Recently, I had the honor of delivering the Keynote address at the 2019 IACAC Conference. I thought it would be cool to share some of the highlights of that talk and some of the reference resources here.

The core message of my talk was that the American educational system is not a meritocracy as most people think of the word, but instead is a meritocracy in the original sense of the word as it was satirically coined by Micheal Young in 1958.

There is example after example after example of ways in which our society rewards wealth and calls it merit. When we look at the top factors in the college admissions process, almost all of them favor wealth, thus leading to the great inequities in college access and ultimately contributing to income and wealth inequalities.

young aristocracy

Until we address and dismantle the Youngian Meritocracy, we’ll never have a true society that rewards individual achievement. Inspired by my friends at Noodle Pros, I pointed out some students (most likely those who went to private school) have prepared for and taken 4 standardized tests similar to the SAT before reaching 11th grade and that conveys benefits in a society that validates almost everything with tests.

tests from PreK

While I don’t think tests are worthless, we have to seriously reconsider how we use them. Test are being misused and overused, leading to greater and greater advantages for those students who had the most exposure to “SAT style tests” and the institutions they attend. We have to acknowledge the fact that superintendents, politicians, and college presidents who misuse test scores are perpetuating the Youngian meritocracy. SAT and ACT scores are being used to admit students to high school, admit students to dual enrollment programs while in high school, rate the quality of the high school, admit students to college, certify teachers to teach, bonus teachers while on the job, and help make decisions about job placement and economic opportunity (not to mention the impact on colleges).


I delved into history, pointing out that since the time of Carl Brigham, father of the SAT, in 1934 told us that factors impacting testing are more than intelligence. Also in 1968 Sidney Sulkin (writer) and S. A. Kendrick, Vice President at College Board, pointed out that the increasingly narrowing of the score range of admitted students was a problem.

So as universities must accept the fact that inequalities in our system mean that test scores from wealthier students are likely representative of years of investment to create an impeccably designed, crafted, and polished record of the best possible testing (and academic) experience, while scores from more marginalized groups are likely a test they took for free one day when they showed up to school.

In this context and given how imprecise (SEM, SED, etc) tests are, considering test optional makes sense. However, I also challenge anyone speaking about test optional to consider 1. how you talk about test optional and 2. who will benefit from policy changes.

I closed the presentation with a challenge to my colleagues to fight the evils in this system. Whether it’s a big evil or a small evil we can each find something to address and correct or mitigate. Lord knows there are more than enough issues to fight.  I gave some examples of people who are did some good things in my recent memory.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 9.05.31 AM

I suggested that they find friends and coworkers who will complement their efforts and push their visions forward. Not only NACAC but also IACAC. We can fix if we work together. We have to work both alone and together because it’s more than any one of us can do.

References and reading list:

  1. Michael Young, 86, Scholar; Coined, Mocked ‘Meritocracy’
  2. The Myth of Meritocracy
  3. Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong
  4. Report: The Relationship Between Skin Tone and School Suspension for African Americans (PDF)
  5. Even at Private Colleges, Low-Income Students Tend to Go to the Poorest Schools
  6. University President Morton Schapiro opposes test-optional admission, says he worries about ‘resiliency’ of younger generation of students
  7. Historically Black Colleges and University Facts and IPEDs Data
  8. AAMC Data Table A-2: Undergraduate Institutions Supplying Applicants to U.S. Medical Schools by Applicant Race and Ethnicity, 2018-2019
  9. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering
  10. SAT Score Discrepant SAT and HSGPA Performance Report
  11. ACT Discrepant SAT and HSGPA Performance Report
  12. SAT Suite of Assessments Technical Manual (PDF)
  13. ACT Technical Manual (PDF)

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