Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dumbing Down America

Enemies of testing are major culprits. Tests offend against their nonsensical "all men are equal" gospel

One of the most contentious social and political debates of our time pits the opposing goals of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Some would claim the point was settled before the Founding of the American republic in that the Declaration of Independence recognized as an unalienable right the "pursuit" of happiness rather than happiness itself. Others argue that various social and political disadvantages through history create the need for more balanced outcomes as recompense for past wrongs.

This discussion is no more heated than in the world of education. The question of opportunity versus outcome is vexing and whether the discussion revolves around K-12 education or higher education, opportunity and outcome continually collide. We increasingly see this conflict played out in the way colleges and universities decide whom to admit and the unfortunate trend is that too many schools are redefining merit as it has traditionally been recognized.

The main engine behind this effort to change the nature of academic merit is a group called Fair Test, a Boston-based organization that characterizes itself as working to "end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing." The reality, however, is far different. The efforts and track record of this organization demonstrate that simply administering a standardized test constitutes a misuse, while the primary flaw of such tests is that they exist at all.

Standardized tests have been accused of potential bias since the 1970s when activists insisted that an Scholastic Aptitude Test question involving the word "regatta" was biased against women, minorities and anyone else who hadn't sported a silk ascot at the yacht club. In fact, the SAT and the ACT, another widely used college admissions test, have long since addressed legitimate claims of bias in testing. Both are scrupulously developed, reviewed and updated by dedicated educators to ensure they reflect a student's academic merit. They also are administered in a consistent manner, which is more than you can say about a lot of things in life. Anyone who must adhere to a set of standards in any endeavor knows they sometimes seem arbitrary. But arbitrary as college admission standards may be, they are nothing compared to the tyrannical anarchy of ill-defined or holistic admissions, which Fair Test promotes.

Human nature demands that we be given a target something for which we can strive. This is why humanity sets and seeks specific goals. But the holistic college admissions structure promoted by Fair Test and others destroys empirical standards and leaves such decisions to the whims of shifting admissions policies and those who formulate them. It's reminiscent of the uncertain standards I sometimes faced as a young black man coming of age in the post-segregation world of Cincinnati.

And who is formulating such policies? It varies from institution to institution but a look at the funding of Fair Test is troubling. Writer and college educator Mary Grabar revealed in her recent article that Fair Test is funded by men like liberal billionaire George Soros and the Woods Fund, who counts among its board members Bill Ayers, the former domestic terrorist who admitted complicity in a series of bombings from New York to Washington, D.C. during the 1970s.

All this, of course, would be forgivable if the goal was sincere, however misguided. But it's largely an extension of an education strategy that has been in place for nearly a half-century. In the 1960s, liberals began a concerted effort to seize control of higher-education, via dominating professorships and tenure. It worked. Now, the social engineers aren't content with dominating the faculty rooms they want to control who gets admitted to colleges and universities.

Ideology aside, the efforts of Fair Test and others who want to eliminate standardized testing stand to put all of American higher education at risk. Jonathan Epstein, a senior researcher with the private sector educational consultancy Maguire Associates, notes that colleges with test optional admission policies could disorient students and their families in terms of determining which college to attend. The result, says Epstein, is that "a disoriented customer market is not in the best interests of any institution or higher education in general."

Standards of academic excellence are critical to the future of students and our economy. If we forsake such standards based on the ill-conceived ideology of Fair Test and like-minded individuals, we risk not only our children's future but that of our nation.


The Groves of Hackademe

by Burt Prelutsky

Down through the years, there have been a great many movies in which school teachers have been portrayed as decent and hard-working, even heroic. Just a handful that come to mind are "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Holland's Opus," "This Land is Mine," "Up the Down Staircase," "Good Morning, Miss Dove," "Cheers for Miss Bishop," "The School of Rock," "Dangerous Minds," "Blackboard Jungle," "Stand and Deliver" and "Dead Poet's Society."

But when it comes to college and university professors, they tend to be portrayed either as comical buffoons ("The Nutty Professor," "Monkey Business," "Son of Flubber," "The Absent Minded Professor," "It Happens Every Spring," "Horse Feathers") or as petty, demented and, often as not, alcoholics ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "People Will Talk," "The Squid and the Whale"). In fact, the last time I recall a movie about a professor that any normal person would wish to spend time with was the 1948 release, "Apartment for Peggy," and even in that one, Edmund Gwenn spent most of his time planning to commit suicide.

Feeling, as I do, that most professors, aside from those teaching science or math, are over-paid, under-worked, left-wing narcissists infatuated with the sound of their own voices, it makes perfect sense that it would be nearly impossible to make a movie about them that wasn't a slapstick comedy.

One of the things that makes them particularly offensive is their hypocrisy. Although everyone of them would insist that tenure is essential -- not because it guarantees them a secure livelihood just so long as they don't burn down a dormitory or give a star athlete a failing grade -- but because it ensures them the right to voice unpopular, even unpatriotic, opinions. The truth, however, is that, more often than not, they're the bullies censoring free speech and punishing with low marks those students with the gumption to speak their own minds.

Just the other day, I read about a student here in L.A. whose professor called him a "fascist bastard" and refused to allow him to conclude his remarks in opposition to same-sex marriages. Although I am aware that this betrayal of the First Amendment occurs regularly in classrooms and lecture halls all across America, the reason I'm aware of this particular case is because the student, Jonathan Lopez, is suing. When Lopez, a devout Christian, asked his professor what grade he was getting for his speech, he was told to go ask God! So, on college campuses, it's okay to ridicule a student's religious convictions, but not to voice an objection to homosexual marriages.

I find it fascinating that academics see no need to be honest, tolerant or even logical. My friend, Larry Purdy, a Minnesota-based lawyer who worked on the University of Michigan cases regarding racial preferences, has written a book, "Getting Under the Skin of `Diversity': Searching for the Color-Blind Ideal," that makes mincemeat of the Supreme Court's fatuous decisions, while reminding many of us why we celebrated Sandra Day O'Connor's departure from the bench.

In 1998, Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and William Bowen, former president of Princeton, collaborated on a book, "The Shape of the River," which greatly influenced O'Connor and a majority of her associates.

The entire purpose of the book was to prove that racial preferences (aka affirmative action) were beneficial for the elite schools and for society at large. For openers, Purdy proves that Bok and Bowen were deceptive, to say the least, because they never released the data that allegedly made their case. Instead, we're all simply expected to take their word for it even though, as clearly spelled out in Brown vs. Board of Education, the government is prohibited from treating citizens differently because of their race. According to Bok and Bowen, the benefits of racial diversity on elite college campuses, no matter how it's achieved, simply outweighs all other considerations.

The fact is, they admit that they don't have any idea how many of the minority students they claim to have studied made it to the university on their own merits and not simply because a bunch of elitist pinheads decided that leapfrogging them over more deserving white and Asian students was the American way.

Something else that Bok and Bowen didn't bother mentioning was the large numbers of minority students who graduated from historically black colleges and universities and went on to achieve a reasonable amount of fame and fortune in spite of not attending Ivy League schools.

As much as I'd like to, I can't deny that Ivy League graduates tend to go on to greater success than most people. But that has far less to do with the quality of education than with the fact that the students so often come from families that are already wealthy and powerful because their ancestors owned railroads, banks and oil companies, and they therefore have dibs on Senate seats and the Oval Office.


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