Legal Affairs – Bashing the SAT Won’t Make Life More Fair

National Journal

In his much publicized Feb. 18 speech attacking the SAT, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson proposed that his university’s eight campuses stop using the test as an admissions requirement. The result, he said, would be to "help all students, especially low-income and minority students, determine their own educational destinies."

This was about one-sixth true. It is, of course, absurd to pretend that any change in the admissions process would help all students; Atkinson’s proposal would hurt exactly as many as it would help. Nor would dropping the SAT necessarily be a net gain for low-income students. Instead, it would increase the power of the same university bureaucrats who used to admit black and Hispanic applicants ahead of low-income Asians and whites with higher SAT scores. California banned such racial preferences a few years ago, which is why the SAT is under attack now.

Nor would Atkinson’s proposal help all minority groups. The biggest losers would be Asian-Americans, whose spectacular SAT scores and academic successes belie the notion that the SAT merely reinforces the advantages of wealth and status. And surprisingly, according to a 1998 study by the UC admissions office, dropping the SAT would lower, not raise, the number of African-Americans admitted to UC’s eight campuses, because the brightest black applicants tend to do better on the SAT than on their high school grades. The assumption that dropping the SAT would mean more black admissions appears based on the expectation that it would clear the way for covert reintroduction of racial preferences.

Atkinson is the intellectual leader of an SAT-bashing movement that has gained a lot of political clout in response to referenda and court decisions rejecting racial preferences. So his complaints are worth examining: 1) "Leaders of minority communities perceive the SAT to be unfair," because blacks and Latinos do worse on average than other racial groups. 2) The SAT can have "a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students." 3) Many affluent parents try to give their children an advantage by enrolling them in SAT prep courses. 4) Some secondary schools overemphasize SATs by teaching to the test, as in one private school where 12-year-olds spent hours "studying long lists of verbal analogies." 5) And the SAT’s quantification of "undefined notions of `aptitude’ or `intelligence’ " has no clear relationship to high school curricula and is given undue weight by admissions departments.

The first four complaints are unconvincing. First, although many black and Hispanic leaders say the SAT is unfair, this claim cannot withstand analysis-not, at least, as long as one assumes that the admissions process should prefer those applicants who are deemed most likely to do well in college. The success of Asian-Americans proves that the SAT is not biased against minorities in general. And data devastate the claim that the SAT is biased against black students. In statistical comparisons of black and white college students with similar SAT scores, the black students have consistently performed worse on average in the classroom than their white counterparts.

The problem for African-Americans is not the SAT. It is inferior education before they get to the SAT. Beyond that, it is the terribly self-destructive disdain for academic effort ("acting white") manifested by many black students, including a lot of bright middle-class black kids from good schools.

Second, there is no reason to think that teen self-esteem suffers more damage from SAT tests than from any other high-stakes competitions faced by high school kids. Choosing among masses of applicants to a selective university is an unavoidably crude, cruel, and sometimes arbitrary zero-sum game. Some students will always have to cope with bad grades, low scores on achievement tests, lack of athletic talent, and the realization that they will never get into a first-rate college. Unless we abolish selective colleges, a lot of kids are going to have to deal with the reality that they are not all above average.

Third, although some affluent students do get a modest boost on the SAT from prep courses, they enjoy far greater advantages on other tests that Atkinson wants to keep: standardized tests (including the SAT-2 tests) that evaluate students’ mastery of academic subjects such as American history and writing. With better schools, better teachers, calmer classrooms, and more homework, affluent kids are far better prepared for these achievement tests than less-privileged students. So dropping the SAT in favor of achievement tests would do little or nothing for low-income students. Indeed, the one test that was created in large part to foster admission of the most promising low-income students is the SAT-which has been a brilliant success at opening colleges’ gates to students of exceptional academic potential, no matter their background.

Fourth, the verbal analogy drills for 12-year-olds that so dismayed Atkinson can also be seen as teaching a skill that will be valuable long after the student is finished with the SAT. The skill is logical analysis, of which analogical reasoning is a crucial component. No doubt, some schools do spend more time than they should on analogies-and no doubt, others spend more time than they should on Thomas Jefferson, Harriett Tubman, past participles, or quadratic equations. Big deal.

Atkinson’s final point has more force. Although decades of market testing and studies have confirmed the SAT’s value as a common yardstick for measuring the academic potential of students from widely varying high schools, some colleges probably do give SAT scores undue weight, whether to save time and expense or to improve their rankings in college guides. This is unfair to the many people with stunning intellectual gifts and other talents who don’t do well on the SAT.

The logical solution to this problem, however, is not to drop the SAT entirely, but to give it less weight in the mix of qualifications-grades, achievement tests, athletic and musical talents, teacher recommendations, application essays, and more-that admissions officers evaluate. At Atkinson’s University of California, SAT scores account for only about 15 percent of a student’s eligibility rating. If that is too much, UC can drop it to 12 percent, or to 10 percent.

"In America," Atkinson stressed, "students should be judged on what they have accomplished during four years of high school, taking into account their opportunities." True. But UC (like others) already takes account of differences in opportunities. It gives breaks to promising students from underprivileged backgrounds and guarantees a place to all whose grades put them in the top 4 percent of their high school classes. These policies strike a healthy balance between egalitarianism and meritocracy. But Atkinson seems to want to carry egalitarianism to the self-destructive extreme of pretending that verbal and mathematical ability have no relevance to academic potential, and of having the university avert its eyes from very large differences between the academic aptitudes of otherwise similarly qualified applicants.

To be sure, the short-term change proposed by Atkinson-dropping the SAT and retaining standardized achievement tests-might have little practical impact. But it would also do little to further Atkinson’s egalitarian goals, unless the university ultimately drops, or de-emphasizes, all standardized tests. Perhaps that’s why Atkinson’s long-term plan is to "move away from admission processes that use narrowly defined quantitative formulas, and instead adopt procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way."

And what would take the place of such "quantitative formulas" in this brave new holistic world? Subjective evaluations by university bureaucrats, it appears. Very subjective: Atkinson wants admissions officers to "look at the full range of [students’] accomplishments within the context of the opportunities they enjoyed and the obstacles they faced," and to "make judgments about what individual applicants might contribute to campus life and, later, to society." That sounds like a formula for giving university bureaucrats virtually unlimited discretion to prefer the applicants they deem most deserving based on the admissions officers’ personal tastes, political priorities, or, more likely, their unwritten marching orders.

Atkinson’s immediate goal may be to reintroduce racial preferences through the back door by taking advantage of the opportunities for covert discrimination and for lowering academic standards that are inherent in any subjective evaluation process. But such social engineering at the expense of academic standards would not stop there. Once liberated from SAT scores, university bureaucrats might judge your child’s worthiness on the basis of her family background, her talent for 10-minute interviews, her "special and worthy career aspirations" (to borrow from Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier, another SAT-basher), her enthusiasm for multiculturalism, perhaps even her religious affiliation or political beliefs.

Yes, SAT scores can have an arbitrary impact. But the alternatives are worse.