Posted on August 12, 2020

The University of California and the SAT: Speaking the Truth?

Andrew R. A. Conway, Psychology Today, August 9, 2020

Part 1: The Decision

In 2019, 3.7 million students graduated from high school in the United States. Approximately 60 percent of them, over 2.2 million high school students, took the SAT (National Center for Education Statistics). By comparison, in 1926, the first year the SAT was administered, only 8,000 students took the test.

Of course, a lot more than numbers has changed over the years. The current version of the SAT bears little resemblance to the original test. In fact, everything about it is different: the number of sections, the content of sections, the items, the scoring. The name itself has changed four times. Initially “The Scholastic Aptitude Test,” it is now simply “The SAT.” Every year, the test data are examined carefully and the test is revised accordingly. And over a century, the psychometrics developed and matured to formally study issues such as item selection, test construction, reliability, validity, and test bias. The current version of the SAT is informed by that work, nearly a century of scientific research.

In 1926, the SAT was developed by The College Board, and the project was spearheaded by Carl Bingham, a Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. Bingham was also on the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, and his early work influenced the eugenics movement and anti-immigration legislation in the United States. Likewise, it is well known that the SAT, and the field of intelligence in general, has a legacy of racism. For decades, the SAT was biased against racial/ethnic minority groups, especially African-Americans.

Again, a lot has changed over the decades. Every year, SAT items and data are scrutinized for any forms of cultural bias, the test is revised on the basis of that work, and more research is conducted to improve the test further. Very few tests receive this type of close and long-term attention, and overall, this iteration process is how science works. It is cumulative. The SAT is now administered by The College Board and the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which is the largest private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization in the world. ETS develops various standardized tests for both secondary education and higher education. Thanks to research conducted by ETS and academic researchers, the SAT has vastly improved over the years. Large amounts of data and many studies concerning the current version of the SAT suggest the test is not biased, the scores are statistically reliable, and they meaningfully predict college performance outcomes (Frey, 2019; Kuncel & Hezlett, 2010).

Despite this evidence, in 2018, a lawsuit was filed against the University of California, claiming that the SAT is biased against certain racial/ethnic minority groups and therefore the use of the SAT in college admissions is a form of discrimination. In response, the University of California assembled a special task force to investigate how the SAT is used to make admissions decisions at UC schools. The task force was asked to provide a recommendation as to whether the UC should continue to use the SAT or drop the SAT requirement for admission to the UC.

In February 2020, the task force submitted their report to the UC Administration and Board of Regents. It was also released to the public. I read the report in March and found it to be incredibly impressive. It is 225 pages and provides a comprehensive analysis of the SAT (18 years of data on thousands of UC students). The statistical analyses in the report show that the SAT is a statistically and practically significant predictor of college performance, a stronger predictor than high school GPA, and the SAT remains a significant predictor after adjusting for income and racial/ethnic group.

The empirical evidence clearly shows that the SAT is not biased, such that SAT scores are a valid predictor of college success regardless of your demographic background. In fact, the strength of the relationship between SAT scores and college performance appears to be getting stronger in recent years, whereas the strength of the relationship between high school GPA and college performance is getting weaker.


Based on these results (and more), the special task force recommended that the UC continue to use the SAT in the admissions process.

But then, on May 21, 2020, the University of California Regents released a statement. They announced their decision to drop the SAT requirement for all applicants to all UC schools. {snip}


Based on comments from UC administrators, the issue is clearly diversity, and the problem is under-representation. African-Americans comprise about 6 percent of California’s population between ages 18 and 24. By comparison, African-American students comprise only 2 percent of the UC student population. There has been little progress over the years. In 2010, the percentages were essentially the same (7 percent and 3 percent). The UC expressed concern that the SAT is not helping to solve the problem of under-representation. But does the SAT (and ACT) actually contribute to the problem?


John Perez, Board of Regents Chairman: “I believe this test is a racist test, there’s no two ways about it.”

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Chair of the Academic Senate: “The main reason we are looking at SATs is because they are racist.” She added, “No one disputes that.”

No one disputes that? The UC task force itself wrote: “Our review of the existing literature suggests that racial bias in the SAT, at least the version of the SAT in place in 1999, is, at most, a minimal problem.”


Now, it is possible that university officials think “the test is racist” because certain racial/ethnic groups, on average, score lower than other groups on the SAT. This is true. For example, on average, African American students score approximately 100 points lower than white students on both the verbal test and the math test (roughly, 430 vs. 530 on math, and 420 vs. 520 on verbal). For both tests, the standard deviation is approximately 100, so the difference between groups is substantial (data source: College Board).

However, similar group differences tend to be found in UC’s grade point average (GPA). Does this mean that UC schools and/or the UC faculty are racist? This logic would imply that any measure that shows a group difference is racist.{snip}


Judging by the task force report, the change in the UC admissions process will have very little impact on the problem of under-representation; in fact, the admissions process could become less fair because at least for now, an objective metric has been removed. The UC turned the narrative of conflict between diversity and meritocracy into our reality.


The available evidence suggests that the SAT itself is not racist; American society is racist. And so the UC decision to drop the SAT may do little to nothing to help minority students in California.