Bias and the SAT

October 05, 1999|By DeWayne Wickham

EVERY school day, Tanika Rice spends 90 minutes working mind-bending calculus problems at the Laurence G. Paquin Middle/Senior High School.

The high school senior is one of five students who are getting extra instruction in mathematics at the school.

Her ritual will end this week as she joins 500,000 other students nationwide in taking the SAT on Saturday. The SAT, much-pilloried for being biased in favor of well-off white people, is at the center of the controversy over the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

To opponents of affirmative action, the SAT is a fair measure of a student's worthiness for admission to college. The closer students get to the maximum score of 1600 on the dreaded test, the more deserving they are of a slot in the college of their choice, these people argue.

It all sounds so fair. Go to school. Work hard. Get good grades and score well on the SAT. Given such ground rules every student has an equal chance to perform to the best of his or her ability, right?

Wrong. The use of the SAT as a gauge of who should be admitted to college is anything but fair.

From its inception, the SAT was meant to be a tool to diversify the student bodies of higher education institutions. Its creators said that by using this test, academic merit would supplant money as the key to getting into college.

But as a PBS "Frontline" documentary, which airs on Maryland Public Television tonight at 10 p.m. reveals, those who can afford the cost of the expensive SAT preparatory courses can gain an advantage over those who don't.

The show, titled "Secrets of the SAT," pokes gaping holes in the argument that the SAT is an unbiased way of determining who gets into college.

Businesses that offer the SAT preparatory courses rake in more than $100 million a year from parents who hope to buy their child a leg up on the college entrance exam. But students at the Paquin school don't pay anything for the special tutoring they get.

"All it costs them is their time and attention," said Brenda Ross, who teaches the math component of the East Baltimore school's SAT prep program.

"We're just trying to level the playing field for our kids whose parents can't afford to spend hundreds of dollars for an SAT prep course," said Rosetta Stith, the school's principal.

But their efforts may not be good enough.

Why? Because there's strong evidence that minorities internalize negative stereotypes about themselves, affecting their performance on such tests, Stanford University psychologist Claude Steele says in the PBS documentary.

Mr. Steele, who has done extensive research on the affects stereotyping has on test performance, reports that black students with equal academic records don't do as well as their white peers when they are told that a test they are taking is a measure of their intelligence.

But before you start groaning about this being one more excuse for the poor performance of blacks on standardized tests, consider this: Mr. Steele also found the same results when he matched white women against white men, and white men against Asian men -- all with comparable academic records.

In each case, the group viewed to be less intelligent did worse on the test than the group it was competing against.

Mr. Steele's findings aren't new. They put a statistical face on conclusions reported 14 years ago in a New Republic magazine article entitled "Rumors of Inferiority: The Hidden Obstacles to Black Success."

The performance gap between blacks and whites on standardized tests has more to do with "the fears and self-doubt" generated by racial stereotypes than by a gap in the abilities of black and white students.

What this all suggests is that the advantage students get from an SAT prep course may be offset by the impact negative stereotyping has on them. It shows that the SAT is a warped measurement of a student's ability to succeed in college.

And it confirms my belief that affirmative action in college admissions is still needed to bring balance to an imperfect selection process.

DeWayne Wickham, a former Sun reporter, is a columnist for USA Today and Gannett News Service.

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