Listening For Unicorns
Is the SAT biased or are college presidents nuts?


Pitzer College alumni and donors may be wondering about the decision-making process of their president, Laura Skandera Trombley, after reading her Jan. 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece against the SAT. Because “we have a deep commitment to social responsibility,” Trombley writes, Pitzer will no longer require applicants to submit SAT scores if they have at least a 3.5 grade-point average and are in the top-ten percent of their high-school class.

Why? Because references in the SAT test “that are relevant to my way of life,” Pitzer explains, “might be completely alien to yours.” She continues:

Here, for example, is an actual SAT question: “Aware of the baleful weather predicted by forecasters, we decided the–would be the best place for our company picnic. (A) roof (B) cafeteria (C) beach (D) park (E) lake”

Now, if I had grown up on the East Coast, my immediate choice would be “cafeteria,” as my assumption would be that “baleful weather” would indicate rain or maybe even snow. But in fact, I lived for many years on the western side of the Pacific Coast Highway, so “baleful weather” could indicate high waves–meaning that my company picnic would be best, and more pleasantly, relocated to a lake.

On the other hand, if I had lived in Iowa (and I did for five years), baleful weather might indicate flooding. Obviously my company picnic would be best held on the roof. What to do? What to choose?

Context: the framework within which we make sense of the world.

So no more SATs at Pitzer. “We felt that requiring the SAT–a test on which white students score 206 points higher then average than nonwhites, according to Psychology Today–was inconsistent with our values,” Trombley explains.

For those unfamiliar with its values, Pitzer–a member of the Claremont Colleges in southern California–is a small liberal-arts college dedicated to diversity and social responsibility and is the lead Claremont College for its black-studies program. The website features a picture of “President Trombley’s electric vehicle” and a quote from her about how much she likes it: “Driving along at a top speed of 25 miles per hour, with the wind in our hair, we love hearing the birds instead of an engine.”

I don’t think she’s affecting the royal “we” here, by the way; Trombley looks in the picture like a pleasant, unpretentious woman. Apparently she just never drives even an electric car except when carpooling. She’s that socially responsible.

Now as it happens, I had no idea that “baleful” had anything to do with weather until reading Trombley’s piece; I’d only ever heard it used to describe someone’s look or manner.

But since a baleful expression is a gloomy expression, and gloomy weather means rain, the correct answer to that SAT question is obviously (B) cafeteria. I doubt there are many reasonably intelligent ten-year-olds who wouldn’t also be able to figure this one out.

Trombley might argue that because I grew up in a house with lots of books and limited television time–i.e., a racist society in which only white children like myself were allowed in the public library–I had an unfair advantage.

To which I could balefully respond that since this was also a brutal, patriarchal culture in which I was viciously distracted by Barbie dolls and makeup, it’s a wonder I ever read anything besides the fashion captions to Seventeen magazine and ought to be awarded extra credit for obstacles overcome.

Actually, the SAT question Trombley cites happens to be an example of a perfectly unbiased question, because you don’t need to know the word “baleful” to answer it correctly. (Of course it helps if you aren’t determined, like Trombley apparently is, to think not of horses or even zebras when you hear hoof beats, but unicorns.)

The question’s rather fretful tone, and the information that weather is involved, are all the clues you need to realize that (B) cafeteria is the right answer, because it’s the only choice that’s indoors. You’d realize that even if the question began, “Aware of the zzzyrrk weather prediction by forecasters…”

And this, as Trombley well knows, has always been the point of the SAT: to identify inherently bright students who for various reasons–poverty, familial dysfunction, bad schools–don’t have stellar academic records or access to lots of GPA-enhancing AP classes, but still might be able to benefit from a rigorous college education.

But never mind the SAT. What really should concern Pitzer College after reading Trombley’s piece is her frightening tendency to turn an inconvenience like rain at a company picnic into an institutional catastrophe.

She used to live near the beach, on the sandy side of Pacific Coast Highway, and says she therefore thinks it sensible to drag everyone to a lake to avoid high ocean waves. Since she’s an academic I suppose that might have been in Malibu, home of Pepperdine.

So come on, everybody, let’s get in Laura Skander Trombley’s electric vehicle and drive away from those high waves over to the nearest lake, which is…let’s see…probably somewhere in the western San Fernando Valley. At a top speed of 25 miles per hour it shouldn’t take more than half a day or so, give or take a few mudslides, and we can listen to the birds on the way.

Fortunately, the Claremont Colleges are inland, so perhaps Trombley has overcome her seaside-influenced assumptions by now. But then there’s the insidious pull of those five years in Iowa.

Looks like rain? Then for goodness sake, everyone, to the roof, to the roof! People drown in cafeterias, don’t you know that? No? Well, it’s an Iowa thing; you wouldn’t understand.

I think we can all see the potential for disaster here: a black-studies professor lost in a flash flood; a major donor zapped by lightning at President Trombley’s soggy rooftop picnic. We can only hope that Pitzer College trustees check the weather report regularly and remind her to stay indoors. Because apparently this really is one academic who doesn’t know to come in out of the rain.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog “Cathy’s World.”


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