The race to ignorance

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted August 23, 1999

Here is a question which was included on the "verbal" portion of the 1998 Scholastic Aptitude Test, in a "try-out" section that didn't count on the final scores:

DUNE: SAND

a) beach: ocean

b) drift: snow

c) wave: tide

d) rainbow: color

e) fault: earthquake.

The question was designed to test vocabulary skills -- the ability of the student to quickly intuit the relationship between the words "dune" and "sand," and seek a parallel relationship among the other five sets of words. The best answer is "b" -- drift: snow.

But guess what? This question was eliminated, and will not be used on future versions of the SAT. Why? Because 23 percent more whites than African-Americans and 26 percent more whites than Hispanics answered the question correctly.

The Educational Testing Service, which compiles the SATs, hypothesizes that this unacceptably divergent result may stem from "regional variations." In an explanation provided to the Wall Street Journal, the ETS staff theorizes "High proportions of African-Americans and Hispanics live in the south and southwest areas of the country, where there is less familiarity with terms associated with extreme winter weather."

Now, some self-policing to eliminate class or cultural bias from such tests is admirable. Test-writers in suburban New Jersey should take care not to ask a preponderance of questions about boat shoes and polo ponies.

But the pressure is building to go much further than that. In June, the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights (and here you thought they just provided pencils and crayons) began circulating draft legal guidelines outlining what it will now consider "bias." As a result, the Journal reports, "colleges using the SAT may face legal action because of disparate scores."

Not because of a willful refusal to correct bias, mind you: because of disparate results. Has no one in Washington visited the raucous madhouse which is the typical inner-city public school in this country? And then compared it to the more orderly process of education in suburban towns where most students are the children of two-parent families, brought up in houses full of books?

Yet no one can think of any reason other than "flaws in the test" why minority students -- far more frequently educated in a chaotic, inner-city environment -- might do less well on standardized tests?

Those who compile the SAT have already added "reading passages featuring women and minorities ... to make the test more balanced," while avoiding certain topics -- like sports and the military -- perceived as more likely to engage the interest of boys than girls, the Journal reports.

But still it's not enough. Outcomes must be equalized -- somehow a test must be contrived which will result in black youths from the inner city and Hispanic lasses from poor Texas farms scoring exactly as well as wealthy children from Old Greenwich, Beverly Hills, and Grosse Pointe Farms, or the federal government now threatens to lower the boom, sponsoring lawsuits designed to eliminate such tests as a tool for college admissions, altogether.

This is nuts. In the real world, a child who does not know that blowing snow will form "drifts" is not merely a child from a warm climate. He or she is also a child who has almost certainly not been exposed to many books or cultural artifacts, and is thus indeed unlikely to prosper when loaded up with the kind of reading assignments which confront any freshman at a decent American college or university -- precisely what the SAT is designed to measure.

When they come from backgrounds which place an equal stress on reading and education, Americans of all races have demonstrated they can do equally well on the SAT, and in American universities.

But merely providing such an equal opportunity is not good enough for Washington. No, our new race police must see equal results by quota. And so we play a ridiculous and finally dangerous game, in which mathematics is de-emphasized because girls tend to do more poorly on those questions, and we absurdly assume that only children living on the seacoast can be expected to know that Moby Dick was a whale.

Shall we also rig the outcomes of the medical schools, so that graduating classes have the right quotas by race and sex, even if it means we have to eliminate some of the more difficult anatomy questions, since some groups of students haven't been doing as well on those?

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $21.95 plus $3 shipping through Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127, or at 1-800-244-2224, or via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.




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