Rescuing “Virtue and Talents” Amidst the War on Tests

On the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal website, Wenyuan Wu discusses rescuing "virtues and talents" with standardized admissions tests:

On March 28, 2022, Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the school’s plan to restore the consideration of standardized tests to its undergraduate admissions process. A heavyweight bucks against the self-destructive path of attacking merit and standards. Will more follow suit? Or, is MIT’s rebellion too little and too late?

In his 1813 letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson laid out his vision for American meritocracy— “a natural aristocracy among men,” grounds of which “are virtue and talents.” This republic of merit separated the newly independent nation from the old world where artificial aristocracies “founded on wealth and birth” hindered the common good. Jefferson stipulated what it meant to have a merit-based education system that diffuses learning democratically and efficiently:

to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools who might receive at the public expense a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects to be completed at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.

The Test-Free Movement in a Historical Context

Forces within, from slavery to school segregations under Jim Crow laws to race-based admissions, have tried to corrupt the grand proposal of equality and merit. Like previous illiberal bargains to categorize students by race, the central focus of test-free admissions is also preoccupied with immutable features of the individual, under the fashionable banner of social identities, rather than observable academic performance. But unlike historical race-based practices that were rooted in bigotry and racism, arbiters of “equitable” college admissions in the modern era claim they are waging battles against the evil spirits of white supremacy, systemic inequities, and structural racism.

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When I took a 5-hour train to Chongqing to take an admissions test required by most American graduate schools I planned to apply to, after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake had nearly destroyed my college town, the last thing on my mind was to look for and get offended by questions that did not honor my culture. I scored 112 out of 120, without private tutoring and with only hand-me-down test practice books. My insignificant story is one in the ocean of millions who strive to overcome their human limitations and work hard to get ahead in a system that sees their self-worth defined as “virtue and talents,” rather than “wealth (or lack thereof) and birth.” Perhaps the solution to our current quagmire has been hidden in plain sight the whole time—embrace standards and return to merit-based admissions. MIT gets it and more should follow.