New York Post 5/23/99

ALL over America, the best and the brightest of America's high-school students are striving to be accepted by an elite college - their lives defined by grinding for grades, joining teams and clubs, and preparing for the SAT and ACT exams so vital to their chances of admission.
At the same time, the presidents of America's elite colleges and universities are also seeking recognition - for their institutions. To gain it, they must evaluate exams rather than take them. By exhibiting incoming students' impressive scores, they seek to persuade donors, professional recruiters, faculty members, future students and the public at large that the academic excellence of their institutions is unimpeachable.
During the last few decades, academic administrators have been willing to make one small but significant exception. For many minority students - more than 10 percent of the undergraduates on most of these campuses - the normal standards are routinely waived in the name of achieving the luminous goal of ethnic diversity. The flip side of this policy, of course, is that a large number of other applicants must forfeit the recognition that their hard work would otherwise have earned them.
Ironically, having jeopardized the futures of these high-achieving students, America's elite institutions now find their own in peril. Responding to a string of court rulings casting serious doubt on the constitutionality of racial and ethnic double-standards, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is on the verge of promulgating legal guidelines that would undermine any use of standardized admission exams.
The OCR's message: If low test scores can't be disregarded for some applicants, you'd better think twice about relying upon them for any. Specifically, any exam on which minority and non-minority scores differed significantly could only be used as a primary basis for admissions decisions and scholarships after a demonstration that it was "educationally necessary" and that no other "valid and reliable" means of assessment was available.
For decades, the leaders of our academic establishment have proclaimed that such means were, in fact, abundantly available when it came to discovering superb but low-scoring minority students. Nonetheless, they are howling in protest, outraged that the OCR gave them only four days to evaluate and respond to the guidelines.
"Of greatest concern" declared Stanley Ikenberry, president of the American Council on Education, "is the fact that premature release of the documents would cause confusion among our constituents and possibly lead to costly litigation with no positive achievement."
And indeed, the establishment's constituents might well become confused: If standardized exams lose their benchmark status, then any applicant from a grade-inflated high school, or with a history of community activism, or bearing overly enthusiastic letters of recommendation or a "portfolio" of poems and art work can just waltz through their ivied portals - or be denied only at the risk of a lawsuit.
The prospect of a world where Princeton and Podunk U. stand on an equal footing may please the true believers at the OCR, but it would be an unmitigated disaster for the rest of America. A free and productive society needs institutions for nurturing its highest talents, and must therefore recognize the right of some colleges to rise above the rest. But they can only do so to the extent they extend similar recognition to individuals climbing the same path.
By laboring indefatigably to carve out an ethnic exception to the merit principle, by bestowing on ethnic diversity a moral significance that transcends equal opportunity, by cultivating an intellectual climate contemptuous of the elitism that gives to their institutions both distinction and purpose, the leaders of our public and private "ivies" have only been subverting themselves.
By its willingness to carry their work to its logical conclusion of destructive absurdity, the OCR may have at last awakened them to this fact.

Stephen Balch is president of the National Association of Scholars, a higher-education reform organization.