Judging Merit

By Maria Di Mento '03 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007
In a re-sounding voice, Lani Guinier told a packed Salomon audience in late January that opponents of affirmative action are focusing on the wrong problem. Affirmative-action policies would not be necessary if we had a better way of judging ability and achievement, she argued. It’s not only blacks who do poorly on standardized tests; poor and working-class white students, she said, perform as inadequately as their black and Latino counterparts. Unfortunately, she argued, we are living in what she calls a “testocracy” where people are sorted according to the arbitrary criteria of tests such as the LSAT, SAT, and ACT, which measure quick, strategic guessing, not aptitude.

Foes of affirmative action, she continued, “have their eyes on the wrong prize. They’re focusing on race when they should be focusing on wealth.” Guinier, who delivered the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture, is a law professor at Harvard—she was the first black woman to receive tenure at the school—and was once a Clinton nominee to head the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. In her lecture, she said that standardized tests were created to pinpoint the most academically capable students in the country, but they have since been proven to do no such thing. What they accomplish, she argued, is to rank students by wealth and, therefore, class.

Guinier admitted that standardized tests are a handy tool for universities. She cited a study she conducted of the LSAT, the standardized test required for admittance at most law schools. “The LSAT,” she said, “is only 9 percent better than random at predicting first-year law school grades, and yet we call it merit!” She then blasted U.S. News & World Report’s notorious school rankings as only encouraging the problem. “We have abdicated our responsibilities to a news magazine,” she said.

Guinier said although middle-class black and Latino students aren’t faring as well on the tests as middle-class white students, it’s crucial to move the lens away from race and direct the focus on class. “If we were being truly honest,” she noted, “we would ask people to submit their parents’ tax returns, and we would call it merit.”

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March / April 2004