The lead story in the current issue of The Weekly Standard is a defense by John Harper of the recently announced changes to the SAT test — more difficult math questions and a writing component. But Stanley Kurtz in National Review Online deplores the elimination of the portion of the SAT that tests academic aptitude.
Kurtz has the better case. Colleges already can find out how well applicants handle difficult math problems and how well they write. The SAT II writing and math tests measure this. But under the new regime, as Kurtz stresses, valuable information about aptitude will no longer be available to colleges. In other words, something is lost and nothing is gained.
Presently, colleges can decide for themselves what information about applicants matters, and to what extent. Some may agree wtih Harper that the aptitude portions of the test lack significant value because they are too easily “gamed” by students who can afford top-quality tutors. These colleges can rely primarily on grades and SAT II tests. Other colleges will conclude, as virtually all colleges did for years, that the traditional SAT is a useful selection tool. They can select accordingly. And these selection decisions help define the colleges, producing varying types of student bodies and thus offering more alternatives (one might even say diversity) to prospective students. The revised SAT means less information and less choice.
What about the racial implications? Here, there may be less going on than meets the eye. Except for the relatively few state institutions required by law not to discriminate, white applicants don’t really compete with African-American applicants, although colleges try to disguise this reality. Whites compete with whites for the white slots; African-Americans compete with each other for slots set aside for members of their race. Thus, no matter how great the disparities between white and black scores, colleges can, and do, still admit the desired number of black applicants. They simply tolerate enormous disparities between the test scores of admitted whites and admitted blacks. So, even if the revised SAT produces lower disparities (and there is no reason to suppose it will), the bottom admissions line is not likely to change at many institutions.
Why then the attack on the SAT? As Harper and Kurtz point out, the decisive push came from the University of California, which must contend with a ban on discrimination. That aside, many minorities and private schools are embarrassed by the large disparities in test scores and would welcome a new test that would magically shrink the gap. But if no such test is forthcoming, these schools will go on tolerating the preseent disparities. In sum, the new SAT isn’t likely to change the black/white balance, but it will probably mean less informed decisions about which whites and which blacks to admit.
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