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

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.

Freedle's attack on the SAT came at a time when ETS and the College Board thought the scholarly debate over the fairness of the test had been settled. The gap between blacks' and whites' performance on the SAT was clear. The blame, they thought, should be placed not on the test but on differences in family income and culture—and on K-12 school policies infected by lingering racism. Many middle-class black and Hispanic families were new to affluence and higher education, and on average, some researchers argued, were not quite as middle-class as their white neighbors. That meant that their children were still at a disadvantage in an academic setting, and only more time and better schooling would close the gap. Furthermore, high schools appeared to be putting minority students in less challenging classes out of a misplaced concern, fed by old stereotypes, that the students would not be able to handle the demands of honors and Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.

"It is not bias in the tests," Wayne Camara, the vice-president of research and development for the College Board, said in an interview with me this spring. "It is the differences in the opportunities the students have to get a quality education, the kinds of support they have in school and in the community and in the home." The College Board's president, Gaston Caperton, agrees. "If this is a bad test, I wouldn't have taken this job. Wayne wouldn't have come to work here. No college president would have used these tests, which they have for years and years, if it were a bad test. None of us would be part of it."

Freedle more or less accepted the view that the SAT was a useful measuring tool, but he believed the test had a flaw that could be corrected. He first became interested in the SAT for the same reason many people do. He saw himself as one of those whose lives were changed by higher education. His father was a tool-and-die maker. His mother was a waitress. He grew up in the Chicago area and majored in psychology and biology at Roosevelt University while working in the mailrooms of Marshall Field's and the Universal Atlas Cement Company. At Columbia, where he earned his doctorate in experimental psychology in 1964, he supported himself with typing jobs and work in the architecture-department office. He was the first person in his family to go to college, much less graduate school.

At Columbia he became interested in how the structure of language in passages heard or read influenced thought and perception. He worked briefly at a Washington research firm after getting his doctorate. Then, in 1967, the eminent cognitive psychologist John B. Carroll lured him to ETS. Freedle enjoyed years of pure research on short-term memory, but when grants for such work became hard to get, he was happy to try his hand at more-practical projects.

He began to analyze questions on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, an exam for students from abroad who want to qualify for places at American universities. He found that by analyzing various linguistic aspects of the questions—word order, word placement, interrogative style—he could predict which ones test takers in Seoul or Shanghai or Sarajevo would find easy and which would make them chew their pencils and look at the clock.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In