Columnist for Monday, 3/5 - Sun Ra

Slouching towards Stupidity

I wrote a really funny column for this week, but you will have to wait until next week to read it. Something has come up.

A few weeks ago, Richard Atkinson, the head of the University of California, announced that he was getting rid of standardized testing as a means of selecting students for admittance to the various UC campuses.

This man needs to be fired immediately.

Atkinson, or as I shall subsequently refer to him, the Evil One, wants to eliminate at a stroke one of the greatest instruments for true social justice the world has ever seen. I am not exaggerating.

You see, the Evil One feels that standardized tests are unfair. Of course, he says this because he has as the number one item on his agenda increasing the number of Latino and black students in the UC system, particularly the flagship campuses. Never mind that the California electorate ringingly rejected the blatant discrimination that was the "affirmitive action" policies prior to 1995. Never mind that minority - whoops, Latino and black; for some reason, Asians don't seem to have these problems - never mind that Latino and black enrollment is actually up at campuses such as UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine. No, the student body just isn't the nice racial percentages parfait that the Evil One wants it to be. (BTW, the parfait metaphor is exactly how Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, described the social system he envisioned.) In short, the tests are not giving him the results he wants, so he says scrap 'em.

Do the test-writers have, as a goal, writing tests that are harder for certain minorities? Obviously not. Effort must be made to keep non-standard colloquialisms out of the tests, but guess what. Efforts are being made. Anyone who looks at a current SAT test and sees racial bias is only seeing what he or she wants to see. Lord knows those Vietnamese kids are getting lots of help from the test writers. And it's not like they have a language barrier or anything.

No, the bias which pushed the Evil One's button is that in some schools, i.e. wealthier ones, the students prepare for the SAT. In fact, the schools encourage them to do so. Quoth the Evil One, "Something must be done!"

See, poorer schools don't do this. Which is, of course, the fucking problem. If an athlete isn't trained for the high jump, she won't do as well at it. So you focus on training them. The Evil One would rather just get rid of the event entirely.

What really bothers him is that SAT scores (in addition to reflecting future college GPAs much more accurately than high school GPAs) are very directly correlated with family income. (Which is, and I too think this is an indictment of our society, correlated with race.)

I have two things to say about the startling and horrible discovery that family income and SAT scores are related. 1) Smart people make more money. 2) Smart people have smart kids.

The Evil One, apparently, thinks that intelligence is some sort of totally random thing as regards heredity, and that it is only the quality of one's school that determines one's ability to get into college. And those damn rich people keep spending money and time on their schools. So, we have to try and unlink actual learning from the ability to get into college, and just make it an even pull from across the geographic board.

The Evil One wants to replace the test with a more "holistic" approach, which considers grades and activities, and letters of recommendation. This is an approach which has very strong roots - for generations, schools such as Harvard relied very heavily on letters of recommendation. By removing any sort of standardization, why, we ("we" being the Evil One and his cronies) can build exactly the sort of student body mix we want, the easy way. The hell with merit-based systems that don't serve our political ends. The hell with blindly picking the students who are the best qualified. Let's go back to picking the ones we want to see in our schools. If it worked for the scions of industry, it will work for us, and we can get that nice parfait effect we are looking for.

Now, defending standardized tests is like defending the school system in general. By the very nature of the beast, it can always be improved. So no one is willing to stand up and say "no, it's good enough." It's never good enough. Standardized tests will never be perfect.

But ours is a society dedicated to the proposition that every individual deserves an equal chance. And because the tests are standardized, everyone is presented, as close as we can, with that equal chance. It does not matter whether you have a four point because you took all shop classes, or whether you have a three point because of all the AP classes you took. It doesn't matter if you are the president of three clubs because you are in a school of 150, or the VP Facilities of one because your school has 5,000 students. The test is blind to any random chance that has built up your academic record so far. It's just your pure ability at the time you take the test.

And that is the best we can do. If you want a more "level playing field" based on some political agenda, what you do is to put your effort into building up the abilities of people so that when they take the test they are better at it. You work on giving people equal preparation. You make the students better. You don't eliminate the test because it is proving your failure to do just that.

No, the elimination of standardized testing in the UC System won't lead to the collapse of the education institution. It won't appreciably change things for the great bulk of the students who are admitted, save for sparing them another test. All it will mean is that a few more bright students, who aren't in the favored groups and also can't afford to attend those oh-so-terrible schools chock full of smart kids which the Evil One fears, won't get the education they deserve. It means that we as a society choose to put political biases and racial favors above justice for all.

Mr. Atkinson, I hope you burn in Hell.


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