New SAT: All Pomp? | Schools of Thought Hudson Valley, NY
  3. The “New” SAT – Is it relevant anymore?

Leave a Reply