Why did LePage say Mainers take a special college entrance test?

Along with saying that people outside of Maine look down on Maine students, Governor LePage offered, what he said, was evidence.

“If you go to William & Mary, apply to William & Mary, before they’ll look at your application, if you’re from a Maine school, you have to take a placement exam to see if you qualify,” LePage said at the press conference.

A spokeswoman for William & Mary said later that day that the college had no different requirements for Maine students.

Given that it’s not true that Maine students have a special screening test, why did LePage say it?

There are two possibilities — either he’s lied about it or he believes it, perhaps based on something someone said.

Defining lying as purposely stating something one knows not to be true, I think it’s unlikely this occurred. 

It’s such a specific statement, one that can (and has), been easily checked. People who lie usually try to cover their tracks, to concoct a plausible statement.  If LePage was simply lying, he would be taking an awful chance to have pulled a particular college’s name from the air and made this claim.  I find that unlikely.

(Of course, politicians do lie sometimes. Romney’s doing it right now, in claiming the Obama campaign is trying to keep Ohio military voters from voting, when in fact the Obama campaign is suing to enable all Ohioans to have access to early voting.)

I’m willing to give LePage the benefit of the doubt on this.

What’s more likely is that this is something LePage actually believes. But this raises its own set of issues.

One issue is that, if you know anything about college admissions, it makes no sense. Students are required to give colleges a set of materials, including high school transcripts, recommendations, and test results from national exams.

Most colleges and universities require the SAT or ACT, national standardized tests. Some require special subject SATs (i.e., SAT IIs) and some students report the stores of national tests they took at the end of advanced placement (AP) courses. Depending on the school, AP test scores can count as college credit for particular courses or can be used to waive a particular course or requirement.

There are also standardized tests for students for whom English is not their native language and a test for a credential following a highly rigorous plan of study, the International Baccalaureate.

William and Mary requires the SAT or ACT, while saying, “homeschooled applicants are strongly encouraged to submit SAT IIs in the following areas: math, writing and a lab science.” They use language SAT IIs to allow some students to fulfill their language requirement and suggest English-as-second-language students to take the test that shows their English proficiency.

In other words, there would be no reason for Mainers to take a special placement test — since everyone across the country and from different countries — is compared by the same exams.

While grades and recommendations could give the impression that a student was very strong when he or she is not, admissions committees have standardized exams to sort this out. Everyone takes these — not just Mainers.

Another issue is what this implies about listening and memory. It is very common for people to hear and see things and to remember them wrong. Witnesses at trials get facts wrong. And every teacher can tell you that students can be confident about something they say they heard from you, but which you never said and is not true.

Psychological research shows that people can convince themselves that something was said or happened and can get more and more certain — and it just never was said or happened. What one remembers is one’s memory, which  either wasn’t correct to begin with or got off more and more over time.

In addition, one can misremember if what one falsely remembers is consistent with other cognitive elements — other memories or other ideas.  Lots of research in psychology and political science shows that people like cognitive consistency, to have ideas and memories reinforce each other and reinforce their larger ideological frameworks.

Perhaps this is what happened here.  LePage thinks Maine schools are doing a poor job (they’re not) and so he took something said (but not heard or remembered correctly) and integrated it into his cognitive framework.

LePage may have misread or possibly misremembered (or he lied, which I think unlikely). One thing he did not do was to determine if it was true and if it made sense, given how universities and colleges make admissions decisions.

Governors and other public officials have to make all sorts of decisions and pronouncements about public policy. One hopes they are able to do this carefully and by assessing information.  In this case, LePage did not.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.