The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases on April 1. In these cases, the white complainants argue that it is fundamentally unfair that Michigan accepts black applicants with lower SAT scores (or LSAT scores at the law school) than some whites who are rejected. But a new analysis of the SAT that I conducted reveals something startling: Every single question carefully preselected to appear on the test favors whites over blacks. These data have the potential to reframe the affirmative-action debate, especially if they spark advocates to ask the iconoclastic question, What's wrong with admitting some black students with lower SAT scores, when every question favors whites?
On the October 1998 SAT, for example, e very single one of the 138 questions (sixty math and seventy-eight verbal) favored whites over blacks. By favoring whites, I mean that a higher percentage of white than black students answered correctly every question prescreened and chosen to appear on that SAT. I call these "white preference questions." This is not a quirk of one particular SAT form. SAT forms are designed to very strongly correlate with one another. And the pattern I've identified is a predictable result of the way the tests are constructed. Latino test-takers are similarly affected, faring only a bit better than blacks.
I don't believe that ETS--the Educational Testing Service, the developer of the SAT and the source of this October 1998 test data--intended for the SAT to be a white preference test. However, the "scientific" test construction methods the company uses inexorably lead to this result. Each individual SAT question ETS chooses is required to parallel the outcomes of the test overall. So, if high-scoring test-takers--who are more likely to be white--tend to answer the question correctly in pretesting, it's a worthy SAT question; if not, it's thrown out. Race and ethnicity are not considered explicitly, but racially disparate scores drive question selection, which in turn reproduces racially disparate test results in an internally reinforcing cycle.
Here's a verbal question that illustrates the SAT's skewed test construction process:
The actor's bearing on stage seemed _____; her movements were natural and her technique _____ .
(A) unremitting ... blase
(B) fluid ... tentative
(C) unstudied ... uncontrived (correct answer)
(D) eclectic ... uniform
(E) grandiose ... controlled …