April 26, 2009

Defending the SATs

By: N.P. Thompson

The cover story of this week’s Weekly Standard is a fantastic piece by Andrew Ferguson on the evolution of the SAT and how reactions to it (and its precusors) reflect the tension in America between the belief that everyone is equal and the unfortunate reality that some are more equal than others. A brief taste:

Exposés of the SAT became a commonplace of left-wing journalism. As Riesman and Jencks had anticipated, the attacks came along lines of race and class. “For all its sermonizing about equal opportunity,” wrote another liberal journalist, David Owen, in another angry book-length exposé called None of the Above (1955), “ETS is the powerful servant of the privileged.” Coming from the left the attacks seemed odd, directed as they were against a test that only a generation earlier had been installed as the quintessential liberal reform. But they nicely illustrated a larger rupture in the country’s cultural politics. The old progressivism, with its meritocratic ideal, was being abandoned by the new progressives, who saw the meritocratic ideal as at best a delusion and, at worst and more likely, a scam.

Their evidence was the achievement gap. While the College Board and ETS said they worked hard to ensure that everyone who took the SAT took the same test, everyone didn’t get the same score. And when the scores were grouped by the race, class, or sex of the test taker–as opposed to his hair color, religion, or shoe size–the scores began to show the pattern mentioned earlier: Asians before whites, Hispanics before blacks, rich before poor, and men before women, except in the sections where women were before men.

You could react to this pattern in one of three ways. Option one is to ask what relevance group numbers had in a country, and an educational system, where merit is supposed to attach to individuals. Option two is to note that the data reveal that some test takers–owing to their schools, their family lives, their neighborhoods, the social services they were given access to, the expectations of parents and friends–had been less well prepared for college than other test takers and, as a result, had a slimmer chance of doing well in some colleges than other colleges. Option three is to insist that something is wrong with the test.

The activists chose number three. They wanted to fire the doctor. 

You should, as they say, read the whole thing.