In a little less than a year, I will be a second semester junior taking the SAT test, and I will likely regret having written this, but it needs to be said: the University of California was wrong to stop considering applicants’ scores on the SAT and ACT tests. Yes, I know, the College Board is akin to a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a profit-hungry corporation masquerading as an innocent nonprofit, and I assure you that I cheer for its downfall at assembly as vigorously as the next CPS student. And yes, I know that standardized testing favors wealthier applicants who can better afford to prepare for the test. However, in the absence of standardized testing, the colleges will lack a common metric by which to compare students, and default to subjective and often racist measures of merit, putting them in a worse position to predict students’ chances of success in college.
In case you haven’t heard, on Thursday, the Board of Regents of the University of California system, the country’s largest, voted to stop considering the previously-optional test scores altogether. The Board is dissimilar to many other universities’ governing bodies in that it is run by politicians, not academics. While the body is theoretically independent, the majority of its members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. These political appointees, coincidentally, tend to have also donated heavily to the campaigns of the governors who appointed them, essentially having bought their seats. The chair of the board is Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis (D), who has no experience in academia. The highlight of her prior career was the ambassadorship to Hungary, to which she was appointed by President Barack Obama despite having no diplomatic credentials other than her and her father’s very large donations to Democratic candidates. The one unifying characteristic of the people who made this decision is that they are wealthy and politically connected, and have no background in academia, making them precisely the wrong people to decide how to eliminate racial disparities in college admissions.
The University of California’s Faculty Senate, comprised not of political cronies but of academics who know what they’re talking about, voted just last month to keep looking at applicants’ test scores. Additionally, a faculty task force found that the tests actually level the playing field for the disadvantaged applicants whom the Board of Regents say they harm. Moreover, the task force determined that the tests are simply more accurate than high school grades, providing a common measure of applicants’ readiness for college, thus better predicting their success as undergraduates.
It is necessary to measure all applicants with the same proverbial ruler in order to compensate for differences in their prior education. A student’s grades do not fill this role, varying based on their school, or even their teacher. It is widely acknowledged that two equally skilled students might have different grades due to a myriad of factors. Standardized tests lack all the subjective inputs that affect grades, currently functioning as the only measure that can be used to compare students of different socioeconomic, geographical, and educational backgrounds on a truly equal footing. This objectivity is the reason that the faculty task force found that standardized testing benefitted black and Latino students: they are assessed in exactly the same form as their white and Asian counterparts. People, not objective measures, are racist, so having at least one aspect of race-blind objectivity in the admissions process partially removes structural racism from the admissions process. When subjective measures take more of a role in admissions decisions, as they likely will if standardized tests can’t be considered, the privileged are favored: students who are able to participate in activities that “look good” on their applications fare better than those who must work to support their families, and personality is used as a grounds to arbitrarily dismiss candidates for often-dubious reasons.
My assertion that subjective inputs on admission exacerbate, not reduce, racial disparities is not merely conjecture. In fact, the history of “holistic” admissions processes is one of the sometimes intentional, sometimes implicit, exclusion of certain racial groups. That was the case in 1920, when Harvard first adopted “holistic” admissions, and it is still true today. In the 1950s, when my grandfather was applying to graduate schools (he studied chemistry and later led early governmental research on lead poisoning), he was forced to study abroad in Belgium because American universities had limited the number Jews they would admit. His rejection was not due to a lack of skill, but because of his religion. Until the early 20th century, admission to universities was based purely off of an applicant’s score on a test. That began to change when Harvard University became the first to consider factors such as personality, adding a layer of subjectivity explicitly intended to be used for the purposes of discrimination. One respondent to a survey at the time remarked that “the Jews tend to overrun the college, to spoil it for the native born Anglo-Saxon young persons for whom it was built and whom it really wants.” Today, Asian-Americans face similar discrimination, dismissed as lacking in “personality” at hugely disproportionate rates. Then and now, the colleges have shown that they cannot be trusted with the use of subjective measures of merit, for they continually abuse it for the purposes of discriminating against groups that the prevailing elite views unfavorably. The University of California is an institution meant to promote social mobility, and the potential for racial discrimination is even less acceptable there than it is at a snobby Ivy League institution.
It is clear that the politically connected elite that dominates the Board of Regents wants to get rid of standardized tests, even when their own institution’s experts have good reason to believe that their decision will be counterproductive. Academia should be run by academics, free from the interventions of a government run by politicians to whom perception matters more than reality. It is for this reason that the California Constitution, in Article IX, Section IX, states that the University shall be free from political interference. The disconnect between what is politically expedient (and this is — the proposition of no more standardized tests admittedly does sound tempting) and academically advisable has led to a decision being made by the powerful, despite the protestations of the knowledgeable. That is a horrible way to run a university and a disgrace to what is perhaps California’s greatest institution. While standardized tests by no means lack racial disparities, they deny colleges opportunities to dismiss applicants for subjective reasons that usually are more based in stereotypes than truth. Not only that, but they actually benefit disadvantaged students by presenting their achievements on an equal footing to those of more privileged applicants. Perhaps most importantly, they are the single best predictor of an applicant’s eventual success as a first-year student. When the Board of Regents eliminated this requirement they made it harder for the disadvantaged students they claimed to be helping, getting rid of the only truly standardized part of the admissions process, in which all students are compared equally to one another, regardless of their privilege. While they probably shouldn’t be the only factor, it seems to me that standardized tests are perhaps one of the most, not least, fair parts of the admissions process.
Photo Credit: SF Gate