Posted on September 8, 2004

On SATs, Many Students Avoid Race Question

Jon Fortt, Mercury News, Sep. 6

Steven Honda’s mother is Latino, and his father is Asian. So when it came to stating his race on the SAT form, he saw only one choice: “Other.”

In California, a quarter of Honda’s peers in the high school class of 2004 ducked the race question, either by checking “Other” or by refusing to answer it at all.

In the long term, that threatens to play havoc with statistics at the College Board, the test’s owner.

The missing answers muddy a trusted measure of which student groups aspire to college, a key gauge of the progress of black and Latino students. When so many won’t pick a race on the form, how can one accurately measure any group’s progress?

It’s an important problem for the College Board to solve. As a gatekeeper for higher education, it has for decades tracked factors such as family income, race and home city size along with SAT scores. The company occasionally changes the test based on this data, in a constant campaign to improve a test that many colleges still use when making admissions decisions, but which critics say remains biased in favor of privileged white students.

In the 2004 numbers released by the College Board last week, more students who identified themselves as black or Latino took the SAT I test, and the average score for both groups went up. College Board officials say that despite the high number of students who didn’t identify themselves by race, they feel the race numbers are mostly accurate. More students who identified themselves as black or Latino also took the company’s Advanced Placement tests in 2004.

For California students who identified themselves as Mexican or Mexican-American, the average score rose seven points to 894. For students who identified themselves as African-American or black, the average rose three points to 866.

The caveat, of course, is that pesky, unidentified 26 percent. College Board officials suspect the unidentified group is mostly a combination of multiracial, white and Asian students who don’t like the categories.

But the test-maker isn’t sure.

“How do we know? We don’t know,” said Jim Montoya, vice president for regions at the College Board, who works out of the San Jose office. Montoya is one of the main advocates for changing the race categories in the SAT form, but he said that considering the AP testing trends, he feels today’s trend numbers are mostly accurate.

Demographics shift

“One of the questions that we have asked is, ‘How do we deal with what is clearly a more complicated situation with regards to ethnicity and culture in America?’ “ Montoya said. “When we look at California and we look at the demographics of California, we’re looking at the demographics of the United States in the year 2050.”

Cultural shifts in places like Silicon Valley have forced the debate about SAT racial categories. In Nebraska, where 90 percent of the population is white, all but 13 percent of test-takers identify themselves by race. That has convinced some observers that the California numbers can’t entirely be explained by white students who do not want to be identified by diversity-conscious schools. Some students must skip the question because they don’t see themselves reflected in the options.

“There are many more biracial kids, and this generation is very much about self-identification and individuality,” said Latanya Johnson, a former admissions officer at Santa Clara University who is now admissions director at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose. “There’s a lot of, ‘I don’t want to put myself in one category.’ “

But changing to fit California’s diversity is a thorny issue for the College Board, which issued the SAT I to 1.4 million of this year’s graduating seniors nationwide. Should the category for Asian students be split into more detailed groups such as Indian and Filipino, since those students sometimes don’t identify as simply “Asian”?

Should there be a multiracial option? Or should students be allowed to pick more than one race?

And just as important, after all that is added to the form, will Nebraska collectively faint?

“The difficulty is not so much devising additional categories, it’s where do you stop?” said Brian O’Reilly, executive director of SAT Information Services. “I’m not sure whether there is an easy way to divide the categories up and have it be a meaningful form in Nebraska and Montana, and still have the delineation that would make it meaningful in California.”

Three out of four U.S. students register for the SAT online these days, and overall, 20 percent of test-takers skip the non-required race question. The College Board, which likes to track the demographics of test-takers, has redesigned the online form so that it forces students to provide an answer, even if that answer is “No, thank you.” Since the change, more students have identified themselves by category.

In California, though, the unidentified number remains uncommonly high.

Seeking specifics

Some California students are clearly flummoxed by the race question. At San Jose State University, some students said they would answer it in detail, given the right options. Cyriac Mathew said he and his South Asian friends have no trouble checking “Asian,” though more specific options would be nice. Kunwardip Mooker feels differently.

“If it particularly said Asian Indian, I would pick Asian Indian,” said Mooker, a 20-year-old junior. Instead, he checks “Other.”

Ian Livengood, a white student who attends City College of San Francisco, often declines to answer the race question. Livengood, who was visiting San Jose State’s campus to collect signatures for an environmental group, saw value in tracking the progress of minorities. But “I don’t think it’s important for me” to be tracked, Livengood said. “The color of my skin means nothing to me.”