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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: If SAT goes, dumbing down of UC will continue

June 05, 2001

If retiring University of California President Richard Atkinson gets his way, the long process of dumbing down the nation's premiere system of public higher education will move into a new and higher gear.

All in the name of diversity, a worthy goal, but one that should be achieved on the basis of merit alone or it will cheapen everything at UC.

Before Atkinson publicly proposed doing away with the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT I, as a major factor in UC admissions, his aides unobtrusively floated the idea for months. It drew criticism, but not much, so now the retiring president feels he can push it hard. "When it's your last job, you are freer …" he remarked to one reporter.

Chances seem good Atkinson's idea will soon be approved by both the university's Academic Senate and the system's Board of Regents. Especially on the regents, there's a tendency to defer to so-called experts on matters of academic policy.

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Voicing such leanings was Regent William T. Bagley, once a maverick Republican assemblyman.

"When you have a major proposal by the president, who has a professional staff that has studied the matter and enlisted faculty to study the matter, the board should approve it," he said.

Why? The regents, serving staggered 12-year terms, are supposed to be independent. They are the nominal bosses of administrators and faculty.

But regents, faculty and administrators have been united in seeking new ways to bring diversity to their prestigious campuses ever since the 1996 passage of the Proposition 209 ban on affirmative action admissions.

Their most significant move to date was last year's decision that guarantees a place on some UC campus for every California high schooler who graduates in the top 4 percent of his or her class. These kids don't need to take any standardized tests at all to qualify.

That was a dumbing-down move if ever there was one, as it put all high schools on an even plane, regardless of curriculum or parental support.

Hard-working students who take the toughest courses no longer get an automatic advantage over lazy ones who take the simplest courses en route to a grade-point average putting them near the top of their graduating classes.

The full impact of that policy has not yet been felt, as it became effective only with this spring's admissions. No one can yet say for sure how some of the 4 percenters with inferior academic backgrounds will fare on elite campuses or whether they will drag down average class performance.

One thing they will not do is make the campuses any more ethnically diverse, for some of the schools with the weakest class offerings are in rural settings rather than inner cities.

So Atkinson and friends must seek elsewhere for antidotes to 209. Getting rid of the SAT I is the latest attempt. That test measures general aptitude, math and vocabulary. Atkinson proposes taking it out of the admissions equation, where it now carries about one-third of the testing burden. SAT II tests with subject-specific content get the other two-thirds of the weight.

These once were known as college board achievement tests. The anti-SAT I thinking is that since minority students go into the test believing minority students perform less well than whites and Asians, they will automatically do more poorly. Advocates of getting rid of the test like to cite examples of students who have succeeded despite low SAT I scores.

Each such story is inspiring, but they are in a distinct minority.

SAT I opponents also argue that the test measures little besides the ability to take tests, and that rich kids can take preparation courses and poor kids can't. They say the SAT IIs are a better indicator of what's been learned in class.

While it's true that test-prep courses abound, research indicates they usually don't improve scores by more than about 40 or 50 out of a potential 1,600. Plus, the test has always been designed to equalize things between students whose schools offered tough, wide-ranging classes and those from poorer schools where only the rudimentaries are taught. And research released this spring found the SAT I is a "valid predictor of performance in college."

The study was funded by the College Entrance Examination Board, owner of the SAT I.

On the SAT I, one major critic complained, "students might be expected to know Shakespeare or Voltaire, but they are safe if they are ignorant of Wheatley or Nkrumah." In short, this view implies that Kwame Nkrumah, the sometimes-bloody dictator who helped bring independence to the African nation of Ghana, should be as significant to students as Shakespeare.

That's plainly absurd, even if few dare say so in a PC world.

Yes, Atkinson is right to favor a "holistic" admission approach that weighs family hardships and economics, yet another pro-diversity tactic. But if a diversity-at-all-costs attitude prevails and the anti-SAT I drive succeeds, it will further weaken the quality of the UC student body and cheapen University of California degrees. Does anybody really want that?

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