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Abolish the SAT!


Hugh McInnish


Hugh Comes now Nicholas Lemann, author, statist, staff writer for the left-wing The New Yorker magazine. His petition? Get rid of the test taken by some two million high school students each year to determine their admissibility to college. Abolish the SAT !

And why would he want to do that? He explains why in an interview with USA Today, in which he discusses his soon-to-be-published book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. He tells us that, "Nobody knows where (the SAT) comes from, and that furthermore, "No one even wonders where it comes from." Lemann himself is an exception however. He has wondered where it came from, has found out, and now is fully prepared to tell us.

It came, he says, from the misguided mind of James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard, in 1933. Conant had planned a mini-revolution. He wanted to "kick the preppies out of Harvard." His idea was to replace them, chosen primarily on the basis of their elitist families, with students selected for their "intellectual ability," and for that he needed a selection mechanism. An ability test such as the SAT was the obvious answer.

But alas, things went awry. Conant never dreamed that his test could ever be accused of bias against women and minorities, or that it would spawn a whole test-preparation industry, or that "it would cause even one young person to lose sleep." And, Lemann says, "Technology enabled the SAT to be taken by lots more people, so there was this very significant shift from picking students for a very small scholarship program to being able to sort the whole population according to ability." He adds that "Conant failed to predict this fierce, voracious, ferocious, competition over who gets those admissions slots." In other words Conant destroyed the tiny elitst society based on family at Harvard, but unwittingly planted the seed from which has grown a vast elitist society across the whole country based on cognitive ability.

Lemann's printed interview was headlined "SAT: Wrong answer among multiple choices." And Lemann makes it clear that the SAT is indeed wrong. He strongly objects to leaving the test's design and management to the Educational Testing Service, the private company that has managed the test for years. His bottom line is that the ETS should not "be making public policy."

Being on the payroll of The New Yorker you might guess what his proposed remedy is. It is, naturally, a complete government takeover. He proposes establishing a "national curriculum," that is, a curriculum designed by Washington bureaucrats and foisted upon all of us here in the hinterlands. Then, says Lemann, we could talk about a "national achievement test," meaning one that tests how well students learn the government-dictated, and assuredly politically correct, material.

Neither ETS, then, nor any other private company will be in control. The government will. "I would much rather have a government-operated national achievement test with ETS as a subcontractor that makes the test," Lemann explains. "The analogy is you want the McDonnell Douglas corporation to make planes; you don't want McDonnell Douglas to decide defense policy." In other words Lemann wants the government to dictate the design of a national test just as it would dictate the design of a military airplane.

Only a left-winger could see even a remote analogy here. Defending the country is the first duty of the national government, and in performing that duty it must set defense policy. In pursuing its legitimate defense responsibilities it must, furthermore, purchase such things as airplanes from companies such as McDonnell Douglas. So the relationship of the government to McDonnell Douglas, then, is that of customer to contractor, and in that role it is necessary for the government to tell McDonnell Douglas how high, how fast, and how far it wants its plane to fly-- and the contractor is obligated to meet these requirements. Public schools, on the other hand, are under no contract to the government. The government is not their customer. Their customers are the children who attend their schools and these children's parents. Teachers do not have, and should not have, any obligation to would-be managers in Washington. Mr. Lemann's attempted analogy fails utterly.

There is a final and important note. The Constitution, in contrast to the matter of defense policy, grants no power to Washington to set educational policy. The Founders never dreamed of a bureaucrat sitting in Washington deciding what Jane and Johnnie were going to learn, nor that devising tests for students in the schools across the country would ever be proposed as a legitimate role for the central government.

Mr. Lemann's proposal belongs in a Halloween horror house. It is a scary idea for another government intrusion into an area that is none of its business, and a proposal that is aimed at a non existent problem. Whatever Conant intended originally, the SAT serves a useful purpose today. It objectively determines a student's ability and fairly accurately predicts his performance in college. Because its predictive power is equally accurate across gender and cultural lines it is not biased in favor of one group as compared to another. Fortunately it is politically incorrect, that is to say, politically neutral. Replacing it with a "national achievement test" designed by Washington politicians and bureaucrats, no doubt with all the trappings of politically correct multiculturalism and who knows what else, would be one good way to hurry us along the road winding down the way to the demise of the public school system.

Lemann and his fellow travelers constantly profess their devotion to the idea of the public school. They would be wise to promptly reject Mr. Lemann's plea for abolition of the SAT.

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