Dumbing Down the SAT
Stanley Kurtz

The very existence of intelligence differences in America is about to become a forbidden truth.

Is intelligence un-American? It didn't used to be. But the times they are a-changin'. The American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings is our glory and our foundation. But American equality has always meant equality of opportunity and equality before the law. The problem since the Sixties has been that some now demand equality of result - and more. For many on the Left, even inequalities of intelligence and physical difference are now forbidden. Through gender-norming and the general degradation of standards, our armed forces have been pretending for years that the physical differences between men and women don't exist. The war may have changed that, as indicated by the Bush administration's reform of DACOWITS (the nest of feminists at the Pentagon that for a decade has undermined standards in the name of "gender equity"). But buried on page 10 of Saturday's New York Times (and in the second section of last Friday's Wall Street Journal) was news that the very existence of intelligence differences in America is about to become a forbidden truth.

Last year, Richard Atkinson, president of the nation's largest university system, the University of California, proposed dumping the SAT test. Atkinson justified the projected move with the claim that the SAT, as a measure of aptitude rather than achievement, was unfair to those who could maximize their potential through hard work in high school and college. But Atkinson's move was a transparent attempt to circumvent California's Proposition 209, which outlawed race preferences in admission to California's public colleges. (For more on this, see my "Academic Postmodernity & the SATs.")

Now, with Atkinson's proposal slowly but successfully working its way through the ruling bureaucracy of the University of California system, an intimidated College Board has announced a sweeping reform of the SAT, one that will turn it from an aptitude test into something much closer to an achievement test. This desperate attempt to head off a national stampede away from the SAT is a serious mistake. The feared stampede would probably never have materialized, and could in any case have been very effectively battled. More important, there is nothing wrong - and everything right - with colleges basing their admissions decisions, in part, on a clear measure of student aptitude.

College admissions offices already have measures of student achievement to work with - grades, and a wide range of achievement tests. Colleges do, and should, take these measures of achievement into account. The point of the SAT is to add something new and important to the mix - a test of general aptitude. An aptitude test actually works in favor of students who come from lesser high schools but have the potential to achieve at higher levels in college. By destroying the SAT as a measure of aptitude, all that is accomplished is the suppression of a real and significant dimension of difference among students. As usual, in other words, the truth is being sacrificed to political correctness.

The SAT's famous verbal analogies, for example, are slated to be significantly scaled back or cut out entirely. Why? Because those who know English as a second language are said to be disadvantaged by the analogies. They do better with vocabulary quizzes that rely on rote memorization. So the critical intellectual capacities revealed when someone is asked to actually compare and relate words instead of simply spit back memorized definitions, can no longer be measured for anyone - simply because we are afraid to disadvantage a few. The solution here is to return to an emphasis on English immersion for immigrants, not the destruction of a critical test for all Americans.

To measure achievement, the math portion of the test will now be significantly more difficult. The original SAT actually did not require a command of advanced math. Again, it was looking to see how well people confronted and manipulated mathematical challenges. But with the emphasis on aptitude gone, bright kids who might be able to master higher math if given the chance will actually be tougher to identify. Besides, math grades and math achievement tests already show who has mastered high level math. This is nothing but an attempt to manipulate the SAT test until the results come out the way the testers want them to. Since minorities tend to do less well on aptitude tests, the test itself must go.

No doubt, individual intelligence differences are in some measure heritable. But I do not believe that class or race differences on aptitude tests are genetically based. Certainly, researchers have never succeeded in disentangling the effects of early experience from test results. If poor or minority students test lower on the SAT's than others, the way to solve the problem is to improve the conditions of life for these children, not to pretend that aptitude differences among high school students don't exist.

The destruction of the SAT as an aptitude test is an epoch-making move. Reflecting this, the test itself will probably be renamed. (Since the "Scholastic Aptitude Test" will no longer be a reliable measure of aptitude.) But this epochal change is being slipped by the American public in exactly the way that the most controversial advances in affirmative action have been established in the past. Quiet executive orders and behind the scenes bureaucratic decisions are the strategies of choice for liberal elites, operating against the weight of public opinion, in the matters of racial preferences and gender norming. And now, a profound change in the meaning of the SAT has been buried in the middle of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. (The news pages of the Journal, by the way, are editorially quite separate from their conservative opinion pages.) And of course, instead of seeking out potential critics of the policy, the Times simply went for comment to Nicholas Lemann, a prominent advocate of affirmative action and critic of the SAT. This is a lesson in how press bias really works. Not only does the Times puff up stories on social changes that it likes by front-paging them, it downplays changes likely to arouse conservative opposition.

There was a time when Americans believed that finding and training the country's finest minds was in the national interest. Certainly, all American children ought to have access to quality education. But, ultimately, it is to our collective advantage as a nation to have a way of identifying students of high aptitude. And it is fairer to students themselves - especially those from lesser schools - to have a way of recognizing intellectual potential that has not yet come to the surface.

The irony is that support for destruction of the SAT test comes from a liberal elite that is itself the product of our educational meritocracy. Guilt about success combines here with a hidden craving for moral superiority over the benighted middle classes. Those in the middle - and many minorities as well - still believe in the principles of liberty and equality that created the meritocracy in the first place. But once again, the liberal elite, in a conversation amongst itself, is managing to turn our most basic values and practices inside out - with nary a peep from a public that would fight these changes if they were honestly told what is happening.

A proposed policy change from a powerful and extremely liberal university president (put forward with fundamental dishonesty about its real motives) brings pressure to bear upon the makers of the SAT test. In a panic at the prospect of losing the California system's business, the College Board buckles, and the only important national measure of student aptitude is destroyed. The news is buried in the middle of the weekend papers. In short, we have allowed a minority of Leftist intellectuals to commandeer our culture. Will anyone fight back?

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from marriage and family, to higher education reform, to the place of religion in public life, to the challenges of democratization abroad, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written frequently on these and other issues for various journals, including National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor), the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, City Journal, and Commentary.

Mr. Kurtz has provided a critical public voice in defense of traditional marriage as well as insightful commentary on the tensions between religion and secularism in modern society. He also has led the campaign to reform federal subsidies to academic programs of “area studies” under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

Mr. Kurtz received his undergraduate degree from Haverford College and his Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University. He later taught at Harvard, winning several teaching awards for his work in a Great Books program. He was also Dewey Prize Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chicago.


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