Can SAT Fibbing Make Students Happier?

As I continued to think about the Claremont McKenna “scandal” and the attention it  has received (including, of course, from me), some things occurred to me, not the least of which is my gut instinct that there’s no way this was pulled off by one person acting alone.  Maybe more about that later. But if you’re interested, here is a visualization of how the scores were altered,

First, in case you didn’t know, many variables in higher education are tightly tied together: A college with low admit rates has higher graduation rates, for instance.  This is due to selection effects more than treatment effects, despite the implicit claims to the contrary by the colleges with high graduation rates.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a little about the difference between the two:

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.

In other words, selective institutions merely admit those most likely to graduate.  But I digress in making this point…

Suppose you really wanted a particular car.  You did your research, and you found out that although the average list price is $45,000, the average person actually paid $43,000.  Armed with this information, you go to the dealer and negotiate a price of $42,500 and free oil changes for a year.  You feel good–even better than you might have just by purchasing a new car–because you managed to achieve something others haven’t.  You are thrilled: You have a new car AND you saved some money.

But later, you learn that the data you looked at was wrong.  In reality, the average price buyers paid was $41,500.  And you learn that the data you were looking at were planted by the manufacturer.  How do you feel?

You know how you feel: Duped and stupid, and you don’t like your new car so much any more.  This, despite the fact that the car is exactly the same as it always was.  All that has changed is your perception, based on the value you now think you received, or in this case, the value you did not receive.

Now, a similar example: You are looking at College X, and note that the median SAT score is 650 V and 650 M, or 1300 total.  Because you went to an American high school and don’t understand statistics, you fail to understand that this means exactly half the students enrolled are above that line, and half are below: Median is just a midpoint.

But even if you did understand that, you’d think (and would probably be right) that your scores of 620/630 put you at a decided disadvantage.   Still, you apply, and amazingly, you’re admitted.  You didn’t get any merit aid, of course, because you are below average.  But hey, you got into a school with median test scores higher than yours.  You did it.  You are very pleased with yourself.

If you never learn that the actual median score at College X was actually 600/600, you are likely to become a happy alumnus.  You are, after all, someone who got in despite those scores, and you proved those scores wrong.  The pumping of your ego continues, blissfully unabated.  You, and perhaps 25% of your classmates, are happier than you have a right to be.

Suppose, however, in your junior year you learn the truth.  The real scores are revealed.  You were above average, you were lied to and your decision was influenced by the perception that you had pulled off quite the accomplishment in getting admitted.  How do you feel now?

And how do you feel about turning down the other college to which you were admitted: The one with a real median score of 630/620 (where you were average) and where you got some merit scholarship money?

Perhaps there is some value in lying about test scores, provided you can keep the lie going for perpetuity.  But as the old saying goes, the easy part about telling the truth is that you only have to remember one story.  It’s better, I think, to be honest.

The real tragedy, of course, is our national obsession with test scores; they do have some value, but they were never intended to be used the way they are today.  In this case, it appears one obsession is feeding another.  And it’s not good for anyone.

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