Generational Striving


The brief but heated controversy over labeling some students who take the SAT as high-potential "strivers" worthy of special treatment is over--the head of the College Board, the group that writes and scores the SAT for the Educational Testing Service, has said he will veto any attempts to offer such information to colleges. But it's worth reflecting on both on the motives behind the initiative and the arguments made in its support. That's because the mindset that produces equity schemes lingers on and will undoubtedly surface again--and because it's corrosive of a larger and more effective dynamic already at work, something that might be called "generational striving."

Indeed, however high-minded its goals, the strivers tag would have punished the relatively advantaged children of yesterday's strivers. Its larger effect, then, would have been to undermine a system that is in fact exceptionally open to those with ambition, initiative, and ability--and that relies upon one generation making things easier for the next.

Over the past couple of years, researchers at the ETS had been devising a method to predict what a student "should" score, based on more than a dozen categories, including family income, parental education level and work status, the socioeconomic mix of a student's high school, and, in one version of the formula, the student's race and ethnicity. If the student scored at least 1,000 on the SAT and outperformed his "predicted" score, he would be labeled a "striver"--someone who exceeds his circumstances and, by implication, is apt to do better in college than his actual academic record might indicate. Conversely, the performance of students who scored well, but still within expectations, would be relatively diminished as simply routine.

The strivers project was a combination of well-intentioned social uplift for disadvantaged students and calculated political strategizing aimed at evading the growing number of bans on race-based admissions at selective public universities. The strivers tag, summarized ETS researchers at an early stage of the project, would "overcome many of the emotional objections to…preferences because it rewards the kind of Horatio Alger behavior that Americans have always valued: hard work, persistence, improving one's lot in life, and overcoming adversity."

So what was wrong about the strivers project? Let's leave aside questions raised by the specifics of the moribund plan, such as whether the strivers formula actually would have identified potential, whether it would have told colleges anything that wasn't already evident from other application materials, or whether it's good to nudge students into schools at which they're more likely to perform marginally. (This last point is especially germane regarding non-Asian minority students, since their SAT scores already overpredict their college performance). Let's even ignore that ETS' response to persistent score disparities on its own exam is to re-rig the test, rather than to call for educational reforms.

It's the deeper logic of the plan that was seriously misguided. Supporters assume the United States approaches a caste system in which position is fixed and unchanging. For instance, author Nicholas Lemann, a critic of the SAT in general because he feels it unfairly perpetuates wealth and advantage, nonetheless approved the new initiative. "As long as we're locked into a system of deciding who winds up where according to S.A.T. scores, then the spirit behind the Strivers program is the right one," argued Lemann. "The upper-middle class…has adapted its culture to try to make for the most efficient transmission of high S.A.T. scores between the generations….The people at the top of society have always been good at figuring out how to endow their children with whatever is the prevailing criterion of human worth."

Lemann is correct that the relatively wealthy try to maintain their position. But he's dead wrong when he assumes that the "upper-middle class" and the "people at the top of society" are a stable group. Economic mobility is the rule and not the exception in the United States. Many--if not most--American families, even affluent ones, can trace themselves back to relative poverty within a generation or two.

Fifty years ago, the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the term "creative destruction" to describe the constant change and tumult inherent in capitalism, noted that families in market-based societies typically go "three generations from overalls to overalls," that familial wealth is both built up and dissipated with perhaps disquieting regularity. As most longitudinal studies of income attest, Schumpeter was basically on the money, except for one important detail: Income tends to ratchet up much more easily than it comes down. An extensive University of Michigan study of more than 50,000 individual taxpayers found that only 5 percent of people who were in the lowest income quintile in 1975 were still there in 1991; the study also reported similar, though less dramatic, upsurges by people in higher income quintiles.

In large part, such fluidity is based not on a single individual's performance (much less his performance on the SAT), but on the efforts of parents who try to give their children advantages they themselves never had. Particularly in working-class and immigrant households, that refrain is familiar enough to be the stuff of parody. But it is far from an empty cliche. The desire to give your children more than you yourself had remains a major motivating factor in American society. By holding against children the advantages parents have worked to give them, programs such as the strivers initiative punish such behavior even as they deny it exists. We tinker with such a generational incentive system at great risk.

In justifying the strivers program, ETS researchers invoked Horatio Alger, who sold millions of books about boys who got rich mostly through luck and the kindness of rich strangers. They might have done better to consult instead one of Alger's own influences, Benjamin Franklin. His autobiography is a tale of class ascendancy, too, one that traces a fantastic journey from "Poverty & Obscurity…to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World." A rich and complicated literary text, Franklin's story is also in many ways a practical guide to making it in a New World filled with opportunities and options unknown in the Old. Franklin stressed continuous self-improvement and hard work. But surely it's no accident that his archetypal American narrative begins, "Dear Son…" and includes a long tribute to his own parents.