The Magazine

Will California Fail the Test?

Getting rid of the SAT will not improve college admissions

Mar 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 25 • By EDWARD BLUM
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IF YOU LIKE WHAT California has done to deregulate electricity, you will love its plans to make college admissions "fairer."

In a move that stunned the higher education establishment, University of California president Richard C. Atkinson recently asked the university's academic senate to discard the Scholastic Assessment Test I, which has been the bane of college-bound high school students for over 50 years. Atkinson wants the nation's largest university system to take a more "comprehensive" and "holistic" approach to evaluating prospective students. Instead of using the SAT I, Atkinson wants the California system to use the SAT II, which tests a student's mastery of subjects studied in high school, in addition to his grades, essays, and a number of other subjective criteria.

But that's only the beginning. Ultimately, Dr. Atkinson wants state schools to abandon all numerical measurements of student aptitude. The SAT and other high-stakes tests, he has said, "can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem" of young students.

No one should be surprised by this latest assault on the SAT I. For years the test has been attacked as culturally biased by various racial advocacy groups such as the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, left-leaning college administrators, and most important, the Clinton-era Department of Education. Nearly two years ago, the department's Office of Civil Rights floated guidelines that stated "the use of any educational test which has a significant disparate impact on members of any particular race, national origin, or sex is discriminatory, and a violation of Title VI and/or Title IX, respectively, unless it is educationally necessary and there is no practicable alternative form of assessment which meets the educational institution's needs and would have a less disparate impact." In other words, schools were told to ditch the SAT I or face the threat of discrimination lawsuits. Only after howls of protest from the university community did the Education Department start to back off.

Atkinson's call for ending the use of the SAT I should also be seen as a counterpunch to Proposition 209 -- the California initiative that ended racial preferences in public education -- and to lawsuits challenging race-based admissions in other states. Disarmed of the race preference, California's elite campuses no longer have the proper numerical racial "diversity" (read, proportional representation) so beloved by university administrators. Even though the top 4 percent of all qualified high school graduates in California are assured spots at the University of California, some campuses -- Berkeley and Los Angeles -- and graduate programs have not recovered their pre-209 levels of minority enrollment.

Atkinson's push for a more "holistic" approach to evaluating applicants is naive at best, cynical at worst. For 2001, the California system has received over 90,000 applications for undergraduate admission. For the sake of efficiency, GPAs and test scores must be the main criteria for screening applicants. While small, liberal arts colleges may have the luxury of considering a broader range of factors, this would be unworkable at any large university system. Dr. Atkinson surely knows this.

Putting aside the fragile self-esteem of applicants, the real reason for this latest move is the persistent and disheartening disparity in standardized test scores that sets whites and Asians apart from blacks and Hispanics. This gap exists at every grade level and among all economic groups: Middle- and upper-class blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans lag behind middle- and upper-class whites and Asians. Gaston Caperton, the president of the nonprofit College Board which designs and distributes the SAT, has written that the disparity "is particularly troubling because we are not talking about disadvantaged youngsters. Even minority students from relatively wealthy families with well-educated parents do not perform as well as white and Asian students from similar backgrounds."

In spite of the endless siege on standardized tests, the College Board -- which has often gone along with its critics -- concludes that the SAT "and other admissions tests tend to 'over-predict' the college performance of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. That is, minority students at predominantly white colleges and universities attain significantly lower grade-point averages than white and Asian-American peers who attained similar SAT scores in high school." Simply put, the great irony of the SAT I is that it is biased in favor of black and Hispanic students, not the other way around.