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Jewish World Review April 20, 2001/ 27 Nissan, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports

First, let's kill all the tests -- AH, spring! The sound of Ticonderoga #2 pencils scratching tiny answer ovals fills the air. The pressure is palpable for it is standardized test time. The final vestige of a once grand educational system blossoms each year to measure and reward achievement.

But, if the great outcome equalizers have their way, these tests will join the 8-track player and Sony's Beta-Max. Nice thoughts, but outmoded. Tests hurt in the taking and outcome. A society that feels every pain so well that it cushions with punitive damages cannot abide such finality on knowledge and ability

Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California system, was resoundingly praised for his vision when he called for elimination of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the 100-year-old yardstick of college admission. Of the 3,500 college and university SAT users, over 300 have jumped ship in the last 5 years.

There is no better predictor of success in college than the SAT. The College Scholastic Board cites 10,000 studies on the correlation between SAT scores and not just performance in college but graduation.

The SAT remains the final objective measure in college admissions. High school grades are inflated to unreliability. Despite no improvement in SAT scores, the average high school GPA climbed in the last 10 years from 3.09 to 3.26. Forty percent of SAT takers have an "A" average, up from 28% ten years ago. Portfolios of writing samples and reference letters are spin at best and ghost written at worst.

If the SAT predicts college success, then why the activist movement against it?

Atkinson worries that students must prepare for the SAT throughout their education. Horrors! Imagine being forced to read with comprehension, apply logic, and understand math. What barbaric times are these! Professor Samuel Freedman worries that the SAT tests familiarity with English. Oh, the unfathomable cruelty of it all!

Others complain that SAT success has become a function of income - those who can afford review courses and books do better with a resulting disparate impact on the poor. The "rich" waste money on placebos. A 2001 study shows that with prep courses SAT scores improve by 14-15 points (800 total) in math, 6 -8 points in verbal (also 800 points) and ACT scores jump .3 to .4 points (36 total). Not even a percentile boost.

Atkinson frets that the SAT has come to dominate the lives of young people. Unless copyright infringement via Napster and placement of piercings in every body hemisphere are on the SATs, Atkinson worries needlessly.

With these trite rationales dismissed, why the drive to banish the SAT? This sudden discomfort emerges because courts and laws have declared two-track admissions systems unconstitutional. Colleges and universities can no longer ignore minority students' test scores and give them admission preferences over higher-scoring white students. Atkinson's UC system found its hands tied when Prop 209 eliminated race as a criterion of admission. Mexican American students' SAT scores have dropped 4 points over the last 5 years and are now 145 points below whites' scores. African American students' scores are 198 points lower than whites.

The obvious solution is to improve minorities' test scores, as is being done in the land of chads with the Florida Partnership for Academic Achievement, conceived and implemented by Jeb Bush and the College Board. But, nay, such a solution requires effort and time. Atkinson and his ilk just prefer to eliminate the numbers. He wants "comprehensive, holistic" admissions.

Translation: no numbers, no merits, but race.

The great irony of Atkinson's proposal is that the SAT was developed as a way around birthright admissions that dominated until 1900. If your father went to Harvard and donated a boathouse or other bricks and mortar, you and your entire lineage got into Harvard. However, the faculties discovered that not everything is in the genes or donations. Many alum/donors' descendants were dumb as posts.

To eliminate pressure from alums and donors, faculties created the College Board and the SAT for merit-based admissions. Our system of higher education was opened to the qualified masses. Numbers, not birthright, ruled.

An admissions system abandoned a century ago because of its inherent bias returns. In the 1901 debate over admissions tests, the president of Lafayette College said, "If we wish to admit the son of a benefactor, or of a Trustee, or a member of the Faculty, and such action will benefit the institution, we are not going to be prevented from doing it."

Harvard's president, Charles Eliot, responded, "The President of Lafayette College has misunderstood. It will be perfectly practicable under this plan for Lafayette College to admit only such students as cannot pass these examinations." The room filled with laughter. One hundred years later liberals tout an equally silly admissions process. This time they do so with a straight face.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings