Why Dropping The SAT Is Bad For Blacks

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Howard University: Academic standards are rising — and so are the SAT scores

If I had my way, the University of California would keep using the SAT until black students catch up with whites, Asians and immigrants from the Caribbean. It's a matter of ethnic pride. I'm as fed up with the tortuous theories experts have concocted to explain why our kids' scores are the lowest of any racial group as I am with the bigots who claim that proves they can't ever measure up. There's simply no excuse for black youngsters with college-educated parents to perform worse than white youths whose folks only finished high school. The only way to silence the critics is to close the black achievement gap, not to throw out the test because we're embarrassed by the results.

I can already hear my black and white liberal friends howling that I've bought into Ward Connerly's crusade against affirmative action. So be it. I'm less interested in what right-wingers like him think than I am in what we think, and frankly, I don't understand why so many of us continue to pour so much more energy into attacking the alleged biases of standardized tests than we invest in improving our children's scores. I suspect it's because we're afraid that the racists are right when they claim that our kids can't cut it intellectually, so why bother trying. That's nonsense, of course — an echo of the sense of inferiority that afflicted blacks during the bad old days of Jim Crow. But despite our growing affluence and our gains from the civil rights movement, a lot of African Americans seem to have been unable to put those nagging racial self-doubts behind them. In my opinion, such inner fears constitute the most difficult obstacle to our continued progress.

This doesn't mean that African Americans on the whole are suffering from a "cult of anti-intellectualism," as John McWhorter, a black professor at the University of California, Berkeley, claims in his recent book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. Despite all the fuss about some black teenagers' disparaging their more studious peers for "acting white," most of us, regardless of age or where we stand on the economic ladder, value high achievement as much as anyone. Our problem is not cultural. It's political and psychological. Too many of us have forgotten that we are still engaged in a struggle for racial redemption that involves, among other things, beating whites at their own game in the classroom as well as on the playing field. We've got to start hitting the books with the same passion and moral courage that we used to overcome slavery and segregation. Our honor demands it. And so does our history.

The sad truth is that as long as we're lagging behind academically, we can't call ourselves equal. Now that our civil rights are legally secure and many of us have become prosperous, we need to erase every last, lingering scintilla of doubt about black intellectual ability. It doesn't matter that such beliefs are totally specious and rooted in racism. They influence decision makers in colleges, the government and corporations. If the powers that be believe in their hearts that blacks aren't as smart as everyone else (as many of them do — even if they would never admit it), we will be patronized, not treated with respect.

That's one of the reasons why thoughtful blacks in higher education like H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, aren't willing to jettison the SAT. He's adamantly opposed to "any abandonment of standardized tests that would carry with it the implication that we just can't meet the mark." He doesn't think the SAT by itself is an adequate measure of students' potential (nor do I). But it is an important indicator of how well prepared they are for demanding college work. As a consequence, Howard (where my dad taught for 40 years) has been raising its admissions standards. The average SAT score of incoming freshmen has gone up from about 900 to 1062 in the five years that Swygert has been president. Yet Howard is attracting more applicants than ever, welcoming 1,432 freshmen this year, the largest incoming class in decades. Swygert insists there's only one way to ensure that the opportunities created by the civil rights movement won't be slammed shut again: by meeting the same standards as everyone else. "We can't let those openings be constricted because we somehow either failed to make the cut or were viewed as being unable to make it," says he.

What I hear in those words is an appeal to black pride and determination as we fight to attain the elusive commodity that economist Glenn Loury once described as "equal respect in the eyes of one's fellow citizens." It's going to require, among other things, installing tougher classes, especially in math, sciences and literature, and making sure our kids take them; better teachers; changes in study habits; and above all else, a new burst of self-confidence. We've got to believe that even at their most bigoted, whites never came up with a test blacks couldn't ace, including the SAT. We've got to make second-class scholarship — and low test scores — as intolerable to us as second-class citizenship used to be.