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In Defense of Pinker

By Eva Shang

In his column “Searching for Excellence” on October 9, James Piltch ’17 makes the claim that standardized testing is an insufficient basis for admissions, as advocated for by Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker in his New Republic article, “The Trouble with Harvard.” The argument against standardized testing is well-worn: that standardized testing in no way shows intelligence, by way of citing Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory, and explicating the moral values that one learns through high school activities like sports.

However, the values of true excellence that Piltch espouses are values that are either immeasurable or irrelevant, when increased focus on standardized testing would bring clarity to both applicants and admissions offices.

It’s clear that Pinker, Piltch, the Harvard admissions office, and I all agree that we would like to attend a Harvard where the students exhibit genuine intellectual curiosity and can fully take advantage of all the world-class resources that Harvard has to offer. However, the best way to foster intellectualism and the desire to learn is not to select based on traits like the “ability to learn from a bad grade” and the ability to communicate despite differing opinions.

Piltch’s definition of excellence, furthermore, include the ability of an athlete to jump high, the ability of a student to persist through a 3.5 hour problem set, and the ability of a student to think carefully and intelligently about questions posed in class. I entirely agree—however, I also think that this definition of excellence is irrelevant to the admissions process. The first example doesn’t pertain to the use of intellectual resources at Harvard. The second and third examples are exactly the skills need for a student to do well on a standardized test.

The current admissions process, in Stephen Pinker’s words, is a “murky bottleneck” that selects some “at most 10 percent” of its students based on academic merit. From the admissions pool of hundreds of thousands, the measurement of who demonstrated the most genuine passion for social good or who is most likely to exhibit persistence simply cannot be determined accurately, despite our most valiant efforts. Instead, what the current admissions culture has spawned is a flurry of attempts to join extracurricular activities that look good to admissions officers, instead of allowing people the time to pursue things they’re truly passionate about.

What standardized testing would bring is clarity. The SAT measures math, reading, and writing skills—all of which can be cultivated through a mixture of hard work and excellence. There’s no denying that the SAT still unfortunately favors people from higher income socioeconomic backgrounds, with better quality education and less adverse factors in the home. But that’s an issue for continued work and reform. At the very minimum, standardized testing evens the overt playing field: the kid from the poorest neighborhood knows what score he has to get to succeed. A majority focus on standardized testing would make the process clear for both applicants and admissions offices. There’s no possibility for covert injustices.

As Pinker alluded to, holistic admissions began as a mechanism to practice covert anti-Semitism, using vague standards like “character” and “vigor” to root out Jewish applicants. Today, Asian-Americans from low-income neighborhoods, many of whom see education as the pipeline to a better life, are discriminated against in the admissions process because of implicit racial quotas, as demonstrated by sociologists Alexandria W. Radford and Thomas J. Espenshade, who showed that white students were three times more likely to be admitted to elite colleges than Asian students with the same academic record. An increased focus on standardized testing would shift Harvard towards the meritocracy that it claims to be.

Granted, I would expand on Pinker’s system of admissions solely based on standardized testing to allow for socioeconomic differences as well as learning differences that must be taken into account. However, for the vast majority of us, there’s no reason “excellence”—or admissions—should still be a value judgment.

Eva Shang ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. 

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