by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 16
September 2021
Debate
10:31

Scrapping SATs will not reduce racial inequality

The alternatives are even more biased
by Tom Chivers

Many US universities use standardised testing — known as SATs and ACTs — to (partly) determine who they give a place to. They also pay attention to “grade point averages”, GPAs — how well you did at school, basically — and to essays.

There’s been a move recently to drop standardised testing. The University of California colleges have scrapped it. And this week, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, announced that Florida’s universities will do the same. The concern is that standardised testing disproportionately favours wealthy, white applicants.

I think that’s likely true. But scrapping standardised testing is still probably a bad idea, because all the other things you can replace it with are worse.

As Freddie de Boer points out, yes, SAT scores are correlated with socioeconomic status (SES), albeit weakly. But so are grade point averages, to almost exactly the same degree. And essay grades are more strongly correlated with household income, at least according to this big study from earlier this year. If you remove SATs, you’ll end up putting more emphasis on essay scores, and as Sanjay Srivastava of the University of Oregon says here, there’s then a strong risk that you end up making university admissions more directly linked to SES.

And the early evidence is that scrapping SATs doesn’t work. It’s only one year’s data, but the percentage of University of California applications from underrepresented groups “remained essentially flat as a proportion of the applicant pool”, while the percentage of applicants with low family income “decreased to 41.5 percent of applicants from 43.5 percent last year”. 

It’s worth remembering what the point of these tests is. The idea is to find talented students who will do well at university. And using a combination of standardised testing and GPA is a strong predictor of how well a student will do. If you remove testing, the predictive ability falls: GPA alone predict students’ success, but only about half as well as SATs plus GPA. Moving to “holistic” admissions — looking at essays, extracurricular activities, how good a “fit” the applicant is, to predict success — simply does not happen. But letting professors judge who they think best “fits” the university is almost inevitably going to end up with those professors picking the people most like themselves: people from disproportionately wealthy, educated backgrounds. 

Yes, black and Hispanic students do worse on SATs than white and Asian ones. But that is not primarily a problem with the SATs. As progressives rightly say, black and Hispanic students have faced generations of prejudice and inequality which make it harder for them to progress in the education system. SATs are measuring the impact of that inequality. Bridging that gap will be difficult; stopping people from measuring it is easier, but won’t solve the fundamental problem.

If we want to increase the number of poor and minority students in universities, removing SATs is unlikely to do it, at least if we then solely focus on the existing, equally if not more biased, alternatives. You could do other things — run it as a complete lottery, so that there is no attempt to find the smartest students, for instance. But that would be a huge change to the university system. In the US specifically, Jay Caspian Kang suggests hugely increasing the pipeline from (mainly working-class) community colleges to the Ivies and other top universities.

Removing standardised testing is not the answer, because it will simply put more weight on the opinions of flawed humans. As so often, the worry about bias in algorithms forgets just how biased human judgment is.

Join the discussion


  • San Diego schools are already replacing school grades with citizenship grades:
    https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2020-10-15/san-diego-unified-changes-grading-protocols-to-be-more-equitable
    This is nothing new. I heard ideas like this being pushed forward even ten years ago. The idea behind this is that there is a surplus of intelligent people who think too much. Instead, society needs people who contribute to the social good, therefore public schools should be teaching politically correct attitudes to their students. The rich and powerful pay lip-service to this theory, yet circumnavigate it by sending their children to expensive private schools.

  • As an ex-pat who has lived in the US for the last 30 years plus, I partially agree with Tom. But to be honest, the US University admissions system has always struck me as deeply flawed. First, the professors do not select the students, the admission’s officers do that. Second, there are no interviews with university faculty, but rather with local university alumni. The British system is far superior. Proper and serious exams in the form of A levels and interviews by a panel of faculty. No question that the British system is vastly superior.

  • In Britain, there was about 15% of schools, the top public ( Winchester , Westminster ) and grammar schools ( Manchester, King Edward VI , B’ Ham )which could offer s superb academic education and have done so since the 16h Century. A friend at Kind Edward VIth was taught maths by a Cambridge Wrangler! The top schools allowed pupils to move at least one year ahead and taught to first year degree standard, the Oxford, Cambridge and University Scholarship Exams.Even prep schools had teachers from Oxford and Cambridge. At prep schools French started at 7 years of age , Latin at 8 and Greek at 9.
    The problem is that there are not enough teachers to offer the whole country the rigorous hiogh level education offfered by Winchester , MGS, King Edward VIth , etc
    Huxley, who won the Nobel Prize did a very interesting talk on why Britain had won so many prizes. Huxley said it was due to selection at 11 or 13 years of age and rigorous training from a young age. O levels tested memory and from A Levels onwards, conceptual thought was developed. This meant one could earn a degree at 20 and a doctorate at 22 years of age;often 5 to 7 years ahead of people from other countries.
    The combining of CSEs and O Levels and dropping of Oxbridge / University Scholarship exams has meant university degrees have been extended by 1 to 2 years . The Imperial /Cambridge Science and Engineering Batchelors used to be masters level standard from any other universities in other countries.

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