In his Nov. 6 op-ed column on the new Scholastic Aptitude Test, Carl T. Rowan worried that "the dreams of marvelous, but deprived, youngsters" might be "flushed away with shredded tests of dubious merit." He also argued that the SAT will focus our educational resources on students who have the knack (and money) for exam-taking.
But his critique of the revised SAT distorted equality of opportunity by implicitly denigrating the skills measured by the SAT. Rowan conceded as much when he argued that the more challenging new test is "not fair to poor kids in inferior schools whose teachers cannot reason out the answer" to a problem without multiple-choice options. The answer to that is not to abandon objective testing but to educate the would-be educators -- or find better ones.
The new SAT is, in fact, much better than the old one. It forces students to make reasoned calculations (rather than winning at multiple guess) and to demonstrate writing ability.
Rowan was right, though, that no test, no matter how well conceived, can quantify all the talents relevant to academic success. But no college I know of accepts students solely on the basis of the SAT. The SAT is democratic, in that it allows students with relatively weak grades or who come from obscure public schools to compete against privileged students.
Rowan's critique of the SAT encouraged the abandonment of objective criteria for reading, writing and analytic skills -- whether measured by tests, grades or a teacher's say-so. But without objective standards, equality of opportunity becomes a willful demand impossible to square with any notion of excellence or achievement. If we lose consensus on what excellence is, equality of opportunity is reduced to a slogan masking special-interest programs.
Reality is stubborn: fundamental verbal skills are required for success in college. Moreover, when students no longer perceive themselves as equals, there is no avoiding all manner of evils, as recent campus controversies attest.
Like Rowan, I would like to see greater diversity -- of race, class, age, religion and national origin -- in higher education. Diversity of students and diversity of colleges enrich America by making us a more thoughtful people. Yet each institution must have objective standards of performance in order to pursue its mission.
Equal opportunity is more than the sum of the interests of educators and activists of different ethnic and immigrant groups. It must be our common goal. -- Evan J. Kemp Jr.
The writer is chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.