Striving for Parity

The insidious logic behind the SAT's "striver" measure


For personal reasons, I took a particularly strong interest in the brief but heated controversy over labeling some students who take the SAT as "strivers": Not only would I likely have benefited from such a designation had it existed back when I took the test in the early '80s, but my 5-year-old son stood to be screwed by the same program.

Although the strivers initiative is dead–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 such plan–it's worth reflecting on both the motives behind it and the arguments made in its support. That's because the mindset that produces equity schemes such as the strivers project lingers on and will undoubtedly surface again–and because it's corrosive of a positive dynamic already at work, something that might be called "generational striving."

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 exceptionally open to those with ambition, initiative, and ability–and that relies upon one generation's making things easier for the next.

For 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 factors, including family income, parental education, the socioeconomic mix of the 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 likely to do better than his actual record might indicate. Conversely, the performance of students who scored well, but still within expectations, would be discounted 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, as ETS researchers explained, 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."

I certainly did not come out of anything approaching a Ragged Dick background, but I assume I would have been considered a striver. I scored a combined 1,320 on my SAT despite a lower-middle-class background; only one of my parents had graduated high school; and though I attended a parochial high school, it drew a downscale student body, with fewer than half of my classmates even taking the SAT and maybe one-third attending any form of college upon graduation. No doubt, I would have received bonus points for working to pay for my last year of high school (necessitated by a downturn in my parents' finances).

Similarly, I assume that my son would be hard-pressed under a strivers regime to ever distinguish himself. My wife and I both hold Ph.D.s, and our combined income puts us in the top quintile for U.S. family income–factors that would presumably take the luster off even a perfect SAT score.

So what was so insidious about the strivers project? Let's leave aside questions raised by the specifics of the moribund plan, such as whether the strivers formula 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 rerig 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. 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 noted that families in market-based societies typically go "three generations from overalls to overalls," that 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. Growing up in a household one generation removed from the slums, my siblings and I found that refrain familiar enough to be the stuff of parody. But it was –and is–far from an empty cliché. 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.

In justifying the strivers label, ETS researchers invoked Horatio Alger, who sold millions of books about boys who got rich mostly through luck and the kindness of wealthy 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" A rich literary text, Franklin's story is also a practical guide to making it, stressing continuous self-improvement and hard work. Surely it's no accident that this archetypal American narrative includes a long tribute to Franklin's own parents and begins, "Dear Son…"