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STRIVING TO LEVEL THE COLLEGE PLAYING FIELD

The College Board released SAT scores last week, and it was big news across the land. And well it should have been, because these scores are used, rightly or wrongly, to determine which youngster is admitted to which college, and in effect to stamp one kid as a likely winner and another as a sure loser.

These SAT scores also lie at the heart of a lot of social conflict in America, because they are used in lawsuits and other racial disputes involving efforts by some colleges to produce social equity and racial diversity on their campuses.

In fact, most news agencies dwelled on the continuing gap between the SAT scores of white college applicants and those of minority youngsters, blacks and Hispanics especially. But the most significant news, as I saw it, was the admission by the Educational Testing Service, which devises the exam, that raw SAT scores are not an accurate indicator of the potential of all youngsters.

ETS noted that raw SAT scores do not take into account the fact that a youngster will score lower if he comes from a poor family with parents who are not well-educated; if he has attended an inferior high school, especially one in a disadvantaged area, where advanced placement courses are not offered; if his school is populated mostly by disadvantaged youngsters; if English is his second language, and if he cannot afford meaningful help in preparing for the exam.

So ETS has come up with a way of looking at these and other factors and determining what SAT score is expected of a youngster with a certain background handicap. And it designates as a "Striver" a student who scores 200 points above what might be expected.

Simply put, a college might apply this concept and conclude that a poor student from a lousy school in the Watts area of Los Angeles who gets an SAT score of 1,000 has just as much promise and is just as deserving of admission as a privileged student in Beverly Hills who scores 1,200.

Some people already are hailing the "Striver" concept as a way to get around the recent rash of laws and lawsuits attacking affirmative-action programs. I know that it is eminently fair to take into account the ways in which some high-schoolers are cheated, but I also know that the people who are rabidly against affirmative action will be opposed to using the "Striver" adjustment. Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, which actively assails affirmative-action efforts, already has sounded off against colleges using anything but raw SAT scores.

But most college administrators know it is in the national interest to help all of America's most promising youngsters to develop their potential. They believe racial and ethnic diversity on campus is intrinsically educational. Thus, many colleges will embrace the "Striver" measurement and see if the courts or the voters forbid it the way they have outlawed affirmative action in some jurisdictions.

The idea of giving consideration to an applicant's family, school and neighborhood is so compelling that other educators and groups are working to develop their own versions of a "Striver" adjustment of test scores. It is interesting that ETS and all the other educators make it possible to factor the race of a student into the calculation in the belief that in today's America, race still is just as relevant as any of the other "handicaps" that are being considered.

Release of the 1999 SAT scores highlighted the fact that in most school districts in America, administrators are talking about instituting programs to close the test-score gap between whites and minorities. But none has set forth a program that is certain to wipe out the inequities of family background, poor financing of schools and teachers and failure to offer advanced courses where minority children are involved.

Closing the test-score gap may be impossible. But credit must go to Educational Testing Service for its honesty in admitting what SAT scores don't measure and for daring to offer a formula for greater justice in deciding who gets opportunities in America and who does not.

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