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A bit more than a week ago, the regents of the University of California voted unanimously to approve Janet Napolitano’s proposal that the UC system cease using the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the ACT to help their admissions departments choose from among their applicants those most apt to profit from the instruction the universities in the system offer. This they did in the face of a UC Faculty Senate study confirming the utility of these standardized tests for that purpose and demonstrating that the poor showing of African-American and Hispanic high school students on these examinations had little, if anything, to do with test bias and much to do with poor high school preparation.
In theory, UC will now design its own test for applicants, but this can hardly be made to produce the results desired – for it will surely be unavailable to students from out of state, and no examination testing the candidates’ intelligence and preparation is likely to produce results dramatically different from what one secures via the SAT and ACT, which do an excellent job of predicting future academic success. In practice, all of this is obfuscation: for, as I argued on 18 May in “The Value of Standardized Testing,” the real aim of those who want to eliminate standardized testing or make it optional is to make it possible for their schools to practice that species of systematic racial discrimination that passes under the euphemism “affirmative action” without anyone being able to prove that this is what they are doing.
What, you might ask, did universities do before the SAT and ACT existed? Some had their own exams – which gave great advantage to those who could travel to the campus to take it. Others emphasized “character” – which, though in principle admirable, tended in practice to mean that to be successful an applicant had to belong to the appropriate social class. In much of the Ivy League, this meant that Catholics, Jews, and the like had no need to bother applying. As discovery in a recent court case against Harvard revealed, this is how that university excludes Asian-American applicants today.
Public universities sometimes opted for another – far more rational expedient – for separating the sheep from the goats, and the University of California was in their number. As one individual observed in a letter published in The Wall Street Journal,
I was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley in 1952. At that time there were no tests to get into the university. Any California student who graduated from his or her high school with a B or better average was eligible to attend.
At the freshman orientation the president of the university invited 100 students at a time to his residence on campus. He had everyone hold hands. He said, “Look to your left. Look to your right. All of you are the best of your high schools, but only one of you will be here next semester.” And that was how the class was selected. Most of the one-third of the students who survived the freshman cut remained at Cal for four years.
I quote this bit of correspondence because the same thing was still done at the University of Oklahoma when I graduated from high school in Oklahoma City in 1967. There was something called the University College. Freshmen had to successfully pass through it before they could enroll as sophomores in a regular course of study, and most failed to make the cut.
Something of the sort could be tried today at big public institutions. But I doubt very much whether such an expedient could be made to work. To begin with, in 1952, it cost next to nothing to spend a year at schools like the University of California. Today it costs an arm and a leg. Moreover, if it turned out – as it surely would turn out – that African-Americans and Hispanics were much more apt to bust out than Asian-Americans and those of solely European stock, faculty members would be charged with “racism,” the administration would fail to back them up, and we would soon have “affirmative action” in grading — for academics are not, by and large, a courageous lot.
If the aim is to genuinely improve the prospects of African-Americans and Hispanics, the only plausible expedient is to dramatically improve the schools that they attend. But there is a politically insuperable obstacle in the way: I have in mind the teachers’ unions.Published in