The sometimes incredibly competitive nature of getting into college was brought into stark relief recently with the realization that Aunt Becky might be going to prison (Aunt Becky is the character played by actress Lori Loughlin on Full House, a show my children enjoyed back in the day.) She seems like an odd candidate for incarceration but her alleged actions, taking illegal steps to boost her daughter’s chances for entry into a prestigious university, demonstrated how far people will go to give their children a leg up.
It is also a demonstration of Campbell’s Law. Donald Campbell was a psychologist who made significant contributions in several areas of the social sciences. His “law,” however, holds particular pre-eminence for me because it seems to have so many different applications in modern life. It also offers so many caveats to those who seek, reasonably, to hold government programs, private firms, groups and individuals accountable for their work and success, or lack thereof.
Campbell stated his law as such: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
The law has that fascinating combination of being perfectly obvious while everybody but Campbell was and largely is, oblivious to it. Stated more simply, it means that as soon as you start checking on and publicizing a particular descriptor, measure or statistic, the value of that term will soon diminish. Take homelessness as an example. The sad reality that this exists is perplexing given the wealth our society enjoys. To most people, being homeless means you are living on the street. But as various services attached to homelessness, good-hearted individuals and federal agencies began redefining the term to include more people so they could also receive such services. Thus today, a student living with members of their extended family or who are simply “couch surfing” with families of friends as a result of a disruption of their living arrangements with parents, are frequently also labeled homeless even though they have a roof over their head. Being declared homeless in this way, even for a brief period, can mean the definition applies for the full year in which it occurred regardless of its actual duration. In this way, the term “homeless” becomes distorted. It means something other than being homeless and so more explicit forms of homeless can be that much harder to address.
In schools, Campbell’s Law is particularly evident in high-stakes accountability systems. If schools are answerable for specific measures — attendance, achievement on standardized tests, graduation rates, student postsecondary success — those measures will be corrupted over time as people and systems work harder to succeed at them. Additionally, the higher the stakes, the faster and more thorough will be the diminishment.
One of the reasons ACT and SAT, etc. tests are so important these days is because of the reality of Campbell’s Law as it pertains to grade point average. Years ago, GPA was something of a gold standard for student success and the likelihood of success in college. But its very importance was its undoing. As students and parents and educators saw it as so critical, some students began avoiding rigorous coursework out of fear of its potential deleterious effects on GPA. Some parents (‘Mrs. Golbergs,’ to reference another sitcom) besieged teachers and principals, seeking a higher grade for their child in a course or on an assignment. They would paint the perceived unfair grade as condemning their child to impaired chances at matriculation in the college of their choice or the loss of scholarships. Some educators blanched in the face of such opposition. Others surrendered the castle walls before the first arrows even flew. Grade inflation prevailed.
GPA came to mean less and less. Universities relegated its importance in the admission process, moving instead toward college entrance exams such as ACT and SAT, which no parent could corrupt. Except for those now charged with doing so.
And now the other shoe seems to have dropped. ACT announced it will allow students to retake not just the entire exam — something traditionally permitted — but also just the various subtests (reading, math, etc.) This will allow students to move scores up more dramatically than in the past and, Campbell would predict (were he not in the throes of corporeal corruption himself,) the diminishment of the value of ACT.
But whether this is a shame or just an inexorable application of a law of the social universe, I really can’t say.