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When the SAT feels like a lock, not a key

(Chronicle of Higher Ed illustration)

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.


The Anti-Tester

Our latest episode of Bootstraps, our podcast series about merit in education, starts in an unlikely place: the 1983 Tom Cruise movie Risky Business.

That’s because Jeff Young, the EdSurge editor and host of Bootstraps, wanted to capture a bit of the popular culture that has long surrounded the SAT, and how for many people (like that Tom Cruise character) it’s a high-stakes moment that feels like it makes or breaks your life.

The story, though, doesn’t stay with the movies. Jeff turns much of the show over to Eric Hoover, our long-time friend and fellow higher-ed reporter. For two decades, Eric has covered admissions at The Chronicle of Higher Education, where he’s known for his deeply reported, empathetic profiles.

When Jeff and I asked him for help in opening our eyes to how the SAT is perceived today, he knew immediately where he wanted to go; the Thurgood Marshall Academy in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

As Eric explains, the school is well known by many college-admissions people at highly selective colleges. It serves mostly Black families in the city’s poorest wards, where about one in 10 residents has a bachelor’s degree. Roughly four-fifths of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. But the school’s track record is remarkable: Since 2005, 100 percent of its graduates have received an acceptance from at least one college — and about 85 percent enroll at a four-year college.

So you might figure that the guidance counselor there has a special SAT-prep strategy. Instead, Sanjay K. Mitchell, the school’s director of college and alumni programs, is a well-known, outspoken critic of the SAT and ACT. (His Twitter handle is “Sanjay the anti-tester, anti-racism, just Anti!.”)

To defenders of standardized testing, a place like Thurgood Marshall may seem like somewhere the SAT can work its magic by identifying undiscovered talent, by finding that “diamond in the rough.”

And yes, every year some students there get high scores and end up at very selective private colleges — but “diamonds in the rough” has it all backwards, Mitchell says.

“It’s a very lazy notion of expecting brilliance to happen in an exam on a Saturday morning where students have lived experiences that may interrupt the way they perform. And it’s a very borderline elitist expectation that preparation for a test determines your level of intelligence, whereas not necessarily working with the students to refine and define their intelligence, and having this idea that intelligence manifests itself in one space, in one place. And of course proponents of the test will say that’s not what it is saying, right? But the language of it says that. The language suggests that these tests are important because they’re the ones that can identify that student who may be the diamond in the rough, or the rose in the concrete, or whatever kind of analogies we want to use.”

These “diamonds in the rough”? They’re everywhere, says Mitchell.

“Intelligence is not a fixed thing. There’s different points in time where your intelligence can grow and your ability to adapt can expand. And what I would hope that colleges are thinking about and looking for when they’re identifying students [is] asking, ‘Is the seed there enough to grow, nurture, and plant into something beautiful?’ Or are you looking for a static, ready-made product that you don’t have to do anything with, therefore don’t have to put in much work in the higher-ed space? I would like to believe that that is not the tenet of our higher-education system.”

Listen to the the whole episode here. And subscribe to the full series. 

—Scott Smallwood

+ Earlier episodes in the series.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Mile Markers: What’s in a name? Rural. It’s our favorite national calling card. Beloved by politicians in jean-jacketed commercials. CEOs drumming up common man bona fides. Ice cream ads that melt with nostalgia. But what does it actually mean? And how does it matter?

In The Intersection: Where race and higher ed meet. The Build Back Better legislation would provide new funds for minority-serving institutions. Experts lay out the challenges those colleges face and what they hope new attention could help change.

In Northeast Ohio: Ohio colleges design new programs to boost affordability, cut student debt. The state’s flagship university, for example, plans to offer a debt-free degree through a combination of grants, scholarships, and work opportunities. The goal is for students to avoid taking out loans.

In latitude(s): What more could colleges be doing for refugees? A coalition of higher-education and humanitarian-assistance groups seeks to make colleges refugee students’ official sponsors, responsible not just for their educational needs but their financial, logistical, and social ones, too.

In Next: New momentum for the 3-year degree. Colleges are reconsidering degree requirements and how to give credit for outside-the-classroom experiences that students value but often don’t count toward the bachelor’s degree.

In Work Shift: Remember Phoenix? The University of Phoenix, once the largest university in the country, has shrunk dramatically. Its story isn’t just one of attrition, though—but also of getting back to its roots as a bachelor’s completion institution for career-minded adults.

+ Sign up for our newest newsletters, written by our team of national reporters:

  • Mile Markers, by Nick Fouriezos, about the role of colleges in rural America
  • The Intersection, by Naomi Harris, about race and higher education
  • College Inside, by Charlotte West, about the future of postsecondary education in prison

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