Why Don't Applicants Volunteer Their Test Scores?
By Bryan Caplan
When lawyers hear about the signaling model of education, they often invoke the Supreme Court case of Griggs vs. Duke Power. Griggs created a strong legal presumption that it is “discriminatory” for employers to hire on the basis of IQ tests. The lawyers who invoke Griggs often argue that, as a direct result, employers turned to educational credentials as a covert IQ test.
There are two big problems with this story. First, educational credentials paid long before discrimination laws were on the books; Griggs couldn’t be the sole or even the main reason why seemingly useless degrees pay. Second, and more strangely, courts have left a big loophole open: Employers can’t safely request standardized test scores, but to the best of my knowledge, applicants can safely provide them.
In equilibrium, then, we’d expect workers to do employers’ dirty work for them. Since firms risk lawsuits if they ask for test scores, applicants would volunteer their test scores without being asked.* When workers don’t deliver their scores, employers would quietly assume the worst and hire accordingly.
In actual job markets, though, voluntary revelation is a rarity. (At least that’s my strong impression; please confirm or deny in the comments). Why would this be? How come almost no one includes his SAT or GRE scores on his resume?
Back in 1995, this very issue came up at an IHS career seminar. Participants wrote mock resumes and did mock interviews for academic jobs. One of the students included his GRE scores on his resume. The faculty called him on it. If I remember correctly, it was Randy Barnett who unequivocally told the student to delete his rather impressive scores. Why? Because, quoting from memory, “Departments are looking to hire promising assistant professors, not brilliant grad students.”
Barnett’s position, in technical terms, was that GRE scores on your resume are a mixed signal. Yes, you show that you’re smart. But you also show that you’re socially clueless; what you are doing “simply isn’t done.” On net, you’re better off keeping your scores to yourself.
Barnett’s story made sense to me at the time, and still does. What do you think? Please share any relevant first-hand evidence you have, one way or the other.
* You might think that workers with below-average test scores wouldn’t want to volunteer their scores. But then employers would infer that anyone who didn’t volunteer was at the 25th percentile of ability (the average below-average score), giving workers between the 25th and 50th percentiles an incentive to volunteer their scores. This unraveling process would continue until virtually everyone revealed.