Rolling & Reading the Bones

Humans have always wanted to know the future. We want to know whether we’ll be president or get an A or marry the person of our dreams. Despite the prominence of science, horoscopes still get printed in the newspaper and tarot card readers are still in business. Not so many people plunge their hands into steaming sheep entrails any more but we still read our fortunes from the fortune cookie and scan the papers for clues to a big score or the winner of the next race. We want to minimize our risks and maximize our benefits, so if we know what’s going to happen, we can all make the right choices.

College admission testing is one way of trying to know the future. It was initially designed for one purpose and one purpose only: To predict academic success in a student’s freshman year in college. It’s a way to feel that we’re not just relying on hunches or guesses to decide who should get into a college and who shouldn’t. Wearing the trappings of science, testing looks like a no-lose proposition for college admission officers. The numbers, the percentages, the graphs and charts, all point to rational and dispassionate conclusions. They tell us how the person will perform over the next year, and they make us feel good. We have seen into the future and believe we know how it will turn out.

Numerous studies, however, including an extensive 20-year longitudinal study at Bates College, have shown that college admission officers can predict a student’s performance just as well with or without the use of testing. But it looks too much like tarot card reading when you do it without the numbers, so many institutions are afraid to do without. Putting students through the ritual of testing provides a superstructure for our superstition. It feels concrete, something you can really get your arms around.

It’s still a prediction, though, and therefore not a certainty by any means. Unlike predictions in science, where physical laws enable scientists to tell when a planet will be where, testing predictions can’t do anything similar because they attempt to rationalize the non-rational: human behavior. It might be more accurate to say that they attempt to set in stone something that flows in unknowable directions. More than any of the other elements in a student’s application, testing feels more like divination than fact. At least when you look at a student’s overall trajectory you can get a good picture of the possible result. With testing, all bound up in a few hours of highly stylized behavior and perhaps many more hours of self-abnegation for its sake, there’s a sense of inevitability that is entirely unearned. Seeing into the future often depends on heightening present reality (think of psychic trances or Ouija board concentration), and testing is a good example of this phenomenon. It looks like we know the future when we get a number or a ghostly emanation or a particular arrangement of cards, but we’re really getting only what we see.

The future remains unknowable, especially for unpredictable humans and the unpredictable world. As much as we try to get some control or even act on whatever predicting devices we consult, the future very often eludes us. And we should never be too proud to remember that even when something turns out as we intended, it’s only because we were lucky, not because the world bowed to our intent.

Knowing the future has its problems, too. Let’s assume for a moment that testing really can predict student success. How will that affect the behaviors not only of the student being tested, but of all those who come into contact with him or her? How often have you noticed how someone’s attitude toward a student changes when his or her test scores are revealed? Glimpses into the future can alter our behavior and cause us to distort that very future. Think of Macbeth, told by the three witches that he’d eventually be King of Scotland. He’s faced with a truly miserable puzzle (helped not at all by his wife): Should he just go along as he has been and assume that he’ll get the throne sooner or later or should he take action to make sure it happens? Or are these the same things? Once you throw the eye of newt into the pot, you’re done for because you can’t not act, so what is the reality of your situation? Who controls it? Your future will arrive no matter what you do, so you just have to make the best of it.

When we predict the future with test scores, are we acting as though the future were in our power to command it or are we simply allowing it to proceed as it should? To me, scores are more akin to tarot cards than science. Tarot cards have just as complex an interpretive system surrounding them as testing does. And whether we’re talking tarot or psychic readings, what the subject brings to the table is most important. The future is just extrapolation from the past coupled with wishes and expectations; isn’t a student’s past a better thing to base our predictions on?