As part of a recent legal settlement, the University of California system will no longer consider SAT or ACT scores for admission. According to student groups that filed the lawsuit, the tests were racist. Their logic has now become familiar: those who do well on these tests are mostly Asian and white, while those who do poorly are black and Hispanic; therefore, the tests are racist.
There are two fundamental flaws with this logic. First, it frames the issue in terms of race. It asserts that a collective trait, one’s race, is what determines a person’s success rather than one’s individual traits, like a person’s ability to read critically or solve complex problems. This assumes someone’s skin color plays a larger role in his performance on an aptitude test than how often he reads or practices math.
Does this mean that professional sports like football and basketball are racist because there are more black athletes than white or Asian athletes? No, because success in sports is not framed in racial terms. One’s strength, speed, endurance, and dexterity are what allow a person to play at the highest level, not his or her skin color. To say otherwise denies the hard work athletes put into becoming the best at the sport and is rightly deemed racist.
In order to make the argument that race plays a major role in success or failure on standardized tests, one would have to argue that black and Hispanic students have fewer educational opportunities than white and Asian students. On the whole, this is often true (especially in the past year). White and Asian students usually have the opportunity to attend better public schools and enroll in advanced classes, while black and Hispanic students have to attend mediocre public schools that lack these programs.
But that doesn’t mean tests like the SAT and ACT are racist. If anything, it means the public education in these communities needs to be reformed by some measure of school choice. That way, students of all races and income levels have opportunities to learn more that can be reflected on standardized tests instead of being forced to attend a lousy neighborhood school that wastes their time and threatens their safety.
The other flaw with calling SAT and ACT racially biased is that it bases its conclusion on the outcome rather than the process. The outcome alone doesn’t say anything about the content of a test. Again, we would never make this conclusion about sports. Just because some races are more represented than others, doesn’t mean the sport itself is racist.
Nevertheless, this logic is applied all the time. This is what the left means by “equity,” as opposed to equality. Identifying inequity in something means viewing any disparity in outcome as evidence of prejudice. If men outnumber women at a company, this is because that company is sexist. If there are more white country music singers than other singers of other races, that means country music is racist.
Even if one accepts this reasoning, and many supposedly educated people do, it’s worth asking how would this even be corrected. Do they eliminate the thing altogether, like the UC system eliminating testing as a criterion for admission? Do they set up racial quotas to ensure equal outcomes regardless of how participants perform?
To prove standardized tests are racist, one must look at the test itself and how it might favor one group over another. Much of this depends on the test’s content. As Daniel Willingham explains, reading performance (which is essential for all tests, regardless of discipline) depends on a person’s background knowledge, which can vary according to their experiences and values. For example, if one grows up in the city, he will have an easier time reading passages about urban topics, but a harder time with passages about country life.
This idea could apply to racial groups, although this assumes that (1) race is a social construct defined by experiences and values instead of one’s skin color, and (2) that the test includes passages and questions that exclude some races and privilege others. Test makers, however, are generally sensitive to this and will only use racially neutral texts and skill-based questions. As a result, standardized tests include more contemporary texts from diverse writers as well as more scientific texts.
That said, just because the test isn’t necessarily racist, they do discriminate against one group: conservatives. As Jeremy Tate explains, these tests have increasingly dispensed with the texts from the Western literary canon and replaced them with leftist pablum.
For the student who has grown up in a traditional Christian household that values freedom and family, reading a passage by a millennial atheist agonizing over her isolation and various neuroses can be difficult to understand. I remember working through a practice AP exam and puzzling over a passage by a New Yorker complaining that professional sports didn’t include disabled black females like herself. Consequently, I missed some of the questions about the writer’s purpose and techniques because I lacked the means even to make an educated guess.
Since such a test favors students with a leftist mindset, teachers will have to instruct their classes with leftist content. That means reading more articles from The Atlantic and listening to NPR podcasts, and reading fewer classics in American literature. It also means that textbooks will include more pieces from leftist writers from the New York Times and civil rights activists and far fewer pieces from conservative writers and the Founding Fathers.
Nevertheless, just because these exams are biased against conservatives doesn’t mean they should be eliminated entirely. All that would do is remove accountability from classes — to that point, all that comes from removing the SAT and ACT from admissions is making K-12 education in California even less accountable than it is already. Imposing handicaps to assure equal outcomes between leftists and conservatives would just make the test inaccurate and meaningless.
Rather, there should be more test makers and test options. This would foster competition and bring about a better product that doesn’t favor one group over another. More importantly, it would encourage better instruction in schools and discourage leftist indoctrination.
The popular expression “teaching to the test” doesn’t have to be the epitome of bad, uninspired teaching — nor an act of racist oppression. With the right test and the right attitude, it can be a powerful tool for educational reform.