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The Right Measurement

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The Right Measurement

Standardized tests remain the fairest means of evaluating student merit. Winter 2020
Education

High schoolers taking the SAT may wish that they could skip the nerve-racking process of college admissions testing, and they found an ally in former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. “We came up with the SAT during World War II to determine who to keep from the frontlines,” Yang tweeted early in his campaign. (Actually, the SAT began in 1926.) “Now every year is wartime. We should deemphasize standardized tests and evaluate kids more holistically.” Yang has criticized standardized tests before, calling them “a terrible measurement of anything other than whether you are good at the test.”

Administrators at colleges and graduate schools throughout the country seem to agree. Many—possibly soon to include the massive University of California system—no longer require applicants’ test scores. Some elites go further than Yang, attacking admissions tests as racist. “The SAT was created by a eugenicist determined to prove the inherent inferiority of black Americans,” tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones, who directed the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” “Turns out,” she added, “if you want to design a test that will prove white superiority and justify maintenance of racial and class hierarchies, then the ‘objective and scientific’ test you design will do just [fine].” Richard Carranza, New York City’s schools chancellor, argues likewise that the city’s entrance exam for selective high schools unfairly excludes blacks and Hispanics.

There’s little evidence, though, that admissions tests are biased against minorities; in fact, such tests remain our fairest means of identifying academic talent. As a century of research shows, admissions tests have consistently predicted academic performance. The College Board’s own analysis, for example, finds a high correlation between college GPAs and SAT scores, and even higher correlations in demanding STEM subjects—after correcting for how low scorers are less likely to attend college. Overall, the SAT predicts college achievement just as well as GPAs or high school records. Several independent analyses of the SAT find the same results. One study, for instance, finds that SAT scores correlate with college GPAs at 0.55 on a scale of 1.0, which is considered high, after accounting for the fact that higher-scoring students take harder and more stringently graded classes.

Race differences in the validity of admissions tests are practically negligible. The College Board reports that the SAT correlates with college GPA at 0.49 for blacks, 0.54 for Asians, and 0.55 for Hispanics, against 0.56 for whites. One review found that the SAT predicts grades for black students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) better than for white students at majority-white colleges. Those who label the SAT white supremacist should inform Howard University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College—all prestigious HBCUs that require SAT or ACT scores.

If anything, the SAT is biased in favor of black and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic students: they perform worse in college than whites with similar SAT scores. One review notes: “Contrary to popular opinion, over-prediction [of black students’ college performance] . . . is the most consistent occurrence in Black predictive validity studies.” The College Board finds that the SAT overpredicts black and Hispanic college students’ GPAs by 0.17 and 0.05 points, while underpredicting white and Asian students’ GPAs by 0.02 and 0.01 points, respectively. Law and business school admissions exams also overpredict black and Hispanic performance.

Though many students with poor test scores flourish in college, criteria like interviews and application essays aren’t useful in identifying them. One study of undergraduate admissions interviews, for example, finds “no evidence . . . for the incremental validity of interviewer judgments over test scores and grades.” An analysis of medical schools likewise finds that interviews “very weakly predict academic performance in healthcare disciplines and are probably of little practical value.” These findings support decades of research showing that tests of “general mental ability” are among the best ways to select job applicants and that interviews are among the worst. One analysis of admissions essays indicated that correlations between college grades and faculty evaluations are, respectively, 0.13 and 0.09—both very weak—and that “once standardized test scores and prior grades are taken into account, they provide no incremental validity.”

Holistic admissions serve bigots’ purposes far better than tests. In The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, UC Berkeley sociology professor Jerome Karabel shows that Ivy League universities instituted admissions by national standardized exam in the early twentieth century to make it easier for students without prep school backgrounds to apply—not, as Hannah-Jones claims, to “justify maintenance of racial and class hierarchies.” They got more than they bargained for: when Jewish applicants of modest means began outcompeting Gentiles, the Ivy League turned to admissions interviews and evaluations of character traits such as “manliness” as clandestine ways to exclude Jews. Nowadays, Harvard admissions officers routinely reject Asian applicants in favor of students of other races with far inferior records. In recent years, they systematically rated Asian applicants lower than non-Asians in “kindness” and “likability.”

If the University of California goes through with plans to abolish SAT and ACT requirements, Californians will waste billions of dollars on students unprepared for college. Admissions shouldn’t be used as a stalking horse for the racial discrimination that majorities of all races oppose. Any American who wants fair, effective higher education should demand that universities evaluate applicants strictly on academic merit.

Photo: Ali Siraj/iStock

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