Posted on March 18, 2022

Making the SAT and ACT Optional Is the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

John McWhorter, New York Times, March 15, 2022


There is much rumbling about the likelihood that the Supreme Court will deal a coup de grâce to racial preferences in university admissions when it takes up two cases, probably in its next term, challenging affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To some, this suggests an impending crisis — writing for The Nation in 2019, Mark Huelsman assessed the potential impact of the U.N.C. case thusly: “If the goal is to resegregate higher education, the efforts have largely worked.” Last year, The Atlantic’s Adam Harris wrote that the end of affirmative action would mean that “the United States will have to face the reality that its system of higher education is, and always has been, separate and unequal.”

But I find myself thinking about other things, including how we’ve allowed ourselves to all but give up on the idea that many Black and Latino students, as well as Pacific Islander and Native American students, can compete.


I think of this kind of thing in reference to altering standards of evaluation so that Black and Latino students are represented proportionally in various institutions. These days, one is to think of this sort of thing as “equity.” The idea seems to be that until there is something much closer to equality — as in equal access to resources — throughout society, we must force at least the superficial justice of equity in sheer percentages.

But too often, the message being communicated to Black and Latino people is that our presence is what matters, not our performance. I am uncomfortable, for example, with the domino-effect elimination of standardized testing requirements in university admissions policies across the country.

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, around 1,800 colleges and universities will not require high school graduates “applying to start classes in fall 2022 to submit ACT/SAT results,” with a list that includes not only U.N.C. and Harvard, but also prestigious public and private institutions including the University of California, the University of Texas, Yale University and Princeton University. Many of the schools cite the pandemic as the reason for making standardized testing optional, but I don’t buy it. I’ve been in academia long enough, and have experienced the decades-long debate over racial preferences long enough, to suspect that this is cover for a policy change that some schools wanted to make anyway.

Questions about how predictive the tests are of student performance are welcome, and it’s certainly true that some students with high scores struggle in college while some with low scores thrive. But those questions don’t conclusively refute the utility of the tests as a tool for evaluating which students are ready to succeed in college. And one of the motivations for eliminating these tests or making admissions “test-optional” (as some colleges now say, as if students are eager to sit for optional exams) is to allow more Black and Latino students to be admitted.

This impulse is based on an assumption that because Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native kids, on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, don’t perform as well on these tests as their white and Asian peers, the tests must be, in some way, racially biased. {snip}


I would prefer that we address the value of the tests second, after first showing that these minority students — including those middle-class and affluent kids who don’t lack resources — can take standardized tests and do just as well, in the aggregate, as white and Asian American students. To me, as a Black American (and, I assume, to many Latino or Hispanic Americans as well) this is Black, or brown, pride.