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Standardized tests succumb to government policy

September 12, 2000
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It is an old-fashioned word, used in yesterday’s obituaries, and a term that would probably stump a lot of high school students taking the verbal part of an SAT test. Except that the SAT test as a qualification for college may be on its last legs, thanks to the U.S. Department of Education.

Its proposed federal guideline states, with admirable bluntness, that using “any educational test which has a significant disparate impact on members of any particular race, national origin, or sex, is discriminatory.”

In other words, making it hard (or even illegal) for colleges to use SAT or ACT test results will close the racial and cultural test performance gap by outlawing the very instrument that predicts academic success.

If you don’t like the ruler, throw it away. Under the new regime, getting the proper proportional representation of race and gender on campus trumps proven academic performance in high school.

The new devil is “disparate impact,” under which American life must be cleansed of its uneven texture in favor of a world rigidly stratified by the iron law of racial and gender proportionality. Why are there so few women engineers, black doctors, Hispanic attorneys, white NBA players? (Strike that last phrase!)

Any “disparate impact” violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Education Amendments of 1972, “unless it is educationally necessary and there is no practicable alternative form of assessment which meets the educational institution’s needs and would have a less disparate impact.”

The “alternative form” would be what? And who would judge its legitimacy?

It’s none other than the Office of Civil Rights within the Education Department, the agency that issued the proposal, titled “Nondiscrimination in High-Stakes Testing: A Resource Guide.”

'Bureaucratic terrorism'

This spooks the college community, which foresees a visit from their friendly representatives from Washington who, in turn, interrogate the college staff and hold out the prospect of withholding federal funds until compliance is proven. Terry Pell, of the Center for Individual Rights, calls such interrogations “an extra-legal form of bureaucratic terrorism.”

Colleges are in the business of educating people, not defending themselves against long, expensive lawsuits.

The guideline evidently blind-sided the educational establishment, which claims it had no idea the feds were cooking it.

“We were stunned,” said John Childers, of the College Board, which sponsors the SAT. “We had no idea that this had been in process for four years.” He called it a “blueprint for litigation against schools, states, and admission offices. Any test that doesn’t have equal results by group could trigger an investigation.”

This dreadful prospect is seconded by Robert Schaeffer, of Fair Test, a group that opposes testing, who says the guideline “comes with the suggestion that there will be government enforcement.”

Dilution

The guide is the latest attempt to dilute objective standards in favor of other criteria like grade point average, leadership qualities, or overcoming personal handicaps. How much weight should these subjective criteria have?

The issue is being fought out in the courts today. The University of Michigan is the defendant in a class action case whose plaintiffs complain that they were denied admission despite scoring higher than minorities.

There is something definitely retro about this new attack on academic standards. In California, residents have voted against quotas in the state’s public colleges. In cities like Chicago, schools have abandoned “social promotion” by holding K-12 students to meeting objective standards.

Call the government action an anachronism. (“1: n. An error in chronology, esp: a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other.”)

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