The SAT or the racial gap it measures?

Here’s a quick quiz for you:


(A) idea of scholastic merit : offensive to egalitarians
(B) reality TV shows : contrived obnoxiousness
(C) bear : “going” in the woods
(D) all of the above
(E) What the …?

If you selected (E), and you plan to take the SAT but haven’t yet, you’re in luck. In the College Board’s recent major overhaul of the SAT, analogies are being eliminated in favor of “short reading passages.” Other changes include renaming the Verbal section to “Critical Reading,” dropping quantitative comparisons from the Math section; and introducing a new Writing Section to test knowledge of grammar and require students to complete an essay question.

With the addition of the new section, the perfect score of the SAT will increase from 1600 to 2400, the test will take a half-hour longer, and it will cost more. Although the scoring change will make comparing SAT scores over time even more difficult than the infamous “recentering” of SAT scores in 1995, the most controversial change is the new essay, which necessarily injects subjectivity in scoring the tests.

What was so wrong with the SAT that it required such large-scale changes? The University of California didn’t like it. What was UC’s problem with it? The SAT is, quite frankly, too objective — and one of the things it measures objectively is the vast difference in educational preparation between black and white students. Since UC is prevented by public referendum (Proposition 209, passed overwhelmingly in 1996 and upheld in court despite several desperate challenges) to use race-based preferences in admissions, this gap has become a considerable sore spot, and the university system has attempted numerous, albeit merely cosmetic, solutions to the problem. Naturally all concerns over the scoring gap and coinciding admissibility problems were couched in the acceptable language of “protecting diversity” at UC, lest anyone risk the grave heresy of questioning pedagogic and other practices at public schools.

The Spring 1997 issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education signaled as much. “In an academic world that is moving away from racial preferences, the problem for blacks is not so much the propriety of the content of the [SAT] but rather the fact that the test continues to be used, often quite mindlessly, to sort, select, and reject the people who wish to gain admittance to the nation’s highest-ranked colleges.”

Note that last phrase; the JBHE’s and the UC’s concern is basically over the SAT’s effect on minority admissions to top colleges. The admissions rate of minorities in the UC system now (19.1 percent) exceeds that of minorities before the passage of Prop. 209 (18.8 percent). Only at the three most selective campuses in the UC system (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Irvine) are minority admissions rates below their pre-209 level. So those in California who opposed Prop. 209 because it would supposedly slam the door on minorities seeking entrance into the UC system, rather than acknowledging the unlooked-for success, instead deftly avoided their mea culpas. They focused on the lower minority enrollment rates at just those three institutions, and affixed blame on the SAT. There is a certain inverse logic at work behind it: If the standard cannot be attained by educational business as usual, the standard must change.

Thus last year UC President Richard C. Atkinson proposed dropping the SAT altogether as an admissions requirement, and this March a UC faculty committee followed up on Atkinson’s threat by passing a proposal recommending to the Board of Regents that UC replace the SAT with its own admissions test in reading, writing, mathematics, and two other subject matters by 2006. The regents were slated to vote on the proposal in July. The UC system being the SAT’s largest customer, it is perhaps not surprising the College Board made its changes, to take place in 2005, in late June.

The last big change to the SAT took place in 1995 after years of falling SAT scores and a widening of that nagging racial gap. The median score for all students taking the test was “recentered” at 500. The effect was, as the Autumn 1996 JBHE showed: in 1988 the combined average score for blacks and whites were 1036 and 847 (with a gap of 189 points), while in 1995 under the new system the combined average score for blacks and whites were 1046 and 854 (with a gap of 192 points); however, under the old scoring system those scores were 946 and 744. The new scoring system masked a seven-year drop in scores of 100 points for whites and 110 points for blacks, and it furthermore masked the scoring gap by 10 points.

In 1999 two changes were suggested, but public outcry stopped them. The Educational Testing Service proposed a new program called the “Strivers” scoring system, which would promote certain test-takers as “Strivers” if they tested 200 points higher than their “expected score” according to their background (weighted by their race, gender, ethnicity, and 11 other personal categories). Also, the Office of Civil Rights under the Clinton Administration issued proposed “guidelines” to discourage universities from using tests that have a “disparate impact” on applicants according to their race, gender, or ethnicity, even if that “disparate impact” (the OCR’s way of acknowledging the scoring gap without blaming public schools) was unintended.

The significance of the changes of 2002 goes beyond the fact that UC is effectively imposing its racial-politics straw-grasping on universities reliant on the SAT in the other 49 states, or even that historical comparisons of SAT scores will become more uncertain. The changes signify two things: 1) a recognition that it is inevitable that racial preferences in admissions will be declared unconstitutional across the land, and 2) a successful — and more importantly, legal — end run around that inevitability.

The standard which reflected the failures of the system has now been enslaved to the system.