Ken Blackwell: Equal Opportunities .. Not Outcomes
This column originally appeared in the Washington Times on February 20, 2009.
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 http://www.cnsnews.com/public/content/article.aspx?RsrcID=43412 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.