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Colleges need a way to assess applicants

WASHINGTON — God, it has been said, is less exacting than General Motors because he floods the world with factory rejects. Because mankind is flawed, and because the United States has decided that as many people as possible — an extremely elastic concept, "possible" — should go to college, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now known as the SAT, has been central to the college admissions process at the most prestigious schools.

Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, wants his university to drop the SAT, partly to improve the student body's racial and ethnic diversity. However, in any society, be it Periclean Athens or Elizabethan England or modern America, the question is not whether elites shall prevail but which elites shall prevail. So something must perform the predictive function assigned to the SAT.

The modern, democratic ideal was pithily expressed by the modern but undemocratic Napoleon — "careers open to talents." In the 1950s that ideal led two unlikely subversives, Harvard's President James B. Conant and a Harvard administrator, Henry Chauncy, to seek an aptitude test of verbal and quantitative reasoning to shatter the grip that an elite of inherited wealth had on elite institutions.

In 1946 there were 2.4 million students on four-year campuses. That number grew slowly through 1960, when there were 3.2 million. Then came the explosion: By 1970 there were 7.5 million. Today there are 9.3 million. The problem of sorting through such numbers, and connecting colleges with suitable talents, is complicated because America does not have, and probably should not have, a uniform national achievement test for high school seniors. That would require something else America does not have, and probably should not have, a national curriculum.

The vast majority of America's 2,300 four-year post-secondary schools have, in effect, open admissions: If you have a pulse and a high school diploma, you can attend. So the SAT controversy is primarily important only to the minority of high-school high achievers seeking admission to the small minority of highly selective institutions.

The problem around which educators tip-toe is that the SAT, which became a mass experience during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, quickly made affirmative action in college admissions simultaneously "necessary" and embarrassing. By purporting to measure intellectual merit, the SAT served equality of opportunity — but the result was opportunity from which not all racial and ethnic groups benefited equally.

The idea that the SAT, or aptitude tests generally, injure the economically or culturally marginal is refuted by the success of poor Asian immigrants using the SAT to scale the ramparts of Atkinson's university. Of course, today most Asian-Americans are neither immigrants nor poor. Indeed they rank above the California average in income, partly because they are also above average in education, which is partly because careers were opened to them by the SAT. They are 12 percent of California's population but 45 percent of Berkeley's and 41 percent of UCLA's student bodies, so, in the ugly language of "race-conscious" government, they are "overrepresented."

Abandoning the SAT at the University of California would injure Asian-Americans. Given the political dissatisfaction with the "diversity" results of current admissions procedures, perhaps one desires to do just that.

Colleges can say they will focus on achievement rather than aptitude by treating alike all students graduating in, say, the top 10 percent of their high school classes. But this route to diversity requires colleges to embrace the obvious fiction that all high schools are equally demanding.

The SAT is faulted for increasing high school students' "stress." But that means the SAT is an effective incentive for diligence in high school — an invaluable incentive, given that the undemanding nature of most college admissions policies encourages high schoolers' sloth. The SAT is faulted for injuring some students' "self-esteem." But if the SAT does not deliver sobering news, reality eventually will. And dispelling "self-esteem" is often a prerequisite for self-improvement.

A meritocratic society, especially one committed to mass access to higher education, needs — if higher education really is going to be significantly higher than secondary education — some generally accepted means of making millions of annual assessments more objective than those of the family pet, and roughly predictive of ability to perform well in particular colleges.

Asked to share the best prayer he had ever heard, a parishioner recited this: "Dear God, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am." The SAT, or the next permutation of it, must perform the thankless task of telling people how far short of that they fall.

Washington Post Writers Group