SATs, standardized tests, and admissions

The University of California’s Board of Regents recently voted to stop requiring SATs for incoming students. They will now take until 2025 to create a new test. And, if that effort fails (and, let’s face it, it likely will…), they will remove the need for a standardized test altogether.

This was a momentous decision as it is expected to be the beginnings of a trend that is adopted by universities across the United States.

The reason for the removal of the test is that preparation highlights racial and class inequities. Richer kids have access to test prep infrastructure that poor kids just do not.

And, yet, the U of C’s Academic Senate strongly recommended keeping the standardized test. Their argument was that their analysis showed that the presence of these test scores actually protected the very folks – under represented, marginalized and low-income minorities – that the Board wants to help.

Theoretical Computer Scientist and Professor at the University of Texas Scott Aaronson had a powerful take on the subject.

As a result, admissions to the top US universities—and hence, most chances for social advancement in the US—will henceforth be based entirely on shifting and nebulous criteria that rich, well-connected kids and their parents spend most of their lives figuring out, rather than merely mostly based on such criteria.

The last side door for smart noncomformist kids is now being slammed shut. From now on, in the US, the only paths to success that clearly delineate their rules will be sports, gambling, reality TV, and the like.

In case it matters to anyone reading this, I feel certain that a 15-year-old me wouldn’t stand a chance in the emerging regime—any more than nerdy Jewish kids did in the USSR of the 1970s, or the US of the 1920s. (As I’ve previously recounted on this blog, the US’s “holistic” college admissions system, with its baffling-to-foreigners emphasis on “character,” “leadership,” “well-roundedness,” etc. rather than test scores, originated in a successful push a century ago by the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to keep Jewish enrollments down. Today the system fulfills precisely the same function, except against Asian-Americans rather than Jews.)

Ironically but predictably, the death of the SAT—i.e., of one of the most fearsome weapons against entrenched wealth and power ever devised—is being celebrated by the self-described champions of the underdog. I have one question for those champions: do you not understand what your system will actually do to society’s underdogs? Or do you understand perfectly well, and approve?

Universities, as things stand, are powerful arbiters of privilege. Getting the admissions process right matters for society. Removing standardized tests – with all their flaws – without suitable replacements is a step backward.