I don’t need more reasons to loathe the SAT and the ACT, America’s sorry excuses for college entrance exams. They are scary, narrow time-wasters. But thanks to Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, I now know those tests are expressly designed to keep every bit of wonder, humor, passion and religion out of the learning process.
In an article in the January edition of the journal First Things, Bauerlein takes apart the bias and sensitivity reviews all such tests are subjected to. “If you have a chance, read through two dozen passages on recent exams,” he writes. “If you find little in them that is inspiring, curious, pointed, provocative, funny or sobering; if there is no illumination of a specific group experience; no acknowledgement that a particular culture, faith, politics, or country has pluses and minuses; no hint of religious truth . . . the reviewers have done their job well.”
Are the SAT and the ACT necessary? I don’t think so. There are other tests that could be used for college entrance and avoid the awful sterility of the exams we use now.
Bias and sensitivity reviews were added to the making of standardized exams for what seemed to be good reasons. It would be unfair, reformers argued, to subject students to words such as “regatta” that were culturally unfamiliar or introduce aspects of ethnicity, language, family life or religion that might upset them.
Among the designers of the SAT, ACT and graduate school entrance exams, Bauerlein writes, “the goal was to minimize references to content outside the classroom, such as the church a student attends and languages in the home.”
The same test-making rules were extended to the annual state exams that have appeared in the past two decades. Bauerlein looked at the list of excluded topics for the California high school exit exams. They include death, disease, famine, junk food, divorce, rats, roaches, lice, spiders, sex and the central topic of his essay, religion.
The fairness guidelines for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group producing state tests tied to the new Common Core standards, say “it is safest to avoid material that focuses on any religion, any religious group, any religious holidays, any religious practices, any religious beliefs, or anything closely associated with religion . . . unless it is important for valid measurement.”
“Faith excites strong feelings, and current religious debate over sexuality, not to mention religions in faraway lands, makes religion doubly untouchable,” Bauerlein writes. “So we can’t have any climaxes from ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ no biblical echoes from ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ no mention of Stonewall Jackson’s intense faith, and forget ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ and ‘Cross of Gold,’ ” famous speeches by Sojourner Truth and William Jennings Bryan.
“Bias and sensitivity review was conceived as a way to ensure equal opportunity,” he writes, “but the knowledge on which we evaluate students, the traditions we pass on, are now subject to a bureaucratic screening. The events, ideas, artworks, and beliefs that distinguish human beings too sharply are ruled out.” He adds the biggest point: What doesn’t get tested doesn’t get taught.
And yet we give to increasing numbers of students Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education exams that go deep into literature, history and even religion. They are final exams in college-level courses that teach those subjects. They are written by college professors who in most cases won’t tolerate bias and sensitivity reviews.
Why can’t we use those essay-based tests instead of the stunted multiple-choice SAT or ACT to determine readiness for college? A future column will try to answer that question.