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Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 1999 /28 Elul, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Scoring the SATs --- the givers, not takers -- THE FOLKS AT the Educational Testing Service, the group that administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test to more than 1.2 million college-bound students each year, have created quite a controversy these last couple of weeks, and now, they're trying to figure their way out of a mess of their own making.

It all began on Aug. 31, when the Wall Street Journal reported that ETS was considering a new program to award extra points on the SAT for students who perform above their expected level, based on a variety of factors, including family income, parents' education, the quality of the high school they attended, and race.

The idea was to give extra points to those students ETS dubbed "strivers": poor and minority students who score 200 points higher than their peers or between 1000 and 1199 out of a possible 1600. Within 24 hours of the story breaking, ETS was deflating its own trial balloon, blaming the news media for "misleading" coverage.

Why this tempest in a teapot? Ever since voters in California passed a statewide referendum outlawing racial preferences in college admissions in 1996, those who favor affirmative action have been on the defensive. For years, most colleges and universities -- especially academically competitive ones -- have admitted minority students whose grades and test scores, on average, were lower than those of white students.

Since black students, on average, score almost 200 points below whites on the SAT, college administrators argued that minority enrollment would drop dramatically if they applied the same criteria to blacks and whites. But this double standard has come under increasing attack, not just in California, but also in Washington state, which passed an initiative similar to California's last year, and in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, which must abide by a 5th Circuit court ruling that outlawed racial preferences in college admissions.

So, what's the solution? Most supporters of affirmative action would like colleges to place less emphasis on SAT scores -- or drop the test altogether, which has ETS worried. After all, if schools stopped requiring the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT (produced by the American College Testing Program), because blacks and Hispanics perform poorly on it, the testing people would lose the major portion of their higher-education business. No wonder ETS hoped to find a way to make their test more minority-friendly. Actually, this is only the latest in several such attempts dating back more than 25 years.

Although critics have accused the SAT of being racially biased for years, ETS has weathered those charges by continuously adapting its test questions to be more racially and ethnically sensitive. Every service and product ETS offers undergoes a "fairness review" to ensure that the material meets the latest standard for political correctness and racial sensitivity.

Most importantly, however, the SAT itself pretty accurately predicts first-year grades for both whites and blacks, which is what the test is designed to do. (If anything, the test somewhat over-predicts the grade performance of black students, who do even less well, on average, than their lower test scores predict.) But the political pressure remains to find a way to boost the scores of blacks and Hispanics and close the racial gap with whites and Asians, which widened this year.

But giving some black and Hispanic test-takers extra points because they attended bad schools or their parents didn't finish college won't solve the problem. While some students may indeed perform above their "expected" level, based on their economic status, these strivers include whites and Asians as well as blacks and Hispanics. Should poor whites or Asians be given less credit for exceeding expectations than similarly situated blacks or Hispanics?

If colleges and universities want to give extra consideration to students who have overcome social and economic adversity, why not do it on a color-blind basis? And no matter what extra credit colleges give such strivers in the admissions process, the schools may find that SAT scores really do matter when it comes to college grades. There's simply no easy way to compensate for the missing information a student lacks if he scores 1000 on the test rather than 1200 or 1400.

Linda Chavez Archives


©1999, Creators Syndicate