The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Standardized Testing is the Worst Means of Qualifying People…

…except for all the others. This morning there was an interesting blurb on NPR about the LSAT, namely how it discriminates against the blind by including questions that are best solved with a diagram. The real meat I’m going after here is almost a foot note in the story, that is that some schools would like to drop the requirement for the LSAT altogether.

For many professional schools, like Law or Medicine, the LSAT or MCAT is a great denominator. It makes up the burden of your application materials, and doing well on either almost guarantees you a made man/woman. Compare this to getting a job, where most of the decision process is made during interviews and based on a resume. Getting into law school is tough, and may be the hardest thing some people do, and it isn’t exactly fair, with well-known biases. But getting a job is unfair in an entirely different way. First, there’s no known hurdles to jump through, unlike law school. The LSAT is a tough, but concrete, hurdle. Getting a job requires a bunch of weird arbitrary strokes of luck for the most part, rendering it a crap shoot for all practical purposes. Furthermore, you’re up against completely unknown and unfamiliar biases. Did you miss that last interview because you were black and the interviewer was white? He certainly seemed put off when he first saw you.

Getting into law school requires a tough, biased but well understood measure to be levied against you. Getting a job is based on no uniform measure at all, and a great many problems can come with that.

Law schools would very much like to drop the weighting on the LSAT (currently it’s required to be a legitimate law school) and more heavily weight other parts of the application, which to remind you, are mostly essays, a resume and references. The most concrete thing I can gather from an essay about you is how well you can write – lucky for us the LSAT already tests for that. Far less concretely, I can get a vibe for the culture you come from both by how you write and what you chose to write about. It’s like having a one-sided conversation, where you’ll get no feedback from me, yet I’m asking you to pour out your soul. Even worse are the resume, which is used primarily to see if you’ve worked anywhere with a name brand and went to a name brand school*, and the references which amount to whether you know anyone who’s already been to that school.

By putting less emphasis on the standardized test, schools will be given far more leeway to simply chose people like them, rather than people who are qualified. You already see this in many business schools, who bemoan fit as the most important thing in an application. Law schools will start to look more and more for fit, rather than qualification, and use it as an excuse to reject whomever doesn’t fit their stereotype of the day of the successful lawyer. Fit in the past kept out Blacks from higher education, Jews from the Ivy Leagues, and is being used right now to cut down on the number of first generation Asian Americans in business schools. It also provides justification for legacy applications – after all, if your parents fit, then you most likely do too.

Standardized testing isn’t the problem, standardized tests are. Don’t lessen the impact of a universal measure that is well-known and hard to corrupt, instead focus on eliminating biases in the tests as we find them. To say a standardized test is biased in favor of current students reading application essays and former students performing interviews is a farce.

(* The trick here with business schools, at least, is to require a cover letter and resume up front. They don’t use them as genuine application materials per say, but instead use them to see how well you can write a cover letter and resume. Remember, business school rankings are determined in a large party by who gets hired and what their salary is on graduation. People coming in to schools who already are good at applying for jobs have a leg up here, and thus are less risky than other students. In this way, many business schools tend to work like a self-reinforcing filter system, vouching for those who are already vouched for, and getting jobs for people who can already get them, than a true education system which improves upon any base ability.)

June 15, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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