Don't dumb down the SAT

Education: A federal challenge to the Scholastic Assessment Test is called politically correct but academically misguided.

July 25, 1999|By Herbert London

TO THE astonishment of many who toil in the vineyards of U.S. higher education, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights recently proposed guidelines designed to challenge the Scholastic Assessment Test as an appropriate standard for college admission.

The test has a "significant disparate impact" on blacks and Hispanics, argue officials at the Civil Rights Office. They offer, instead, "alternative criteria" for admission.

This euphemism translates into a diversity standard that values minority and gender preferences over reading comprehension, thinking or skill with numbers.

Because the SAT is a criterion for acceptance at most colleges, the new guidelines have created great confusion in admissions offices.

On the one hand, the Supreme Court's Hopwood vs. Texas decision argued against racial preferences as a factor for admission.

On the other hand, standardized tests -- the most reliable way to compare applicants -- are considered biased and inappropriate as a criterion for admission.

What is an admissions officer to do? Arthur Coleman, deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, has an answer.

He says, "To the extent that schools are recipients of federal funds and are not aware of potential discrimination issues, we hope this guide will inform them."

The implicit threat jumps out of this statement. If an institution is "not aware of potential discrimination," it might face a federal lawsuit should it display excessive emphasis on SATs as the standard for admission.

What this extraordinary guideline overlooks is the obvious and baleful performance of American students on any basic-skills test. As the nation's educational performance continues to decline, Washington bureaucrats conceive of new ways to make it decline further.

Alas, the decline is most evident in the very minority groups this guideline targets. Rather than criticize the SAT as a biased test, the Department of Education should be offering approaches that would improve basic education provided by American schools.

For decades, the public school system, held in place by an entrenched establishment, the National Education Association, has produced academic failure.

However, it is not basic education that is seen as a problem by Washington bureaucrats, but SAT scores as a standard for college admission.

These bureaucrats are reluctant to admit that public schools are a national disaster, a source of public embarrassment.

Why should colleges be in the business of offering rudimentary writing and reading courses to their incoming students?

The SAT has its deficiencies, as do all exams. But, for eight decades the test has served the nation well, ferreting out students with cognitive ability who might have been overlooked. The test is also recognized as a pretty good predictor of college success.

Yet, this defense is not likely to influence the Department of Education.

An attack on the SAT is a useful diversion from unpleasant realities. Mary can't add, and Johnny can't read, but the bureaucrats concentrate on the SAT as an admissions tool. How absurd!

A focus on academic rigor would make sense. Unfortunately, sense and Department of Education guidelines are not always closely linked.

How colleges will react to the proposed guidelines remains to be seen. If there is a scintilla of reasonable opinion remaining on college campuses, there should be widespread resistance.

But who knows? Diversity is a revered word in academic culture today, and "dumbing down" is a common feature from elementary schools through the corridors of higher education.

Herbert London is John M. Olin professor of humanities at New York University and president of Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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