Flogging the SATs

by John Leo
from the U.S. News & World Report

The annual SAT-bashing season is upon us once again, with familiar cries of "bias" and complaints about "the national mania for testing.” Some critics demand that college admission tests be eliminated altogether and replaced by some other arrangement, perhaps a lottery, subjective judgments by school officials, or some sort of "representation" -- a modified racial quota system designed to pass judicial review.

The Department of Education weighed in with the threat of "disparate impact" litigation if schools rely heavily on tests and don't admit significant numbers of minority students. Some plans suggest tinkering with test results. The Educational Testing Service, which runs the SATs, floated a trial balloon to grant an extra edge, like a golf handicap, to disadvantaged "strivers" who worked hard but scored low.

The most publicized of the anti-SAT suggestions comes from journalist Nicholas Lemann, author of the impressive new history of the SATs, The Big Test.

Lemann says admission to college should be determined by a test based on a nationally agreed-upon high school curriculum. He writes: "Test-prep should consist of mastering the high school curriculum, not learning tricks to outwit multiple-choice aptitude exams.” This is a thoughtful plan, but unworkable. Teachers unions would resist, if only because poor-performing teachers and schools would be identified very quickly and support would build for vouchers. Enormous political opposition would rise to block any plan for national authority over school curricula. Besides, a curriculum-based achievement test wouldn't affect cultural and family factors that hold back many students. The number of non-Asian minorities qualifying for college could well go down.

Lemann argues that tests, and education itself, can't be counted on to discover every form of merit. "They don't find wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination -- let alone moral worth," he writes.

Fair enough. They don't. The SATs don't measure character, or even intelligence. They are designed to measure the developed capacity to do college work. And they do that well. One example: Far from being biased against blacks, the SAT has had a good record over two decades of predicting the actual performance of black students at selective colleges. In fact, the SAT has slightly overpredicted the success of those students, or, to put it another way, for reasons we don't understand, blacks have performed less well than their scores predicted.

Lemann is an honest critic, but most of the people who lament all the virtues and talents that testing misses aren't being candid. They want to dismantle the tests because non-Asian minorities are not doing well on them. At places like the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Texas Law School, we now know that preferential decisions weren't being made on the basis of a candidate's background, character, independence, or moral worth. They were being made, behind the scenes, with very little candor, on the basis of a numerical formula stacked by race.

In fact, the debate over testing is mostly a shadow debate over affirmative action. Now that the courts are striking down racial preferences, backers of the preferences have been driven to attack testing, along with important values like objectivity, achievement, and merit. "Merit stands in the way of diversity, so they want to destroy it," said Shelby Steele, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

As Lemann's book makes clear, the SAT was installed as a way of dismantling the system of inherited privilege that kept the best colleges stocked with WASP males from wealthy and well-connected families. An open competitive system is the best protector against an elite making behind-the-scenes decisions, whether in favor of "in groups," in the old days, or designated "out groups" today.

Elites are always prone to do a little social engineering when they get a chance. Even Harvard President James Bryant Conant, who worked to install college testing, wanted "to reorder the haves and have-nots every generation to give flux to our social order.” But how many Americans want to live in a country where Harvard presidents get to do this?

By rigging admissions and trying to dismantle tests, the Establishment is really making a very pessimistic statement: We don't really think that minority kids can make it without a thumb on the scale. George W. Bush recently referred to this mind-set as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

The newest dodge is to try to gain legal status for the concept of "diversity.” The idea is to argue that an increased presence of non-Asian minorities on campus is crucial for the education of non-minorities and Asians. This is a sorry strategy in search of a gullible judge. No social science evidence backs it up, and it's hard to imagine a study showing that an increase in the black presence in the Ivy League (about 6 percent of students) is somehow more crucial than a rise in, say, the Italian-American presence (roughly 4.5 percent).

Instead of putting energy and money on the other end of the system -- preparing minority students to hold their own -- the backers of preferences persist in seeking new ways to rig admissions. They are becoming ever more desperate.


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27 Oct 1999