- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

The president of the University of California, Richard C. Atkinson, has recommended that UC stop using the SAT in admissions decisions. Anyone involved in education should be concerned, he said, about how the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students. When the president of a major university looks to the buzzword self-esteem to get us out of perceived trouble, we know were in deep.
The proposal would be the latest attempt at an end-run around Proposition 209, which in 1996 banned the use of racial preferences in California, thus making it harder for UC to micromanage diversity with its admissions decisions. But the implications of UC dropping the SAT are much larger. The nation is now waiting to see if UC will open the admissions process nationally by slaying the behemoth of standardized testing.
We have tried to allocate educational opportunity in ways that reflect American ideals of fairness and egalitarianism, Mr. Atkinson said. Many argue that the use of standardized tests in admissions, and particularly the SAT, promotes those ideals by providing a common measure of readiness for college-level study. I have reached a very different conclusion.
Mr. Atkinson wants UC to move away from narrowly defined quantitative formulas and instead adopt procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way. Such changes will help all students, especially low-income and minority students, determine their own educational destinies and lead to greater public confidence in UCs fairness.
This move is the culmination of an argument that has been developing for years. It runs thus: The SAT is culturally biased and discriminates against disadvantaged students; it is therefore unfair. Attempting to counteract such concerns in 1999, Education Testing Service, which administers the SAT, floated the Strivers Program, which would have identified race, among other things, as a predictor of low achievement, thereby identifying as strivers those who surpassed the predictions. The Strivers Program had more than the whiff of racism; so it didnt fly.
Race is also at the center of Mr. Atkinsons proposal: Minorities are concerned about the fact that, on average, their children score lower than white and Asian American students. Rather than take the SAT, he argues, students should be judged on what they have accomplished during four years of high school, taking into account their opportunities.
Read that last phrase carefully. It could usher in the end of college standards. It means that a university cannot set its own standards but must rather lower the bar to accommodate the failures of the high schools. This would perpetuate what President Bush has called the soft bigotry of low expectations.
The SAT is not perfect, but it is a very good predictor of whether students have acquired skills necessary to do college-level work, and it helps differentiate high school grades of unequal value. It is bad to live for the test, but the skills the SAT tests are valuable: vocabulary, reading, etc. When a high school fails to teach these skills it is, indeed, an instance of unfairness.The high schools should be fixed.
Lowering the bar for college entrance necessitates remediation. Remediation, as James Traub observed in his study of the City University of New York, does not magically jump students to the level where they need to be. At a certain point, nothing makes up for time and opportunities lost.
Opponents of the SAT will assure us that standards will be raised, not lowered. Dont believe it.
Egalitarians are looking west, hoping UC will, in the name of fairness, give universities more power as social engineers. One should remember that before Proposition 209 UC was willing to discriminate against high-achieving low-income Asian students in the broader interests of diversity. As Californians knew, this wasnt fair. Without standardized tests, the increasing number of UC applicants (65,000 for 27,000 places in 1999) would be subject to arbitrary holistic decisions. Many would consider that unfair.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans love equality and liberty, but they love equality more. Americans, I would add, love fairness. But many who run our universities love their version of equality more. And to achieve it, they abuse the ideal of fairness in an attempt to make us forget that high standards are to opportunity as hard work is to success.

Marc Berley is the president of the Foundation for Academic Standards & Tradition (www.gofast.org) and co-editor of "The Diversity Hoax," a book of essays by UC Berkeley students.

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