Jewish World Review May 25, 1999 /10 Sivan, 5759
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On the one hand, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has loudly championed more accountability and tougher standards to improve K-12 education, including an end to the practice of 'social promotion,' in which teachers promote students to the next grade even if they haven't mastered the work at their current level. Now, however, Riley seems to be having second thoughts about 'social promotion,' at least when it comes to access to higher education.
Last week, Riley weighed in on a controversial set of guidelines being promoted by the Office for Civil Rights in his department that would severely restrict colleges and universities from using standardized test scores to select students for admission or financial aid. At issue are the SAT and ACT tests used by most colleges to help rank applicants. While no school relies entirely on test scores to determine whom to admit, the most competitive schools give considerable weight to high scores, especially during an era of grade inflation when so many students graduate with a perfect 4.0 or 'A' record.
But the problem is, minority students -- on average -- perform less well than whites on standardized tests. The mean score for black students who take the SAT is about 200 points lower (out of a possible 1600) than for whites. OCR's new guidelines -- still in the drafting stage -- presume that any test that produces lower average scores among minorities than whites is suspect. "The use of any educational test that has a significant disparate impact on members of any particular race, national origin or sex is discriminatory," says OCR. Schools that run afoul of OCR's rules could face a cut-off of all federal funds.
Riley's solution is to develop "new and creative ways to enlarge the pool of eligible minority applicants," by going beyond what he called "the traditional factors" of test scores and grades. This sounds an awfully lot like 'social promotion,' only this time it's not from, say, fifth to sixth grade but from high school to college.
Blacks and Hispanics, on average, perform less well than whites or Asians on the SAT or ACT because they've mastered fewer of the skills tested in these exams. In order to do reasonably well on the math section of either test, a student must know basic arithmetic, plus algebra and geometry. He must also be able to decipher a word problem, set up an equation and remember simple mathematical formulas.
To perform well on the verbal section of the tests, a student must be able to comprehend what he reads, define words, and have a good grasp of syntax and grammar. Sadly, too few blacks and Hispanics can meet these requirements. Should they be admitted to colleges and universities anyway? OCR thinks so, but if universities cave in to these demands it will further weaken American higher education and won't serve the interests of the minority students, either.
It makes little sense to promote a child from third to fourth grade if he cannot read or hasn't mastered simple addition and subtraction, and learned how to multiply single digits. Riley seems to understand this and, commendably, has urged schools to retain elementary and secondary students in grade with extra tutorial or summer schoolwork until they learn the necessary skills to earn promotion. But the same principle applies to higher education. If black and Hispanic students can't satisfy the requirement of college placement tests, the answer isn't to admit them anyway, but rather to give them the remediation they need.
If Riley really wanted to improve the performance of minority college
applicants, he'd direct his Office for Civil Rights to cease and desist from
its destructive efforts to ban standardized testing. After all, eliminating
the test may destroy the evidence that minorities are getting a second-rate
education, but it won't change the
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