Re: Maybe the SAT Isn’t So Bad

by George Leef

My Pope Center piece published on Wednesday led to an interesting e-mail exchange with DePaul University mathematics professor Jonathan Cohen. I copy the pertinent parts of his e-mail to me below:

A year ago, DePaul adopted a test-optional admissions policy on a trial basis. Yesterday, the DePaul Faculty Council discussed the test optional policy because a couple faculty members had serious reservations about because among other factors it generated some negative publicity for the school.        

The head of enrollment management showed up to explain the policy and actually made a pretty good presentation. He stayed away from the issue of minority impact and focused on simply trying to encourage applications from strong students who don’t perform well on standardized tests and might be discouraged from applying to DePaul if they were required to submit ACT or SAT scores. In particular, it might attract excellent students whose scores make it difficult to compete for admission to top-tier schools.        

I don’t know if he is right, but it is a better explanation than the usual talking point which is that the tests are discriminatory.        

I said that having looked at the math part of the SAT, I couldn’t see how a student who had trouble answering the questions would be able to succeed in math and science courses. He didn’t dispute that, but said that in fact they would look closely not only at GPA but also at the level and rigor of the high school courses taken.        

My main gripe with the decision is the implied suggestion that the tests are racially biased. That is wrong and in fact I think it does a lot of harm since it excuses minorities from preparing for the exams.The irony is that it is precisely the kids from weak schools in poorer communities who could benefit from studying for the exams. The math test isn’t very difficult but it does test the ability to quickly understand mathematical arguments, something that is very helpful in taking math courses at the college level. Without that ability, (much of which can be learned with practice), students will likely fail in any science program.        

More fundamentally, the anti-test movement is part of a much larger movement, whose purpose is to deny the relevance of the academic skills gap between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other. The difference in performance is attributed to the built in bias of the tests and more destructively, argued to be irrelevant in evaluating readiness for college work. At heart is the claim that the disparities in economic and academic success between different groups is due primarily to racial and ethnic privilege and prejudice and does not reflect a difference in skills. That claim is both false and harmful because it absolves minorities of hope or incentive to do the necessary work to bridge the gap.        

I have been saying this to people for forty years but it falls on deaf ears among the people who most need to hear it. As liberal as Iwas when I was young, I never thought that affirmative action made sense. I argued that it was the one social policy that would guarantee that blacks would never catch up with whites. Perhaps that is overstated but I don’t think by much.

Jonathan Cohen