A recent headline in The Washington Post informs us that “a record number of colleges” are dropping their “SAT/ACT admissions requirement amid growing disenchantment with standardized tests.”
Or is it “growing disenchantment with standards of merit”? Is this what is at the bottom of American universities’ moves to jettison the SAT and ACT tests as a requirement for admissions?
To defend their move, schools cite research showing that “ACT and SAT scores are strongly linked to family income, mother’s education level and race.” Let’s break this sentence down: Children from wealthier families, the majority of whom are white, and who have in addition a college-graduate mother, are more likely to do well on the ACT and SAT. This disproportion, the test’s critics aver, is unjust. As a result, as many as 1,050 American colleges and universities—roughly 40 percent of the whole—have jettisoned the tests.
At the same time, the College Board and ACT Inc. argue that their tests are “predictive of college success.” Some research disagrees with their claim. But, in our age of fake news and fake academic studies, I—having spent three decades on college campuses as a student, professor, and administrator—have to go with my “lived experience,” as academics love to say these days, and attest that, the SAT and ACT, as well as the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), though doubtless not perfect measures, are better than most measures out there for predicting whether a student will succeed in college.
No longer, apparently. How, then, will applicants be ranked? Going forward, schools tell us, they will look at what they deem more reliable than the SAT and ACT tests: high school grades. There is nothing wrong, and much that is right, about looking at high school grades as predictors of collegiate success. But, to better predict such success, why not look at both high school grades and SAT/ACT scores? How does removing information about students make for better-informed evaluations of them? Even those whose research points to the superiority of high school GPA over the SAT/ACT simultaneously confess that “better marks on both measures predict a better chance of completion.” Our schools’ flight from common sense raises troubling questions about what exactly is going on and what the results of this move will be.
According to some studies, the consequences of this change will be to harm the very persons most in need of help getting into college—inner-city and minority students. No less harmed may be Asian-American students—whom a recent Wall Street Journal piece calls “the new Jews of Harvard admissions.”
To see this, consider the following: Last year, the Fordham Institute published American University professor Seth Gershenson’s study of grade inflation in American high schools, which demonstrates that grade inflation is real and rampant in high schools. These are the very high school grades that colleges now tell us should be relied on in place of the SAT/ACT. In fact, so ravaged by grade inflation are our high schools today, argues Gershenson, that “two-thirds of U.S. teenagers are ill-prepared for college when they leave high school.”
How did Gershenson discover this? Looking at North Carolina high-school data from 2005-2016, he found that “although many students get good grades, few earn top marks on the statewide end-of-course exams for those classes. Specifically, “Algebra I end-of-course exam scores predict math ACT scores much better than do class grades.”
Moreover, and directly relevant to our effort to discover the consequences of dropping the ACT/SAT, Gershenson found that “grade inflation was more severe in schools attended by affluent students than in those attended by lower-income pupils (emphasis mine). So, richer students—those who live in suburbs and are primarily white—are playing the academic game with Monopoly Money grades. How bad is grade inflation in high schools today? A 2017 study finds that the average high school GPA (grade point average) in 2016 was 3.38 (out of a possible 4). The study also found that the average high school GPA has risen steadily over the years. From this, Gershenson concludes, “Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to assume that an A truly represents excellence.” So it is.
But wait. We have been told that high school grades will be the new, better standard for determining college admissions. But how can this be, given widespread grade inflation? Discussing the parallel phenomenon of college grade inflation (45 percent of all college grades today are A’s; A’s have become in fact the most common grade given in college), I argued here that grade inflation devalues the currency of education—transcripts—in the same manner and through the same dynamic as monetary inflation devalues the dollar.
Stated simply, Gershenson’s finding that affluent students are the biggest recipients of priming the grading pump likely owes to the fact that, unlike many inner-city and minority students, affluent students believe that they are college-bound; thus they (and their helicopter parents) lobby schools harder for the grades they need to get into the college they choose.
So, the unfortunate result of dumping the SAT/ACT is not all that hard to predict: Primarily white, suburban, and affluent kids will get an even greater upper-hand in college admissions over poorer, inner-city, minority kids than they might already enjoy.
These schools are replacing one metric (SAT/ACT) that richer whites do well on with a different metric (high school grades) that richer whites do well on.
This is “progress”?
And how will dropping the tests affect Asian-Americans, the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S.? History may provide the answer. Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel’s book, The Chosen, a study of admissions policies over the past century at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, demonstrates, as one reviewer summarizes it:
“During the 1920s, the established Northeastern Anglo-Saxon elites who then dominated the Ivy League wished to sharply curtail the rapidly growing numbers of Jewish students, but their initial attempts to impose simple numerical quotas provoked enormous controversy and faculty opposition.10 Therefore, the approach subsequently taken . . . was to transform the admissions process from a simple objective test of academic merit into a complex and holistic consideration . . . the resulting opacity permitted the admission or rejection of any given applicant, allowing the ethnicity of the student body to be shaped as desired. As a consequence, university leaders could honestly deny the existence of any racial or religious quotas, while still managing to reduce Jewish enrollment to a much lower level. . . .”
Why, then, does The Wall Street Journal label today’s Asian-Americans “the new Jews of Harvard admissions”? Two reasons. First, a group of Asian-American students recently filed suit against Harvard, arguing that they are being discriminated against through the use of de facto quotas on the number of Asian-Americans admitted. Some observers opine that the suit “could end affirmative action as we know it.”
Second, the parallel between the situation of today’s Asian-Americans and the last century’s Jews is frighteningly perfect and therefore perfectly frightening. Citing the Wall Street Journal piece, “Asians have some of the highest academic credentials but the lowest acceptance rates at the nation’s top schools.” A 2009 study that found that “Asian-Americans have the lowest acceptance rate for each SAT test score bracket, having to score on average approximately 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a black student on the SAT to be on equal footing.”
This, apparently, is what “holistic admissions” means—with “holistic” serving as an academic black box as opaque as a Facebook algorithm. So, the death of the SAT/ACT promises to make it all that much harder for deserving students to seek redress from double-dealing schools.
In sum, by taking away the SAT and the ACT, schools simultaneously take away the Asian-American group’s lawsuit against Harvard.
Or will it? There may be room for doubt. If high school grades are now deemed the sine qua non of admissions criteria, how do Asian-Americans fare on these? As with the SAT/ACT, they stand at the top. A recent study broke down high-school GPA by ethnicity. Here it is:
If colleges remain true to their new criterion, it appears that what they apparently deem the “pesky excellence” of many Asian-American students will have to be rewarded.
But for this to happen, colleges will have to remain true to their new criterion. Will they? Given the opacity of “holistic standards,” how will we ever know?
All of which leads some to wonder whether precisely such a lack of transparency is the real goal of this admissions “innovation.”