The New York Times dropped a bombshell last weekend by admitting the leftists’ war on standardized tests such as the SAT was “misguided” after the paper has cheered for it for years (see here and here).
For decades, leftists have waged war against standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT as part of college admissions, claiming these tests are racially, economically, and even gender “biased” against black and brown children and girls, have little predictability for a student’s future success, and are the root cause of persistent academic performance gaps among students of various ethnic groups.
One of the loudest opponents of standardized tests is teachers unions. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, claimed in a tweet: “Standardized testing doesn’t help kids learn, and it doesn’t help teachers teach.” Her claim was self-serving because she and the unions have vehemently rejected any objective measures that demonstrate how much the union-controlled schools have failed American children.
Leftists’ relentless attacks on standardized tests finally paid off. By 2022, responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s death, more than 1,700 American colleges and universities, including dozens of elite ones, had dropped SAT and ACT scores from their college admissions processes. Leftists claimed such a move would make college admission more “equitable,” benefiting black and brown children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Yet, a couple of years into this experiment, some, including college administrators, began to wonder if the war on standardized tests was “misguided.” David Leonhardt, a longtime Times reporter on higher education, wrote this weekend’s story questioning the wisdom of leftists’ war on SATs from several perspectives.
Proof Standardized Tests Are Useful
First, study after study, including recent research, has repeatedly proven that standardized tests are strong predictors of a student’s success in college and later in life. According to Leonhardt, “an academic study released last summer by the group Opportunity Insights, covering the so-called Ivy Plus colleges (the eight in the Ivy League, along with Duke, M.I.T., Stanford, and the University of Chicago), showed little relationship between high school grade point average and success in college. The researchers found a strong relationship between test scores and later success.”
The finding is consistent with other similar research, including a 2020 study by the University of California, a 2007 study from the journal Science, and other research (see here and here) published by Psychological Science. All this research has demonstrated a clear correlation between SAT scores and a student’s academic and career accomplishments.
Second, after colleges dropped standardized test scores from their admissions, they have relied heavily on factors such as students’ GPAs, extracurriculars, and essays, which are problematic in their own ways. GPAs are ineffective predictors of academic success due to “grade inflation in recent years.”
Leonhardt says, “Affluent students can participate in expensive activities, like music lessons and travel sports teams, that strengthen their applications. These same students often receive extensive editing on their essays from their well-educated parents. Many affluent students attend private schools where counselors polish each student’s application.”
Consequently, by replacing the SAT and ACTs with essays and extracurriculars, the colleges have failed to achieve their equity goal because they “have even larger racial and economic biases.”
Without including an objective measure such as the SAT or ACT, “the students who suffer most are those with high grades at relatively unknown high schools, the kind that rarely send kids to the Ivy League,” Harvard economist David Deming told the New York Post. For those talented and hard-working kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, the SAT or ACT score is their “lifeline” that enables them to pull themselves out of poverty and achieve upward social mobility, he said.
Third, leftists have insisted that the disparity in SAT and ACT scores results from wealth disparity because affluent families can afford expensive test prep courses to improve their kids’ SAT or ACT scores. This assertion has long been debunked, and in 2010 the Princeton Review company dropped its claims that its “Ultimate Classroom” SAT preparation course would dramatically improve a student’s test score. A study by the Fordham Institute found more Asian students from the lowest socioeconomic status (whose mothers didn’t graduate from high school) outperformed the highest socioeconomic status black and Hispanic students in reading and math.
Since the disparities in SAT scores across racial and ethnic groups are consistent with the disparities in results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that measures K-12 learning, some on the left are finally willing to admit that “the disparities in SAT scores are a symptom, not a cause, of inequality in the US,” or, “To put it another way, the existence of racial and economic gaps in SAT and ACT scores doesn’t prove that the tests are biased,” the Times reports. Thus, eliminating SATs and ACTs only hides rather than eliminates the racial gaps in education outcomes.
Fourth, some college admission officers found it easier to differentiate students with an objective and predictive measure such as an SAT or ACT score. MIT’s admissions dean told Leonhardt that without test scores, admissions officers either “have to guess which students were likely to do well at M.I.T. — and almost certainly guess wrong sometimes, rejecting qualified applicants while admitting weaker ones. Or M.I.T. would need to reject more students from less advantaged high schools and admit more from the private schools and advantaged public schools that have a strong record of producing well-qualified students,” which likely results in a less diverse student body.
MIT’s own study also “found that students who had been accepted despite lower test scores were more likely to struggle or drop out.” Unsurprisingly, MIT reinstated the SAT or ACT score requirement as part of its college admissions in 2022.
Times Finally Acknowledges the Data
The Times’ conclusion that the left’s “misguided” war on SATs has failed to make higher education more “equitable” and has done a disservice to students from disadvantaged backgrounds is not surprising. Many conservatives, including myself, warned about it several years ago. What is surprising is that the Times, after serving as Democrats’ mouthpiece for so long, would raise questions about one of their favorite causes.
The timing of this piece probably resulted from the ripple effect of the recent resignation of Harvard University’s former president, Claudine Gay. Gay was forced to resign due to her failure to condemn antisemitism on campus and the mounting evidence of her alleged plagiarism. Gay’s resignation signals that DEI (so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion), the ideology that has sacrificed meritocracy and worsened racial divisions on college campuses and other institutions, is beginning to crack. Therefore, some moderates on the left finally find it safer to disapprove of specific leftist causes without having to worry about being canceled.
Of course, America still has a long way to go to repair the damage caused by DEI. For instance, many college administrators told the Times that despite all the evidence and research, they are still reluctant to reinstate SAT or ACT scores, fearing “the political reaction on their campuses and in the media if they reinstated tests.” I’m also disappointed that the Times has failed to call out the real objective of eliminating SAT or ACT in college admissions, which is to discriminate against Asian students. Without standardized tests, college admission officers can focus on racial quotas and reject academically qualified Asian American applicants without leaving a paper trail.
Still, the news of several states’ bans on DEI bureaucracy in their state university systems, Gay’s resignation, and this Times piece on the SAT give me hope that DEI’s hold on our higher education is starting to crumble, and some positive changes are coming.