Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the announcement that the University of California will now join the “test-blind” movement and end the use of the SAT and ACT in its admissions decisions. Some have called for the change to increase diversity in the schools, particularly after California voters refused to change the long ban on affirmative action in education under state law.
Here is the column:
The Supreme Court will decide early next month whether to take a new case on the use of race in college admissions. For decades, the court has fractured on the issue and left an unintelligible morass. A challenge brought by Asian students at Harvard could bring clarity, including a possible rejection of the use of race as an admissions criterion.
However, the massive California university system has just taken an action that could make such challenges more difficult in the future. University of California President Janet Napolitano announced that the ten schools in the system will no longer base admissions on standardized tests — joining a “test-blind” admissions movement nationally.
Without standardized testing, it would be difficult to prove the weight given to race in admissions.
Advocates for greater diversity in admissions have long opposed the use of standardized tests as disfavoring minority applicants. Many have decried standardized testing as vehicles for white supremacy. Indeed, education officials like Alison Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Board of Education, have declared meritocracy itself to be racist.
Napolitano responded to such criticism with a Standardized Testing Task Force in 2019. Many people expected the task force to recommend the cessation of standardized testing. The task force did find that 59 percent of high school graduates were Latino, African-American or Native American but only 37 percent were admitted as UC freshman students. The Task Force did not find standardized testing to be unreliable or call for its abandonment, however.
Instead, its final report concluded that “At UC, test scores are currently better predictors of first-year GPA than high school grade point average (HSGPA), and about as good at predicting first-year retention, [University] GPA, and graduation.” Not only that, it found: “Further, the amount of variance in student outcomes explained by test scores has increased since 2007 … Test scores are predictive for all demographic groups and disciplines … In fact, test scores are better predictors of success for students who are Underrepresented Minority Students (URMs), who are first generation, or whose families are low-income.” In other words, test scores remain the best indicator for continued performance in college.
That clearly was not the result Napolitano or some others wanted. So, she simply announced a cessation of the use of such scores in admissions. The system will go from two years of “optional” testing to a “test-blind” system until or unless it develops its own test.
Ending standardized testing will have a notable impact on legal challenges to the use of race in college admissions. Last November, Californians rejected a resolution to restore affirmative action in college admissions.
The Supreme Court has issued a series of 5-4 decisions that have ruled both for and against such race criteria admissions — but even justices supporting such systems have expressed reservations. The author of the 2003 majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said she expected “that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” That 25 years is about up.
Reports indicate that significant differences remain on such scores, particularly for Asian students. The Harvard Crimson reported that “Asian-American applicants to Harvard earned an average SAT score of 726. White applicants earned an average score of 713, Native American and Native Hawaiian applicants an average score of 658, Hispanic American applicants a score of 650, and African American applicants a score of 622.” Yet, during that same period, “Asian-Americans saw the lowest acceptance rate of any racial group.”
In Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the litigants cite a study finding that Asian Americans needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than white students; the gap with admitted African American and Hispanic students is even greater.
The Supreme Court has allowed race to be considered in overall admission decisions, but has stressed that it cannot be used as a determinative or dominant factor. Judicial reviews, therefore, often focused on the objective standardized scores to deduce the weight given to race. Most of us agree that admissions should be based on a holistic review of applicants and not just their scores or GPA. This includes achieving greater demographic, socio-economic, racial and other forms of diversity. However, standardized scores remain highly valuable as objective comparisons of all applicants to guarantee a system based on meritocracy, including within such groups.
In the Harvard case, the scores are particularly important because the litigants allege that subjective factors were systemically used to disfavor them on issues such as likability and personality. While the lower courts ruled for Harvard, the trial judge did note that there may have been bias in favor of minority admissions and encouraged Harvard to deal with such “implicit bias” while monitoring “any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process.” But what if there are no “statistical disparities” because there are no objective statistics?
The elimination of scores has a pronounced impact on students. While it will likely allow for greater diversity in admissions, it also removes a way for students to distinguish themselves in actual testing of their knowledge of math, English and other subjects. Yes, there are other ways to distinguish themselves, like community service and high school projects. Yet, as found by the UC task force, these tests do have a predictive value on success. Indeed, at a time when the United States is losing ground on math and science, the elimination of such testing could undermine our competitive position in a global economy; countries like China demand high levels of objective performance in areas like math and science.
There is an alternative. Rather than eliminate standardized scores due to the disparity in performance of racial groups, we should focus on improving the performance of minority high school students in these areas.
Testing results reflect a continuing failure of our public schools. The top-spending public school districts are also some of the worst-performing districts. New York topped the per capita spending, at $24,040 per kid. Yet, according to a 2019 study, over half of New York City public school kids cannot handle basic math or English. On tests, Asian kids shows a 74.4 percent proficiency in math, with a 66.6 percent proficiency for whites, 33.2 percent proficiency for Hispanics and 28.2 percent proficiency for African Americans.
Instead of addressing the failure to educate kids in these communities, the push is to get rid of the testing itself. The deficiencies will remain — but the ability to expose them will be gone.
Eliminating standardized scores will not erase true racial disparities in our educational system. Indeed, it may only exacerbate them.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.