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Perspective: AI, your college student and the end of individual achievement

Colleges and high schools are increasingly reluctant to test students’ abilities. Artificial intelligence apps won’t help

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

What can students do on their own? It’s a question that college admissions officers may increasingly be thinking about in the coming years. Unfortunately, they will have no way to measure this.

The recent news about how artificial intelligence apps can manufacture a high school or college essay from scratch has prompted the obvious observation that it will be much easier to cheat. Those who are inclined to do so won’t have to pay someone else to write it or even worry that the professor will be able to find the same essay online. And you can ensure that the essay will actually sound like you or someone at your level actually wrote it.

But truthfully AI is only the latest nail in the coffin of measuring individual achievement. The campaign against standardized testing is probably the largest part of the problem. Many colleges have made the SAT and ACT optional. Those who defend testing are considered backward, if not racist. And while some schools, like MIT, quickly realized this was not feasible if they were going to maintain high standards, others (where it is easier for students to switch to grade-inflated humanities majors) will stick to their guns. 

These changes have started earlier than college too. Cities have started to do away with testing to get into high schools for high-achieving students. The prestigious Boston Latin School, for example, is now accepting students via standards based on census tracks. Even testing students to see whether they are “gifted” is fraught now.  

But it’s not just testing. Elementary, high schools and colleges’ relentless focus on collaboration means there is little room for students to demonstrate their individual level of achievement. Every class is chock full of group projects, and schools are eager to tell parents that they are preparing children for a world of team building, leadership, cooperation and interpersonal negotiation. English classes feature student-led reading circles. Math classes include group quizzes (no, I’m not kidding). Social studies and science projects are jointly created Google slides presentations. 

But colleges and employers don’t simply want to know how well you work with others (which, when it comes to group projects, could also mean how well you coast while letting others do the work or how well you edit everyone else’s slides without offending them). They want to know: Who is this person applying to my school or for a job with me and how will they perform if I hire them?

Newspapers used to require copy-editing tests that were taken on the spot. Secretarial work required the demonstration of a certain number of words typed per minute. A few years ago, when the College Board was about to scrap the writing section on the SAT, I suggested that they instead simply send a copy of the essay to colleges and have it replace the corrupt, time-wasting exercise that is the personal statement colleges currently require. 

Sure, the SAT writing section might be short and maybe it doesn’t show the full breadth of a student’s ability but at least you know he or she did it alone, without a parent or a coach or the internet. You can read it to find out if a student has a basic grasp of the English language and maybe some familiarity with logic.

The College Board didn’t take up my suggestion. But there’s still a chance for some other company to try. Offer students the option to write an essay in a one-hour or two-hour proctored setting. Send the results in some secure fashion to college administrators or employers. Of course, the company could grade them, but such a score would almost be irrelevant. Different schools and employers want different things out of their applicants. Maybe one school wants to see some creativity and another values clarity above all else. Maybe there is some school out there that cares whether students have mastered the rules of grammar.

Now that there is a push to do away with the LSATs, law schools might also want to consider whether they want a measure of a student’s individual abilities. Surely being able to write a clear brief still has some market value in the legal world. Judges don’t want to see your collaborative Google slides presentation. And most law professors don’t want to be tasked with teaching kids basic writing skills. 

Technology has made it harder to measure individual skills, and it has often made it more difficult to teach those skills too. But that is not a reason to give up on the goal. While no man is an island, simulating the conditions of one can occasionally be useful. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.