A group of students, advocacy groups and a primarily black and Hispanic California school district filed suit against the University of California last week, alleging that the SAT and ACT college admission tests discriminate against black and Hispanic students and demanding that the school stop using standardized test scores in its admissions process.
The theory that the tests are biased against poor and mainly black and Hispanic students concludes that the system illegally discriminates against applicants on the basis of their race, wealth or disabilities, thus denying them equal protection under the California Constitution. This battle has been fought before, of course. There was a time, decades ago, when foes of standardized testing could point to test questions referring to yachting and Western philosophers, baking in a bias that handicapped students fromracial and ethnic sub-cultures in America. Those prejudicial questions have been purged, but the long-time disparity between the test scores of white and Asian applicants on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other continues.
Even as the ACT and SAT have evolved from the aptitude tests of nearly a century ago to tests of the kinds of skills and concepts necessary for college work, a stubborn gap remains. In California, where more than 260,000 California students who graduated from high school in 2018 took the test, 44% of white students and 53% of Asian-American students scored a combined score of at least 1200. Only10% of African-American students and 12% of Hispanic students achieved that level. Why? It must be the tests. What about the tests? Nobody knows, but they must be discriminatory, because if they were not, there wouldn’t be any significant difference in how the groups score. That’s the comforting narrative.
The makers of the ACT and SAT responded to the filing of the lawsuit by insisting that the plaintiffs were disingenuously blaming the tests for inequality in society and education. “The notion that the SAT is discriminatory is false,” said a spokesman for the College Board, which administers the test. Marten Roorda, chief executive of ACT, added: “It is inappropriate to blame admissions testing for inequities in society. We don’t fire the doctor or throw away the thermometer when an illness has been diagnosed. Differences in test scores expose issues that need to be fixed in our educational system.”
That seems logical, but that’s not how the overwhelming majority of social justice activists choose to think about inequality of results; to them, it’s never the individual’s fault. The plaintiffs want college admissions to be based primarily on grades and teacher recommendations, despite the fact that the former vary widely among teachers, schools and communities, and the latter have little credibility and never have. Some systems have gone to systems in which students do not have to submit standardized test scores, but the lawsuit would even eliminate that option.
One point the law suit makes is valid, and should be addressed, though eliminating the SAT and ACT tests are a foolish way to address it. The suit argues that the use of standardized tests has created a test-prep industry that gives an unfair edge to families who can afford to pay for special, test-focused tutoring. I agree: ban the prep tests. Require students to certify that they have not paid for special prep courses; declare such courses cheating, Weight multiple test-taking so it lowers scores. Another option is for the state to certify the prep courses, and require them to disclose the names of students who have paid for that advantage. Add a factor to scoring that reflects the fact that a student has paid for tutoring.
Unfortunately, past experience suggest that this won’t significantly change the gap between the scores of Asians/whites and blacks/Hispanics: the disparity continues through all socio-economic levels. Rich black and Hispanic kids still do much worse on the tests than rich white and Asian kids, but at least regulating the prep courses will eliminate some of the excuses.
There will be more to come, however; that should be obvious by now. We have been told that requiring standard English is racist, that mathematics is racist, grades are racist, meritocracy is racist, checking criminal records is racist, and punishing criminals is racist. Eventually, colleges and universities will be told that any procedure that does not guarantee admission to any minority student who applies—it’s also racist to charge them tuition—is racist. It is far easier to get society to accept these self-serving fantasies than taking on the tough job of changing cultures that undermine the ability of children to learn, achieve, compete and succeed while taking responsibility for developing positive habits and values rather than destructive ones.