- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

The SAT scores are in again, and again they show that overall scores are not getting better, and again those who don't like it are saying, "Hey, bring that messenger over here, gang. Let's shoot the sucker."
It's the wrong approach, although maybe not much worse than the approach of the College Board, the nonprofit outfit that owns the test. It has been trying to improve scores through allotting more time on some of its sections, permitting the use of calculators, getting rid of some of the toughest material and changing the grading mechanism, according to the Center for Education Reform.
Let's be fair, though, and let's concede that the 2-point increase in the average math score apparently does reflect something actual. For 10 years now, math scores have been nudging their way upward, and as a New York Times education writer has noted, a number of other tests similarly show minute advances this year. A great deal of effort has gone into making math instruction in public schools better, and while the accomplishment is not on the order of Olympian, these few crumbs should not go unappreciated.
But what the SAT gives, it also takes away. Verbal is down by 2 points from 2001. That continuation of dismaying results is reason enough, in the minds of some, to rid the world of the test. One group is pushing for colleges to rely instead on high school grades as the primary predictors of how students will fare. Most of us know why that won't work, don't we? A youngster with perfect grades in Let's Pretend High School might just barely pass in Let's Get Real High School. Standardized tests are just that: standardized. High school grades aren't.
That's not to say high school grades should count for nothing. Even though most institutions of higher learning are not so foolish as to have ignored the phenomenon of grade inflation, they do take report-card reflections of high school performance into account. In fact, I've seen an estimate that only 100 out of all the universities and colleges in the land lean all that heavily on SAT scores.
These, it seems, are mostly the prestigious schools that get at least twice as many applicants as they can admit. They have little rational choice but to use some form of standardized testing in deciding whom to admit. Some of these schools may fail to consider other factors sufficiently, but this much they know: While there can always be exceptions, low SAT scores are extremely reliable in revealing that a particular student will not be successful.
Don't believe those who tell you the tests are biased against minorities. Rather, they discriminate against young people of all races who have not learned enough to do well on the tests or in the top colleges. The best article I found while researching the subject was written by a university English professor named Paul Marx.
In the "Chronicle of Higher Education," Mr. Marx notes that those who do well on the verbal portion of the tests are those who have obtained important knowledge and vocabulary and other intellectual skills through extensive reading during their childhood. Those who have not are like a young man he is tutoring, someone who said "China" when asked for the name of a European country, and who could not "define a foot or a yard." Put this tutee in a college classroom, Mr. Marx says, and he will either flunk or pass only because of declining standards, and he will know "enormous frustration."
When you find someone who is weak and malnourished, you do not scream and carry on about the medical tests showing the malnourishment. You do not insist that the person ought to be on the track team. Instead, you devise ways to make sure people are fed.
Through volunteer and library programs in addition to what the schools do, we need to make sure children read and are read to; we need to insist on first-rate teachers; we need to teach the classic literature, what the widely applauded Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. of the University of Virginia has identified as the "core knowledge" all Americans should have; we need school accountability; we need more alternatives to the public school monopoly.
Maybe the SAT should be replaced by something else, at least if it keeps backsliding in response to foolish arguments. But we do need a standardized college-entrance exam much the same as the SAT has been. It's good to have messengers that bring us news about what is bad, for then we can cure the bad.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.


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