Happy Birthday, Norman Borlaug


Today is March 25, a day I have unilaterally labeled as test optional admissions day.

Today is also the birthday of fellow Iowan Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal, who was once described as “Greatest Human Being That Ever Lived” for his efforts that may have saved a billion people on the planet from starvation.

You might wonder how those two things are related.

As several stories, including this Wikipedia entry point out, “When Borlaug applied for admission to the University of Minnesota in 1933, he failed its entrance exam.” He was admitted to a newly-created general college, and eventually was able to transfer into the College of Agriculture there.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fortunately, Borlaug persevered through setbacks, even though his potential could have been lost due to a single, high-stakes test.  But I often think of him when I think about the students who have been unfairly denied a chance at higher education because of a test designed not to measure achievement but to sort people into a pre-defined bell curve.  Too often, the ones who cluster at the right end of that bell curve are there precisely because of the opportunity they’ve been given and the attention the tests get from their well-educated, wealthier parents; students with equal potential but fewer opportunities are often destined to the left side of the distribution.

Proponents of the “Diamond in the Rough” theory says those few exceptions—the students who stand out precisely because their scores are high despite the obstacles they’ve been presented—are the ones we should celebrate.  They’re right, of course, even though we’re seeing this week—in 2022—that some of those highly privileged people still can’t believe it when someone who doesn’t look like the typical winner does, in fact, win and manages to get nominated to the Supreme Court.

But they also say that we shouldn’t blame the tests for the inequity in our educational system, and yes, the idea of “bad public schools,” and “good public schools,” and “exceptional public schools,” based on the value of the real estate that surrounds them is on its face absurd and racist.

But they’re wrong to say the tests don’t cause the problem.  They do.  They detract from instructional time, for one thing.  But beyond that: For every 100 students, there is only one score of 99, one score of 98, and so on, down the line.  When something perceived to be as important for a chance at one of the Holy Grail Schools depends on one of these scores, the people with the advantage and the money will find ways to get one of those 97s.  And they’ll work hard to discount the value of the 4.0 from one of “those schools” on the other side of the tracks.  When you create the game, your chances of winning it are greater.  Make no mistake: This game was created by people with the wealth and power.

And when the results of this test that reflect wealth and parental attainment and opportunity are an important factor—even a cut factor—in admissions, opportunity will perpetuate itself.  And this happens.  I know it happens.  When an admissions officer stands in front of a group of high school counselors and says, “On the ACT, we like a 33…and we LOVE a 34,” despite the statistical absurdity of that proposition, it happens.  When a dean of admissions tells me his VP would not let him admit an African-American applicant with a 1290 because it was below a 1300, it happens.  When a test-prep company advertises that it guarantees a certain score increase—for a price, of course—it happens.

It happens.  And admissions officers, who often get little or no training in statistics or measurement, help it happen (and if I had a dollar for every admissions officer who told me they “don’t like numbers,” I’d already be retired.)  It happens when admissions officers who say “tests don’t matter” lie about their mean test scores, or use artificial ways to manipulate them. We’re complicit.  We don’t have to be.

My university and all the public universities in Oregon announced test-optional admissions two years ago on March 25th, just as—but not as a result of—the pandemic; the proposal had been in the works months before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. 

There are a lot of admissions officers who now wonder what all the fuss was about.  There are a few who can’t wait to get back to tests, as is their right, if you believe systemic denial of opportunity is, in fact, a right.

But I think we can, and we should, do better. It’s why we’re in this job, I hope.

5 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Norman Borlaug

  1. Jon! This is a great blog (I have always detested standardized tests) and now I know about Norman Borlaug. Thank you for passing on his story. If you care, there’s a small typo in it. In my retired state, I now notice such things (mostly in our daily local paper which isn’t really “local” anymore…)

    Hope that Oregon is treating you well! If our (hopefully to begin soon) travels bring us your way, I’ll let you know. Maybe we could all throw a football around in a parking lot as in our former recruiting days 😂.

    Happy weekend.

    Barb F.

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  2. As always, thank you Jon for your insight. More important though, is your talent for putting those words in digestible pieces that can’t help but get to the heart of the issue.

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  3. Thank you Jon for beginning my Saturday in a way that feels thoughtful and hopeful. I often wonder if there is something we can do as college consultants to shift the tides. Since my job is to support kids’ admission to right-fit schools, testing is too often a necessary factor. So, I actually perpetuate this inequality.

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