Part of the Woke Program is dispelling meritocracy, as demonstrations of “merit” are often seen as byproducts of “privilege”, while lower assessments of merit, especially when instantiated by minority groups, are seen as instantiations of bigotry. It’s well known, for example, that the standard ACT and SAT tests show dramatically different average scores among racial groups. Below is a table of 2018 scores from the National Center for Education Statistics, with data drawn from the U.S. Department of Education. The standard deviations in the U.S. overall are about 200; this figure would be lower for separate groups because that estimate comes from combined data of groups having different means.
As is well known, there are big differences between groups—on the order of half to a full standard deviation, with Asians at the top followed by whites, mixed-race students, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders and then Native Americans and blacks nearly tied on the lowest rung.
The ordering is seen as reflecting racism, and that may well be true if you take “racism” as meaning “the historical oppression of minority groups which had created at present an impoverished cultural environment with bad schools.” And that would be my own explanation for the differences. A culture of pushing for achievement and high grades would then account for Asians getting the highest scores on average.
Some people, however, attribute racism more directly, arguing that the questions themselves are racially biased, favoring white and Asian “knowledge” over the knowledge held by other groups. I don’t think such an explanation holds much water, especially for math; and the SAT company has made efforts to examine the possibility of bias and eliminate those questions that smack of it.
Because of the racial disparities, people have argued successfully to eliminate SATs and ACTs (another standardized test) as requirements for college admission. I can’t see a good reason for that. SATs, in particular, are just as correlated with success in college as are high-school grade point averages, but the latter are specific to schools. Why would you not want to put all students on the same scale, evaluated by the same test, when you’re judging students? The best thing to do, as I’ve argued, is use a multivariate index, combining grades and standardized-test scores.
The reason schools are eliminating tests, of course, is largely because racial disparities in scores don’t look good on their face (I’d argue that they highlight a problem of inequality), and, if used as one criterion for college admission, would reduce the chances of minorities like blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans getting into selective colleges, exacerbating inequities (inequality of representation). But there’s a solution: colleges wanting more racial balance can use various legal affirmative-action strategies, strategies that, in general, I approve of. Also, there’s a benefit for minorities taking standardized tests: it enables colleges to pick out those students who are likely to do well (remember the correlation between SAT scores and college success) but didn’t have high grade-point averages, perhaps because they were bored or not turned on by the curriculum.
But you can only push affirmative action so far before unequal admissions treatment starts getting people upset. That’s why a group of Asian students sued Harvard (and lost, at least for the time being), claiming that Harvard deliberately downgraded their assessments to avoid having too many Asians on campus. If you have standardized-test numbers to attach to different groups, the disparities are glaring and not only can incite resentment, but can lead to lawsuits arguing that schools are using a “quota system,” a strategy ruled out in the Bakke case.
Recently, the University of California decided to eliminate tests like SATs as requirements for in-state applicants, making them optional for the next two years. Then, in 2023, students will not be allowed to even submit those scores. This happened despite the recommendation of both its own Chancellor and a panel convened by the University system itself, both of which recommended that SAT-like tests be retained as mandatory for applicants. The only reason that the University could possibly have for overriding its own panel’s recommendation is that test scores highlight racial disparities and could exacerbate at the U of C if considered in a largely meritocratic admissions system.
For reasons I can’t fathom, the University of California, after ditching the SATs and ACTs, recommended that the system devise its own standardized test, to be implemented in 2025. But according to this article from the Los Angeles Times (click on screenshot, and inquire for a copy if paywalled), they’ve decided they can’t do that in a timely fashion, and so the U of C is likely to ditch all standardized tests—for good. This has already happened in over 1,000 other colleges and universities (roughly a quarter of higher-education institutions in the U.S.), a wholesale dismantling of the meritocracy. (n.b.: I don’t think that test-scores or grades should be the sole criterion for college admissions, as there are other criteria of achievement that aren’t measured by these statistics.)
See if you can open this, and ask if you can’t:
Because the proposed UC-specific test isn’t practicable, they’ve explored another alternative:
The UC Board of Regents unanimously voted last year to eliminate the SAT and ACT — as more than 1,000 other colleges and universities have done — amid decades of research showing test performance is heavily influenced by race, income and parent education levels.
But the regents accepted a faculty recommendation to explore whether a new UC test without those biases could be developed, saying it would have to be ready in time for fall 2025 applicants.
The UC panels, in their reports released Monday, said it was not feasible for UC to develop its own test because it would take too long and recommended that the university instead explore using a modified version of the state’s high school assessment — but only as an optional “data point” in comprehensive applicant reviews.
The new replacement:
The group of UC faculty, admissions directors, testing experts and other educational and community representatives focused on whether Smarter Balanced, the California assessment given annually to 11th graders, could be retooled for UC use. Any use of a modified state test, however, should be optional and limited so as not to create the inequities and high-stakes pressures associated with the SAT and ACT, according to the recommendation to UC President Michael V. Drake from a second panel.
This is just replacing one standardized test with another, and one that can’t be used to compare in-state applicants with out-of-state applicants who don’t take “Smarter Balanced.” Note the concern with “inequities and high-stakes pressures”. Well, you’re still going to get those, because Smarter Balanced testing produces the same disparities as does the SAT:
But members from both groups also expressed concerns about racial and ethnic disparities in state test results. For instance, about 70% of students classified as Asian meet or exceed the 11th-grade standard for math compared with 45% of whites and 20% of Black and Latino students, the work group said.
So you’ve still got those substantial inequities in exactly the same direction. Proponents of the California-specific test, however, argue that it has a few advantages over SATs. For one thing, it’s free, while I believe it costs a lot to take the standardized SAT and ACT tests. Also, proponents argue that a California-specific test will somehow “better align [the University of California] with the K-12 system, leading to better educational preparation for university work.”
But do you really want California-wide uniformity of educational desiderata, especially when assessed with a test not available to those outside California? It all sounds too cumbersome to me.
And, in the end, the committees assessing this issue decided that, for the time being, the University system should not use Smarter Balanced as an admission criterion, instead using the test scores “for related purposes, such as validating GPA [JAC: that is a criterion by the way], providing context about the school’s educational environment or helping determine placement in freshman courses and summer preparation programs.”
In the end, I think that a mandatory standardized test for all applicants, including those from outside the state, is useful, and I can’t see any good arguments against it save the cost, which can be obviated. As I wrote last year, concurring with Scott Aaronson that standardized tests have real value in singling out smart kids who didn’t get good grades (Aaronson was one of those):
If you want greater racial equity, though, it seems to me best not to eliminate test scores, but to calculate a multivariate index of “academic achievement,” and then use other criteria, like “diversity points” to increase racial balance. This is, in effect, what is being done now by schools like Harvard. The reason, as I’ve said before, is as a form of reparations for those held back by their sociopolitical history in America.
You can have greater equity and some meritocratic criteria at the same time. What you cannot have is greater equity and purely meritocratic admissions, assuming that you base the merit on grades, test scores, and criteria like achievements not measured by grades and scores. (I don’t recommend using Harvard’s “personality index”!) Eventually, when equality of opportunity is achieved for all groups—and that is the real goal, but one that will take decades to achieve—there will be no good arguments against using standardized tests as criteria for college admission.