Earlier this month, students for the first time took a new, and allegedly improved, SAT. The test’s developer included more-contemporary vocabulary and removed penalties for guessing the wrong answer. The changes came with a predictable outcry—complaints, for instance, that too many word problems in the math sections disadvantage some students. There was also a familiar refrain from parents: Why do we have this exam at all? Why do colleges put so much stock in the results? And why-oh-why do our kids have to take so many tests?
It might seem unfair that admissions officers place almost as much weight on a one-morning test as they do on grades from four years of high school, as a 2011 survey from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling showed. But there’s a simple reason for this emphasis on testing: Policy makers and educators have effectively eliminated all the other ways of quantifying student performance.
Classroom grades have become meaningless. Last year a public-school district in northern California decided to score on an “equal interval scale”—meaning every letter grade is assigned a 20-point range. Students who score above 80% get an A. Only those below 20% will be given an F. This is only part of a larger trend.
Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, eventually gave in to grade inflation by assigning his students two grades, an official inflated grade for their transcripts and an unofficial grade reflecting what they actually deserved.