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2000-01-21

Race and Gender Bias on the Scholastic Aptitude Test

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This week, members of the University of California’s regents called for a review of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. They are concerned that too many white affluent students are gaining an unfair advantage on the exam. [includes rush transcript]

The regents were responding to an article in the January 9th edition of the Los Angeles Times. The story reported a 50% increase of the number of students claiming a learning disability, which gives students the right to increase the amount of time they have to take the exam. There is a concern that too many high school students from privileged families are taking advantage of the system

The University of California weighs a student’s grades and SAT scores heavily when determining admission to its colleges, particularly in the case of the more competitive campuses such as Berkeley and UCLA.

This comes as questions are being raised about the validity of the SAT, claims of race and gender bias in the exam, and its role as a measure of success in college.

Guests:

  • Rhoda Benedetti, attorney with Disability Rights Advocates.
  • Mark Sklarow, Executive Director, Independent Educational Consultants Association.
  • Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. The organization has been involved in legal action against the College Board and the Educational Testing Service for race and gender bias.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we move quickly now to another issue that is getting some attention — some very good pieces in the Los Angeles Times over the last few days — this week, members of the University of California’s Regents called for a review of the SATs. They are concerned that too many white affluent students are gaining an unfair advantage on the exam. The Regents were responding to an article in the January 9th edition of the LA Times. The story reported that half the number of students claiming a learning disability — a factor which increases the amount of time a student has to take the exam — there’s a concern that too many high school students from privileged families are taking advantage of the system.

The University of California weighs a student’s grades and SATs scores heavily when determining admission to its colleges, particularly in the case of the more competitive campuses, such as Berkeley and UCLA. This, as questions are being raised about the validity of the SAT overall. Claims of race and gender bias in the exam, and its role — is it really a predictor of success in college?

We’re joined right now by Mark Sklarow, who is executive director of Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Virginia, and Rhoda Benedetti, attorney with the Disability Rights Advocates.

Mark Sklarow, can you lay out what you think the issue is?

MARK SKLAROW: Well, the issue is really this. It was a great plan, and it makes a great deal of sense, that students that have a learning disability have special accommodations when they take the SATs. Give one very clear example: a student who is blind may need someone to fill in the ovals for them or may need someone, obviously, to read the SATs to them. Increasingly, families are looking for untimed tests or longer tests, extra time for a student with a learning disability. And again, in theory, it’s terrific. It helps to level the playing field. But as you said in the intro, the real problem is that families that have learned how to work the system are getting those special accommodations, especially untimed tests or longer test time that don’t have any evidence of a learning disability.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the things uncovered in the Los Angeles Times article that really has touched off this controversy is that is that there’s been an explosion of requests for more time, especially in the Boston, New York, Washington corridor, for students from elite private schools, who, in some of these schools, as many of a tenth of the students who are taking the tests are requesting the particular extra time because of a disability, and that there are almost no students in innercity schools that are requesting this, so that, obviously, this is leading to advantages for certain income groups in the country, or at least it’s still a small number. But, Rhoda Benedetti, attorney with the Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland, California, what’s your response to the revelations of the LA Times?

RHODA BENEDETTI: Well, we’re largely dismayed about this article, which just extremely distorts the nature of learning disabilities. It casts a negative characterization on children with learning disabilities as upper-income game players. And this is just dead wrong on the facts, and it’s an insult really. It’s a sensationalized and irresponsible journalistic piece, which we really wouldn’t expect of a newspaper of the caliber of LA Times.

I mean, first and foremost, we need to understand that learning disabilities are real disabilities. You don’t have to be blind or use a wheelchair to have a disability. These are not make-believe disabilities, and, in fact, research by the National Institute of Health shows that approximately 17% of the general population has a learning disability. These are the results of a central nervous system dysfunction, which impedes ability to learn certain skills, such as reading, writing and spelling.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Rhoda, does it make sense that kids particularly concentrated in New England prep schools are suffering from this disability, as opposed to kids in Compton and South Central?

RHODA BENEDETTI: Well, the fact is that learning disabilities run across every race, gender, age and socioeconomic group. It’s really no surprise to us, however, that you’re seeing children who are at the more privileged end of the economic spectrum actually utilizing these accommodations, because these are going to be kids that are more likely to have better access to resources to be diagnosed, receive treatment, and to be aware of their rights to receive accommodations, whereas children, you know, at the lower end the socioeconomic level simply don’t have, under our current system, access to the kind of documentation, the costly kind of documentation, that is necessary to obtain such accommodations on the SAT.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by Robert Schaeffer from the — he’s a Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and they’ve been involved in legal actions against the College Boards and the Educational Testing Service for race and gender bias. What’s your reaction to these articles by the LA Times?

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: I think both the other speakers are correct, in a manner. Yes, the LA Times story goes overboard exaggerating the problem. But, yes, too, there are kids and their parents who are using this as another leg up on the SAT — to boost their scores on the SAT by getting additional time.

But the real issue from [inaudible] perspective is why do we continue to use this stupid test, a test which has manifest gender and racial biases, one in which you can gain — increase your scores by getting extra time or by getting coaching, or whatever. It’s not a level playing field. It’s not a very useful [inaudible] process, and, as Amy said, it is something that is very important in admissions in some colleges, like the University of California at Berkeley. Indeed, we are working — Fair Test is working closely with a number of civil rights suits in a lawsuit against Berkeley for racial bias in its admissions process, precisely because it relies so heavily on SAT scores.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the racial bias?

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: The racial bias is that the test often declares that young people are unable to perform at high levels in college work, when, in fact, they are. It looks at how well you fill in bubbles for three hours on a Saturday morning and makes conclusions about your overall mental capacity. It’s simply not very accurate.

The test makers themselves admit that the SAT is a less accurate predictor of how well someone is going to do in college than their high school performance was, grades or test scores. And people say, "Well, you can’t use them, because grades are all over the lot, and schools vary in quality," and that’s true. Yet the test makers say that those are better predictors than their own test is, showing how truly lousy the test is as a predictive tool.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few minutes, but if you could just very briefly, Robert Schaeffer, tell us the history of the College Board, which puts out the SAT.

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: The history is extraordinarily ugly. The first secretary of the College Board, Carl Campbell Brigham, was a very prominent eugenicist, a person who believed that whites and males were intellectually superior. He was the President of the American Eugenics Association and wrote a number of books and pamphlets, which he later recanted, seven or eight years later, which held that the intellectual quality of the American public was being dumbed down by immigrants. And by that, he meant darker people from Southern Europe, Mediterraneans, Jews and Negroes, to use his terminology. Women didn’t matter at all in his mind, since they were clearly intellectually inferior. The roots are in very ugly notions of mental measurement that are now proven to be bogus and fundamentally racist. That’s not to say the people who run the College Boards today hold views like that, but their test is rooted in those kinds of notions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in many inner cities now in New York, in many in California, in Texas now, this issue of standards and tests has been increasingly used to make it even harder now to admit minority students, African Americans and Latinos, into universities.

I’m a little perturbed, Rhoda Benedetti, when you say that it’s not surprising that people from higher income backgrounds might be able to more know their rights in terms of disabilities, but the innercity schools are filled with children who are in learning disabled classes, and aren’t you a little shocked that the College Boards or the school officials haven’t made more of an effort to let them know what their rights are as disabled students?

RHODA BENEDETTI: Well, certainly. I think it’s a major problem, but I would disagree with your statement that the schools are full — in lower socioeconomic areas — are full of children with learning disabilities, because, in fact, children living in poverty are extremely under-diagnosed, as are girls, with learning disabilities. There are thousands and thousands of these children out there who have never been diagnosed and treated. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 30% of the children who live in poverty actually have learning disabilities. So it’s a major issue that these kids are not being properly diagnosed and treated.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Sklarow, isn’t, for the white boys that are doing this — and, again, there may be a number of them who actually have a disability — but isn’t there a stigma put on taking the exam in four-and-a-half hours instead of three? I mean, does it really help them get a leg up into a college?

MARK SKLAROW: Actually, the evidence is it helps them a great deal. Test scores tend to go up an average of 100 points when students take an untimed test or have a longer period of time —

AMY GOODMAN: But you still have a star in your name.

MARK SKLAROW: You have an asterisk next to your score, and the College Board actually did some research and found that about half of college admission officers never notice the asterisk, and those that do often favor those students over others trying to create a diverse campus. So there is some indication that there is no great stigma attached, and it’s the reason that parents of kids who — even those that — some —- who do not have disabilities are seeking that. But one quick thing -—

AMY GOODMAN: Do they need a medical excuse?

MARK SKLAROW: Well, early on in the process, yes, you needed to demonstrate historically that there was a learning disability and the student was receiving accommodations. But there were so many applications and so many appeals to the College Board that most of those decisions are now allowed to made by the school principal, and the problem with making the decision there is, it’s to the school’s benefit to grant the student extra time. It makes the school look better, as students’ scores go up and students are accepted at better colleges and universities.

I mean, it really does get at the root of what Mr. Schaeffer was saying. That is, the system is unquestionably unfair. But the problem is, is that the tests are actually being used more by colleges and universities today than they were even ten years ago as a determinant in who is admitted.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So what could be done to rectify this situation? While it is not — as everyone has said, it’s only about 2% of the students who take the test who are applying for this, but what can be done to remedy the situation to assure fairness for everybody?

MARK SKLAROW: Well, Juan, as you’re saying, it’s only 2% nationally, but it’s as high as 20% or 25% in some schools. What there really needs to be is a fair system where students need to document the learning disability. My concern would be that if colleges begin to discount this because of some cheaters, then kids who legitimately need the accommodations are going to have their scores discounted, and that would be a great shame for those kids.

So what we really need to do is to make sure that standard rules are applied for kids across the board, as well as we need to educate counselors and teachers in poorer communities and in the inner city to make sure that those kids who should be getting those accommodations are given the opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us and also give people a chance to get in touch with you. Robert Schaeffer, you’re in Florida, National Center for Fair and Open Testing. How can people find your group?

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: The best way is through our website, www.fairtest.org, and our main office is in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

AMY GOODMAN: Your phone number there?

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: (617) 864-4810.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s (617) 864-4810.

Mark Sklarow, executive director, Independent Educational Consultants Association.

MARK SKLAROW: Well, first, we have a toll free number. It’s 1 (800) 808-4322. Our website, www.educationalconsulting.org.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s 1 (800) 808-4322.

And Rhoda Benedetti of Disability Rights Advocates.

RHODA BENEDETTI: Yes, our number is (510) 451-8644, and we have a website at www.dralegal.org.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s (510) 451-8644. Thank you all very much for being with us.

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