AT the core of the affirmative-action debate is whether merit standards traditionally used by universities and companies are racially biased against blacks and other minorities. According to Richard Seymour of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, standardized tests widely used for college admissions and employment are an ''engine for the exclusion of minorities.'' Activists support racial preferences to remedy what they perceive as unjust discrimination.
To examine whether standardized tests are unfair, let us consider two of the most widely used examinations - the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB), administered by state employment agencies and used for millions of job referrals; and the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), conducted by the Educational Testing Service and considered by the vast majority of American colleges for undergraduate admission.
In the past two decades, hundreds of studies have been conducted that seek to assess how well standardized tests such as the SAT and the GATB predict performance, and whether such tests are biased against minorities. These studies have produced results that are so unanimous they are considered definitive in the scholarly community, although they are not well known to the public at large.
The SAT, it turns out, is a very good predictor of college performance, much better than alternative measures such as high school grades, whose significance depends on where the student went to school, and interviews and recommendations, which are highly subjective. Similarly a review by industrial psychologists John Hunter and Frank Schmidt of many studies of the GATB showed that the test effectively predicts job performance, as measured by independent criteria such as supervisor ratings or on-the-job evaluations.
Yet in order to survive charges of bias, tests such as the SAT and GATB must prove to be equally predictive for whites, blacks, and other minorities.
Critics such as David Owen have scoured years of test questions to produce examples that seem to indicate bias. Certainly it is hard to deny Mr. Owen's suggestion that blacks and those who live in the inner city are less likely to be familiar with terms like ''sonata'' and ''regatta'' than whites who grow up in the suburbs.
In recent years those who administer standardized tests have labored strenuously to avoid such culturally loaded terms. Yet let us put aside the verbal section of the test, which contains a high proportion of cultural content, and concentrate only on the math section. Hardly anyone has seriously maintained that equations are racially biased, or that algebra is rigged against Hispanics. Yet data from the College Board show that the racial gaps that are evident on the verbal section of the test are, year after year, equalled or exceeded on the math section.
Study after study has shown that the SAT is not biased against blacks - indeed it slightly overpredicts the performance of African-Americans in college. In the same vein, an exhaustive review of almost 100 studies for the National Research Council found that the GATB is equally predictive for whites and minorities.
These findings have been so well established that they are not contested by a single reputable psychologist in the country. As psychologist Lyle Jones argues, tests do not create discrepancies of ability and performance; they merely measure them. The solution is not to fault the messenger who brings unwelcome news, but to address our social problems - such as broken families and terrible public schools - that produce underachievement and group disparities.