Abolish the SAT!
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.