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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2001 / 3 Adar, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Back door quotas

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVER since racial quotas in college admissions were banned by Proposition 209 in California and by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas, academics and politicians have been racking their brains to come up with something that would allow quotas to continue under new names. The latest attempt to get away from admitting students by their own individual qualifications is a proposal from the president of the University of California that the standard Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT I) no longer be required of students applying for college admissions.

According to UC President Richard C. Atkinson, an "overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practice." Moreover, "the test is perceived by many as unfair" and its results "can have devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students."

This is a masterpiece of mushiness. How much emphasis is "over" emphasis? And if that is really the problem, then why not simply reduce the emphasis instead of throwing out the test? But of course this was just a talking point, so it would be unfair to expect either evidence or logic to back up the claim of "over" emphasis, much less a rational response in the unlikely event that this could be demonstrated.

As for the test being "perceived" as unfair, what isn't? And how many other people perceive it as fairer than the alternatives? Arbitrarily singling out those who have one opinion as the one to follow would allow anybody to advocate any policy (or its opposite) on any issue, anywhere and any time.

The same goes for the "self-esteem" argument. Believe me, my self-esteem would suffer if I had to go out on a golf course and compete with Tiger Woods or onto a tennis court and compete with Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi. We would have to throw out every criterion in every field if we wanted to avoid damaging the self-esteem of those who fail.

But do not think that a madman is in charge of the University of California. Dr. Atkinson must know better. These are standard arguments by those who want to bring quotas in by the back door, when they can no longer come in the front door.

These ploys are not even confined to the United States. When courts in India put limits on how far group quotas could go, all sorts of non-academic factors suddenly blossomed in the university admissions process. Subjective factors like "aptitude" and "general abilities" were given great weight, even when these were assessed in interviews that lasted only three minutes per applicant. Dr. Atkinson seeks similar "holistic" criteria.

In India, subjective factors were clearly being used as automatic offsets to differences in academic qualifications. As one Indian court put it, there was a "disturbing" pattern of discrepancy between interview rankings and rankings on other criteria. Students with unsatisfactory academic records nevertheless received "very high marks at the interviews," while "a large number of students who had secured very high marks in the university examinations and who performed well in their earlier class had secured low marks at the interviews."

In short, inconvenient academic criteria were being gotten rid of, so that group quotas could continue in new disguises. That is precisely what getting rid of standardized academic tests is all about. Similarly, admitting the top X percent of each high school's graduates is more of the same deceptive sleight-of-hand. The top 10 percent of students from one high school may be less qualified than the merely average student from another high school.

The claim is often made that the SAT is "culturally biased." But life itself is culturally biased. If you can't handle math and the English language, you are in big trouble.

If the "culturally biased" argument is meant to insinuate that these tests falsely predict a lower academic achievement level for minority students than they later achieve, then that is a purely factual question. And the facts have devastated that theory time and again, for years on end. No wonder the quota crowd don't want to define exactly what they mean by "culturally biased," nor put it to the test of facts.

The tests are not unfair. Life is unfair. If you are serious about wanting minority students to have a better chance in life, then you need to start years before they take the SAT. And you need to stop deceiving them and the American people.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.

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