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Affirmative Action and the SAT

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In the wake of recent challenges to campus affirmative action policies have come new criticisms of the college-admissions tests.

College-admissions tests are once again in the news. In the wake of recent challenges to campus affirmative action policies have come new criticisms of the tests. Where race and ethnicity have been outlawed as factors that can be considered in admissions, many educators and citizens have become alarmed at the specter of dwindling minority enrollments. Understandably, this has prompted a search for quick solutions, and in the case of the University of California, it has led to a call for the elimination of tests such as the SAT as admissions requirements.

While I too am deeply concerned about the impact of abolishing affirmative action policies in college admissions, I do not agree with those who want to throw out admissions tests. My reasons spring from my experience as a chancellor of a state university, as a professor of psychology, and as the chairman of the trustees of the College Board, the association of schools and colleges that sponsors the SAT.

The principal concern of the College Board is the student transition from high school to college, especially access to college. Throughout our history, the "main arrow in our quiver" has been the SAT--a test designed to predict college performance and to provide a means for admissions people to compare prospective students who have the same grades, but who come from widely varying high schools in different parts of the country. The development of the SAT was public-spirited; the intent was to increase access to first-rate higher education. The SAT gives students from less affluent high schools a chance they might otherwise not have.

Lately, newspaper reporters and columnists have dwelt, even obsessed, about the "exclusivity" of the SAT. By this they seem to mean it keeps their children out of Harvard or it is "biased" against minorities. Others dwell on the style of the questions (multiple-choice vs. essay), confusing the style of question with what is being assessed.

I'd like to help bring some sense and factual information to this debate.

Let's take the issue of essay vs. multiple-choice questions. Whether a question is thought- ful and analytical or merely superficial is independent of whether it's a multiple-choice question or an essay question. Psychologists first became interested in multiple-choice questions because they are more objective and more reliable to grade and to score. Essays, whether on a predictive test or on homework, are difficult to grade and tend to be unreliable. (Recent work increasing the reliability of essay tests has thus far been prohibitively expensive.) With essay questions, people don't necessarily agree on what the right answer is and who gave it. To the degree that that is true, the test is unreliable. If a test is unreliable, it can't be used validly to predict anything else.

The trouble isn't in the tests. The trouble is with teaching and learning.

It has been shown that multiple-choice tests not only better predict grades on freshman-English essay exams, but that they also better predict English teachers' ratings of students' writing ability.

The trouble isn't in the tests. The trouble is with teaching and learning. You can assess almost anything with multiple-choice tests that you can with essays. We shouldn't confuse the failure of the educational system with the assessment instrument.

Another item much in the news is the recommendation of a University of California committee that the university not use the sat (or any other admissions test) anymore. The reason? Hispanics score too low. The University of California system is designed to guarantee admission of the top 12 percent of California high school graduates to at least one of the system's eight campuses. But, whereas 12.3 percent of California high school graduates overall are "eligible" for the state university, only 4 percent of Hispanic graduates are. The committee reasoned that more Hispanics would be admitted if their sat scores were unknown.

Let me acknowledge first that this is an extremely complicated area for which there are no simple answers. I've played the lead role in tripling the minority enrollment in two different major universities, while at the same time equating the graduation rates of minorities and the majority students. I do have some sense of how difficult these solutions can be.

Let me focus, for a moment, on the very narrow issue of the role of SATs in all of this. First, if the University of California ignores SATs in admissions, the failure rate of Hispanic students will increase. It has to happen. Statistically, if you ignore any independent predictor of success, the failure rate must increase.

Suppose that a college basketball coach suddenly decided to ignore height when handing out athletic scholarships. His or her failure rate would definitely increase. Height in basketball is a reliable but imperfect predictor of success. It isn't equally good for everybody. But when you ignore it, the failure rate--on average--will increase.

Second, the fact that the average SAT score for certain groups is less than the majority score does not, by itself, mean that a test is biased. For a test to be biased, it would have to underpredict success. That is, the students would have to be more successful than the score would otherwise indicate. But that doesn't happen. The SAT does not underpredict the college success of minority students. A minority student with score X on the SAT is no more, and no less, likely to have a certain college grade point average than any other student with the same score.

To focus on the SAT in these discussions results only in hiding the national problem—and delaying its solution.

One thing that does affect the SAT scores of everyone, including minorities, is the coursework they have had. The larger the number and the higher the level of college-preparatory courses a high school student has had, the better they do on the SAT--and in college.

It should not surprise us that the more and better college-prep work a student has had, the better they do in college. Why should it then surprise us that more and better college-prep work leads one to do better on the SAT as well?

The national problem is not differences on the SAT for minorities. The national problem is the quality and extent of high school preparation of minorities for college. To focus on the SAT in these discussions results only in hiding the national problem--and delaying its solution.

Diversity is critical for the quality of higher education and not just for minorities. It is critical for everyone in a nation of increasingly global investments, and increasing diversification of the population. California's Proposition 209 and the Hopwood case in Texas challenge us all to find alternative solutions to enhance diversity. In the meantime, it is short-sighted to ignore the SAT in predicting college success. The alternative would only increase the failure rate of certain minorities. Access without success is a hollow victory.

We don't know all of the answers, but the public discussion of issues of diversity in higher education must be a knowledgeable one.

Consider the following:

  • The SAT predicts college success about as well for minority groups as it does for the total group. In that sense, it is not biased against certain minority groups.
  • A major variable is the level and number of college-prep core courses that a student has access to. The more college-prep courses (and the higher their level, such as honors courses), the better one does in college and on the SAT. The bias is in the lack of access to such courses for minorities in our K-12 system. That is the most important national problem in the transition from high school to college.
  • The SAT was not designed or meant to be used alone. It should be used in conjunction with other variables that also predict college success. For example, it is ludicrous to rank states on the basis of SAT scores when the percentages of high school seniors taking the test vary.
  • If we ignore the SAT or similar admissions tests, we will definitely see more failures in the college experience.
  • These issues are not a function of the style of testing. In particular, multiple-choice tests can be just as thoughtful and analytical as any other style of testing.
  • The SAT is designed to be, and is, inclusive. Its purpose is to increase access to the college experience. It is not intended to be an agent of exclusivity, as some allege.

The goals of diversity are laudable and critical to the future of our country. We simply must solve those problems. To cloud this important national discussion with inaccuracies about the SAT, an enormously useful predictor of success in college, does everyone a disservice.

Charles A. Kiesler is the Thomas P. Weil distinguished professor of health-service management at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and the director of its Center for Health Policy and Health Services Research. He is also the chairman of the College Board, located in New York City. This essay is adapted from remarks delivered at the board's National Forum in October.

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