SAT’s Racial Impact

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, October 27, 2015

Large and growing gaps in SAT scores, by race and ethnicity, are nothing new. The College Board and educators alike have acknowledged these gaps and offered a variety of explanations, with a focus on the gaps in family income (on average) and the resources at high schools that many minority students attend. And indeed there is also a consistent pattern year after year on SAT scores in that the higher the family income, on average, the higher the scores.

But a new, long-term analysis of SAT scores has found that, among applicants to the University of California’s campuses, race and ethnicity have become stronger predictors of SAT scores than family income and parental education levels.

Further, the study has found that all three factors–race/ethnicity, family income and parental education levels–now predict one-third of the variance in SAT scores among otherwise similar students, up from a quarter in 1994. In other words, a larger share of SAT variance today than in 1994 may be predicted based on where and to whom a child is born.

The research was done by Saul Geiser and was released by the research center where he works, the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Geiser is quick in the paper to acknowledge that his study is only of the applicant pool for the University of California and that he has not done research on the extent to which these trends play out nationally. However, his study was based on a very large pool: the more than 1.1 million California residents who applied to UC campuses from 1994 through 2011. And his study is based on the current and previous SAT, not the new one about to be unveiled.

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Geiser considers several possible explanations for the increasing impact of race and other socioeconomic factors in predicting SAT scores. One that he takes seriously is the possibility that links growing rates of “intense segregation” in high schools, with more minority students attending high schools that are overwhelmingly minority and poorly resourced. For instance, the percentage of what researchers call “apartheid” schools–those where 99-100 percent of students are nonwhite–has doubled in the last two decades, and now represents one in 14 high schools. So the impact of race and class are, in many cases, combined for the minority students attending those schools.

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The solution, for Geiser, is to go back to what the University of California did when it adopted the SAT, but which the state’s voters have barred it from doing today: considering race in admissions. He writes that if public universities are going to consider SAT scores in a serious way, they should also consider race and ethnicity.

“The continuing dominance of standardized admissions tests in American higher education is one of the most powerful arguments for affirmative action. Much of the original impetus for race-conscious policies grew out of recognition of the severe adverse impact of SAT scores on admission of students of color. Since then, that impact has not only continued but worsened, if the California data are any indication,” writes Geiser.

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