Eliminating Standardized Tests in College Admissions : The New Affirmative Action?

By Zwick, Rebecca | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Eliminating Standardized Tests in College Admissions : The New Affirmative Action?


Zwick, Rebecca, Phi Delta Kappan


Although it is certainly possible to design a workable admissions policy that does not include standardized tests, it is not sound policy to eliminate admissions tests in the hope of indirectly furthering a social policy goal, Ms. Zwick maintains.

COLLEGE enrollment figures aren't ordinarily big news, but the 1998 freshman enrollment numbers for the University of California's most prestigious campuses were startling enough to warrant headlines. At the University of California, Berkeley, African American enrollment dropped by more than 60% from 1997 levels, and Latino enrollment dropped by nearly 50%. UCLA experienced dramatic decreases as well.1

Since the passage in 1996 of California's Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions decisions at public colleges and universities, University of California educators have feared just such a plunge in minority representation and have been considering ways to counteract it. In 1997 the university settled on an apparently simple solution: eliminate the SAT as a criterion for admissions. "We . . . have evidence that the SAT loses us 2,000 Latino students this year alone," said Eugene Garcia, dean of the School of Education at Berkeley in a 1997 interview.2

Although the university's enthusiasm for eliminating the SAT may have faded, admissions testing remains a source of controversy. A new document from the U.S. Department of Education, "Nondiscrimination in High-Stakes Testing" (still in draft form), advises that colleges may be in legal jeopardy if they rely too heavily on standardized test scores in making admissions or financial aid decisions. The president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, said in a March 1999 interview that he "would be prepared to forget the SAT" if the newly approved California high school exit examination proves to be a good test.3 And a bill that would deemphasize the role of standardized testing in admissions decisions (S.B. 145), introduced for the second time in January 1999, awaits action in the California senate. (An earlier version of the bill, introduced in 1998, passed both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by the outgoing governor, Pete Wilson.)

Meanwhile, Texas has been grappling with the effects of the Hopwood decision, which banned the use of race in admissions programs, and the state of Washington has been faced with the consequences of Initiative 200, a Prop 209 clone that was passed in 1998. These political developments have provoked a reconsideration of the role of tests in college admissions and have focused serious attention on two questions: Are standardized admissions tests biased against minorities, as is often argued? Would eradicating these tests produce a more ethnically diverse freshman class?

The Question of Bias

Differences between racial and ethnic groups in their performance on standardized tests & including the SAT (from the Educational Testing Service) and its competition, the ACT (from ACT, Inc.) & have been analyzed extensively both in academic journals and in the popular press. Researchers, social theorists, and politicians have offered an array of reasons for these score differences, ranging from socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, and genetic factors to test bias. A recent inflammatory contribution to this literature was The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which was published in 1994 and encouraged consideration of genetic explanations for group differences in test scores.4 But the controversy has not been limited to the reasons for the differences in performance. Even the matter of determining which groups are advantaged by standardized tests is less straightforward than it first appears.

In the popular press, the existence of bias in admissions tests is typically assumed to be demonstrated by the persistent pattern of differences between racial groups in average test scores.

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Eliminating Standardized Tests in College Admissions : The New Affirmative Action?
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