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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

Standards Really Do Matter

November 11, 2000|EVANNE SCHNEIDER

Ten years ago, studies showed that a gap existed along ethnic lines on the SAT. Today's headlines reveal that more African American and Latino students are taking college entrance exams than ever before, but their average SAT scores are dropping further below those of their Asian American and white counterparts.

What have we been doing? Or not doing?

In 1997, in a misguided attempt to boost the self-esteem of African American students, the Linguistic Society of America supported and commended the Oakland school board in its decision to recognize black English, ebonics, as a language. Ebonics spirited students away from believing in the language of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, reinforcing the idea that it wasn't important to learn standard English, which only put students further behind.

The overriding question then was: How was ebonics going to help students achieve academic excellence? How many copies of the Atlantic Monthly or Smithsonian--two examples of reading material the College Board recommends for students who want to take the SAT--have you seen written in ebonics?

Recently, film director Spike Lee reflected on his days in school. "My mom made me read Dickens and Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston," he said. Then, in college, "she would send me back my letters, correcting my grammar in red ink. She gave me high standards, telling me 90% wasn't good enough."

In a knowledge-based society like ours, what could possibly be deleterious about demanding that African American students conform to the language standards? After all, the list of basic vocabulary words on the SAT comes from standard literature read by high school students throughout the country and from many different tests taken by high school and college students; it is not some arcane list compiled by Harvard or Yale professors.

Ebonics came and went, and later in 1997, Eugene Garcia, dean of UC Berkeley's School of Education and chairperson for the California Latino Eligibility Task Force, advocated that the SAT be eliminated from college admissions decisions. Using SAT test scores to decide admissions eligibility, said Garcia, "was not a healthy dynamic for Latinos."

How pernicious can 3,400 vocabulary words with Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes be? Or is it the analogies or that pesky reading comprehension that puts students "at risk"?

Eliminating the SAT as a requirement could very well double the number of Latinos eligible for admission to the UC system, but once they got in, would they be able to keep up with the high level of academic expectation? Wouldn't we be telling them that we didn't think they were bright enough to pass the SAT? And wouldn't we be sacrificing the quality of higher education?

One thing is sure--getting rid of standards tells students they don't and can't measure up. That's where the thinking has been.

But now Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which owns the SAT, and Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer have become involved in the issue. Both are working to increase the number of African American and Latino students assigned to Advanced Placement classes.

We can't forget that many African American and Latino students face their biggest challenges at home where, often, standard English isn't spoken. Home may never have had a copy of the Wall Street Journal or a Shakespeare classic.

And maybe at home a quiet place to read just doesn't exist.

But home may be where a student wants a better life than his parents had. Or where a young woman wants to be the first in her family to go to college.

For all those who want to be society's successes, not its "victims," we can't let another 10 years go by.

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Evanne Schneider is a research editor and writer living in Woodland Hills.

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