Change in SATs: a false equity

September 13, 1999|By Igor Webb

AFTER YEARS of stout denials by the Educational Testing Service that the Scholastic Aptitude Tests are biased in favor of well-off white people, not only has Gaston Caperton, the new president of the parent College Board, admitted that test results indeed reflect socio-economic background and race, but ETS has found a fix for the problem.

Anyone examining the facts -- students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds score significantly below rich ones -- would assume the solution to lie in improving the education of the poor. This proves to be a deeply un-American notion and was not discussed as an option.

The solution reportedly suggested by ETS, which insists it is not selling a product, is to provide colleges and universities with a "formula" to identify "strivers," that is, students from "under-represented minorities" who perform better than their class and race suggest they should.

So it turns out that the wicked old ETS, one of the largest and least regulated monopolies in the land, has all this time quietly been fooling with a model that takes 14 variables, such as race, family income, parents' education, socio-economic mix of high school, etc., and uses this information to predict how a student should do on the SAT.

Strivers' row

And then if the student does better, he or she is a "striver." And you can admit him or her. It's scientific and not anything compromising and political such as, say, affirmative action.

All of the press reports speak of this dandy new educational salve as a kind of golf handicap. Everybody has a handicap, it turns out, a relation to the test scores mediated by race, gender, class, region . . . maybe even -- but no one seems any longer to use this word -- intelligence.

Taking all this into account, we are still supposed to keep in mind that, according to College Board officials, The Strivers Handicap Adjustment Project does not suggest that the current scores are not "valid."

I didn't read anything to suggest how that could be, but here's my guess. In the first place, no discussions of recent test scores acknowledge that SAT tallies were, beginning three years ago, "recentered." In other words, scores were revised upwards for everyone because the whole cohort of test takers wasn't scoring as well as it was supposed to be.

The reason the current scores are "valid" is that actually, within their well-known limitations, the SATs test for the ability of a student to reason.

The Strivers Handicap Adjustment doesn't actually tell you a student can reason better than even the recentered test results indicate, or that the student is better prepared for college than someone who has scored higher.

It only says the student has done better than his handicap suggests he should have done. I still recall taking my SATs with a kind of solemn dread, for here was an objective, unbiased, scientific instrument that would report what we used to call, but for fear of offense, no longer refer to as my "intelligence."

It was an exam you couldn't study for because it didn't measure knowledge but rather intellectual ability. In short, here was the perfect meritocratic gadget for an obviously unequal but equality obsessed mass democracy.

By scientific means students -- rich and poor, male and female, black and white -- would be parceled out by their innate abilities and funneled via the appropriate college into the rich American melting pot. Nifty, eh?

Except that test results just didn't ever seem to be able to slip free of the background, and thus the preparation, of the student.

The poor -- and thus, on the whole, the poorly educated -- have trailed the rich in their scores since the SATs began. Meanwhile, increasingly more students have taken the SATs, exposing an embarrassing persistence of intellectual inequality in a culture where it has become essential that it should be seen that everyone does well.

Consequently, the effort to improve the schools, and the actual preparation of students, has been notably weak and universally unsuccessful.

However, the effort to open the doors of this and that has been momentous. In the process, the notion that students should actually be well-educated has fallen by the wayside.

Losing battle

The impoverished student, especially if she or he is Hispanic or African-American, fights a losing battle to claim the respect due to achievement and intelligence. This is because the whole system is geared toward enacting the political ends of equality, not honoring knowledge, ability and skill.

Now we have the seeming final blow. The College Board has come up with a theoretical solution -- a scientific formula that plucks Horatio Algers from the mass of middling test-takers and, in one ingenious stroke, rescues the SATs from the attack of under-represented minorities, while at the same time providing beleaguered college admissions deans with a way to achieve the goals of affirmative action by other, scientifically sanctified means.

What would actually make students better prepared for college -- better schools -- is nearly sidestepped. Forget it -- let's just re-interpret the test results!

Igor Webb is a professor of English at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. He wrote this for Newsday.

Pub Date: 9/13/99

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