The Bias Question

In a surprising challenge to the SAT's reputation as an unbiased measure of student learning, one researcher has argued that blacks do better than matched-ability whites on the harder questions of the SAT—something he believes their scores should reflect

At about the same time, civil-rights activists, legislators, judges, and educators began using the term "affirmative action" to justify offering opportunities to minority members who otherwise would not have seemed qualified. In the 1960s and 1970s colleges and universities that had more applicants than spaces began to give preference to some minority students who had lower test scores than whites but whose high school grades and personal qualities suggested that they would benefit from a demanding academic environment.

This form of affirmative action was buttressed by the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The Court ruled 5-4 against the quota system used by the university's medical school, whereby sixteen places out of a hundred in each entering class were reserved for minority students. However, Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote in his opinion that race could be considered in admissions decisions.

Shortly thereafter the College Board set up a fairness-review process that subjected every potential SAT question to close examination for racial stereotypes, loaded words, inappropriate assumptions, or anything else that might put minority students at a disadvantage. Questions dealing with subjects beyond the experience of a typical inner-city student, such as yachting or debutante balls, were thrown out. The College Board, together with ETS, also produced studies showing that the SAT was doing its job and did not make minority academic skills look any worse than they were. The data demonstrated that the SAT predicted about as well as high school grades how a student would do in his or her first year of college. And since selective schools did not want to admit applicants who could not meet their standards, and since they had to have some defensible way to sort applicants whose relative academic merits were sometimes hard to quantify, the SAT—and the ACT—not only survived the occasional assaults on their methodology but continued to grow.

Inside ETS, in 1990, the senior scholar Winton Manning thought he had found a way of partly addressing the SAT's racial gap with his invention of the MAT, the Measure of Academic Talent. It was designed, in part, to give minority students a boost by identifying those whose SAT scores were higher than would be expected from their families' incomes and educational backgrounds. The idea died because of technical deficiencies and what Lemann described as fear among ETS executives about the commercial consequences of the corollary effect: adjusting downward the scores of affluent students who had not done as well as their backgrounds predicted. A group within ETS later proposed a version of the MAT called "Strivers," but this also received little support. In recent years the College Board has supported research, by the Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg and others, into alternative tests, of creative and practical skills. Sternberg said that his initial results produced smaller ethnic test-score gaps than the SAT, but he acknowledged that his test still needed years of work.

In the late 1990s SAT critics hailed the experiments of the Stanford psychologist Claude M. Steele, who had found a factor he called "stereotype threat" that seemed to explain lower scores by even successful black students. (See "Thin Ice: 'Stereotype Threat' and Black College Students," in the August 1999 Atlantic.) Steele tested black Stanford undergraduates, in some cases telling them that the results would be used to assess their verbal ability, and in other cases stressing that ability was not what was being tested. Scores were significantly lower when test takers thought their verbal ability—and therefore their intellectual ability—was being assessed. Steele argued that the students were reacting to the pressure of feeling they had to disprove negative stereotypes of African-Americans' intellectual ability, and that this at least partly explained the achievement gap.

The continuing debate over the worthiness of the SAT did have an effect on higher-education admissions policies. Some colleges, such as Muhlenberg, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Bowdoin, in Brunswick, Maine, began to market themselves as places where students did not need the SAT to apply. In the 1990s the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began to compile a list—now nearing the 400 mark—of schools that do not require either the SAT or the ACT, or require them only from applicants who do not meet other criteria. Most selective colleges, however, remained committed to the tests.

Standardized testing was recently scrutinized in a suit against the University of Michigan, whose undergraduate admissions process used a point system that awarded significant points for being a member of a minority group. In 1997 two applicants sought to overturn Michigan's system after being rejected despite having higher ACT scores than some minority students who were accepted. FairTest and other groups argued in amicus curiae briefs that any decision relying heavily on the ACT or the SAT as a valid admissions factor would be wrong. Indeed, according to the FairTest brief, which focused on the SAT, the test was not even a good predictor of first-year college grades; high school records, FairTest said, were a significantly more accurate gauge of college performance. (The College Board and ETS have maintained that either SAT scores or grades are better predictors than any alternatives, and recommended that colleges continue using them in combination.) Last summer the Supreme Court ruled that although diversity was a legitimate goal, the point system was not an acceptable means of achieving it. Under this ruling schools may still use affirmative action, as long as the admissions process evaluates each applicant individually and not by a point formula. In practical terms this means that the college-admissions process, at least as it relates to affirmative action, can go on much as it has for the past forty years or so: selective colleges will continue to accept minority students with test scores below those of some rejected white applicants in order to maintain campus diversity, but most will also continue to use the SAT and the ACT, despite their imperfections, to help in evaluating applicants.

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