Don't End Aptitude Tests

I never expected to go anywhere academically. But one exam changed my life.

I graduated in the bottom third of my high school class, with a 2.2 GPA. I didn’t think of myself as smart. I thought “smart” meant kids who raised their hand in class—those types. I grew up in foster homes, and had experienced chaos in my early life that led me to despise homework, teachers and rules.

But at age 17, I took a standardized test required to join the military, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. Half of my motivation in taking the test was that I got to skip class. I spent the night before with my friends drinking Four Loko malt liquor and playing Xbox 360. I woke up with a hangover, chugged a Rockstar energy drink, and took the test. Afterward, an Air Force recruiter showed me how to convert ASVAB to SAT scores: I had the same score as my smartest friend, who always got straight-As, and who was headed for college.

It was my first inkling that maybe I could be a good student after all.

Standardized testing has long been a point of contention, with some arguing that it excludes poor and minority students because the questions are too narrow and those with wealth and connections gain an advantage via expensive prep classes. Lately, the debate over testing has intensified, with those who want more diversity in education and the professions advocating an end to admissions based on tests like the SAT or the GRE. And major institutions are now trying this out.

Last May, the University of California—covering nine undergraduate campuses, including Berkeley and UCLA—eliminated the need to complete the SAT and ACT in applications, citing the disruption from Covid as a motive yet making the change permanent. In December, the New York Times editorial board wrote of the pandemic and inequality when recommending that the city’s New York City’s elite high schools scrap existing admissions exams. Top colleges—including Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Virginia—went “test optional” due to Covid, and are now seeing record applications.

Often, this is presented as a racial issue, as if those who find value in standardized tests really just want to guard white privilege. Yet this is a serious misreading of the issue. The New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, a passionate proponent of greater diversity in elite city schools, has spoken out strongly in favor of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which he described as “a pathway to inclusion, not exclusion.”

“I’m a public school baby, from pre-school to Master’s. For a kid with ADHD and Tourette’s, it’s incredible that I made it through at all,” he said in 2019, testifying to a state commission on education. Williams himself won a place at the elite Brooklyn Technical High School. “I got that acceptance because of the SHSAT,” he said. The issue isn’t the test itself, Williams argued, but the school system’s failure to prepare kids for the exam, not least by cutting programs for the gifted.

Typically, the identification of gifted students has relied on the referrals of parents and teachers—a subjective personal evaluation. But a 2016 study published by the economists David Card and Laura Giuliano found that implementing a standardized testing requirement increased the number of poor and minority students. In other words, an IQ test administered to all students revealed that previously overlooked students from disadvantaged backgrounds deserved this gifted status. Likewise, a British study found that when comparing students who earned the same results on a cognitive test, teachers judged poorer students as less capable. Again, this suggests that relying on subjective evaluations does more harm to poor students than relying on the more objective measure of test scores.

At the time I took the ASVAB military admissions test, I wasn’t aware that both it and the SAT were highly correlated with IQ, which is more important in the military than many think. A study on Army recruits found that scores on an intelligence test, along with two-mile run time, were the best predictors of success in infantry training.

In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara initiated Project 100,000 which lowered testing requirements. Supposedly, the aim was to alleviate poverty—the story was that entering the military would help recruits move into the middle class. And, of course, they needed more men to fight in the Vietnam War. But recruits of Project 100,000 turned out to be many times more likely to require remedial training, and training took up to four times longer compared with peers who had entered under the higher-score requirement.

Did the veterans who made it home achieve upward mobility? No. Compared with civilians of similar attributes who were not recruited, they were less likely to be employed, less likely to own a business, and obtained less education. So the higher ASVAB score thresholds were reinstated.

Today, there is no recommendation to eliminate the ASVAB test: No one says that it’s biased, unreliable or discriminatory. This is for two reasons. First, actions in the military have direct and grave consequences. Second, the military is viewed as a lower-middle-class organization—influential members of society know their kids won’t be joining, and care much less about military entry standards than about those for colleges.

Tellingly, there is also no wholesale effort to eliminate the LSAT or the MCAT. Presumably, we believe that people who join the legal profession or graduate from medical school—those who hold sway over our laws and our health—should pass standardized tests.

Seeing my ASVAB score, I changed my view of myself. Since then, I’ve served in the Air Force, graduated with a psychology degree from Yale, and am now pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. 

How many kids out there have potential that isn’t noticed, kids who live in chaotic situations, and get bad grades that mask their underlying potential—potential that a standardized test could reveal? Most poor kids don’t take the SAT, or any other standardized test. More should, and it would help if these tests were free and compulsory.

Some who advocate eliminating standardized testing have their hearts in the right place, and believe that removing this barrier will increase social mobility. But some members of the ruling class may also be using poor kids as pawns to undermine meritocracy because it helps their own kids who don’t “test well.” Without standardized exams, such parents are more likely to know how to encourage their kids to strategically boost their GPAs, how to get recommendation letters from important people, how to stack their resumes with extracurriculars. They have “polish.”

Too many are claiming that the SAT is a “barrier.” It’s a gateway.

Rob Henderson, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, is a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge.