When it comes to education trends, as California goes, so goes the nation. Which is all the more reason to be concerned about the latest effort in California to dumb down standards. The University of California's Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) has launched another salvo in its long-running war against the SAT, the test used by many colleges and universities to assess academic achievement among high school seniors. This is only the latest in a series of moves by BOARS against the SAT, but this one may be a stalking horse to eliminate standardized tests in general, especially if they conflict with the goal of promoting racial and ethnic diversity.
BOARS has already eliminated a requirement that University of California applicants take at least two subject-matter tests in addition to the SAT Reasoning Test. Now BOARS is taking aim at the SAT directly. What makes the action more suspicious is that BOARS' own report notes that the SAT-R was developed specifically in response to testing principles it promulgated and that the new test "adds significant gains in predictive power of first year grades at UC." Nonetheless, BOARS is now recommending that students forgo the SAT in favor of the less-popular ACT.
Both tests have been accepted for more than 30 years and do a good job of predicting first-year grades. So why is BOARS now signaling preference for one test over another? After reading the report, it's hard to come away without feeling that the real target is standardized testing in general.
As numerous studies and the raw data on test scores have shown, performance on standardized tests varies not just between individuals but also between different racial and ethnic groups. In general, black and Latino students perform less well as a group than do white and Asian students. Since BOARS is committed to boosting the number of black and Latino students admitted to the UC system, standardized tests that do not produce politically correct results are a problem. It's not too far-fetched to wonder whether BOARS' effort to discourage students from taking the SAT may be the first step in getting rid of standardized tests altogether.
But getting rid of standardized tests is not the way to solve the problem of underperforming black and Latino students. Standardized tests, whether they be the SAT or state tests taken to assess elementary and secondary school performance required by the No Child Left Behind Act, merely document the skills gap that exists between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks and Latinos on the other. The answer isn't fixing the tests to produce more even results between racial groups but improving the skills of those students who lag behind.
In 1996, voters in California did away with racial preferences in college admissions to state schools by enacting Proposition 209. Since then, many administrators in the UC system have tried to figure out a backdoor way to boost admissions of blacks and Latinos to the university's flagship schools, UC Berkley and UCLA. What they've failed to notice is that black and Latino enrollment system-wide is up over the levels when racial preferences were common. The students now enrolled under more race-neutral standards are doing just fine, graduating in higher percentages than they were when racial preferences admitted many students to campuses where they couldn't compete with their peers because their grades and test scores were substantially lower.
Eliminating standardized tests or dumbing down their contents doesn't help anyone. It simply sweeps evidence of academic disparities under the rug, where they can't be dealt with. If California really wants to improve education for all its students, it will work to keep high standards in place and encourage students to test what they have learned. California students prefer the SAT to other standardized tests, judging by the numbers who take this test now. BOARS' job should be to encourage students to make their own choices about which test they prefer, not to pick one test over another -- but most of all not to discourage the use of standardized tests altogether in the hopes of promoting greater diversity.