Killing The SAT Means Hurting Minorities

The evidence is clear. But the woke refuse to accept it.


Behind the Covid19 news, outside the 1619 wars, far more important than Dr Seuss, and much more far-reaching than dismantling the classics, a real line is being crossed in American education, and therefore American society as a whole. It’s the accelerating abandonment of standardized tests, the one objective measurement of students’ ability and potential in our society and culture: 77 percent of high school seniors sent in SAT scores in 2019-20; only 44 percent this year; and many schools want to keep it that way. What was initially a temporary suspension of tests because of Covid has become an opportunity to tear down the entire system.

The rationale for the SAT abolition movement is — surprise! — critical theory, which insists that any measurement that results in different outcomes among ethnic or racial groups is a priori racist. (Except for all cases when non-whites and non-Asians do better than whites or Asians, in which case, never mind.) In the words this week of Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York: “Standardized testing is a pillar of systemic racism.”

His argument is pure Kendi: the results are solely and exclusively what determines if a test is racist. Not the test itself; not evidence about its fairness or otherwise; not data about how it is constructed; not studies that examine its effects alongside every other way of measuring academic potential. Just the results. 

There is no countering this argument because it is not an argument. It is a threat. All it tells us is that the power of the term “white supremacist” will be ruthlessly deployed to shut down anyone who dares to argue that the SAT is, in fact, the least culturally biased of all measurements, the one thing wealthy kids cannot buy, and the most helpful tool in discovering the potential of poor, first-generation immigrant, black and Hispanic children, and rescuing them from the restrictions of class as well as race. 

So let’s assume we are not debating critical theorists, but leftists and liberals who are open to data, analysis, evidence and argument.

Some popular myths need to be abandoned. Most of us have taken such tests and tend to generalize from our own anecdotage. But the data tell a clear and enduring story. Standardized tests work in predicting academic and life success — better than any other measure we have. They measure something real and uncontroversial among cognitive psychologists and psychometricians. They don’t measure moral worth. They are just predictive tools for economic success in the West — no more and no less.

Vast amounts of data show these tests are “better predictors of freshman grades than high school grades”; and cut through “all income levels, ethnic groups, across both first-generation and non-first-generation students, and across all campuses and majors.” If we are to have any idea how kids are doing, how our education system is doing — these are critical measurements to have. Everything else is subjective. 

Are they biased? They sure have been. And like some other originally progressive policies, they were also bound up in the early part of the last century with the eugenics movement. That has understandably and rightly tarred them. But over the following century, the tests have been reformulated and revised constantly, assessing “item selection, test construction, reliability, validity, and test bias.”

The tests are now better and less biased than they have ever been (and the tests themselves were never “eugenicist”; it’s the way they were once used that was). Yes, students who get intensive test-training can do marginally better, and this benefits those who can afford the tests, and who have the time to prep for them. But the prep companies routinely exaggerate their results: most studies have concluded that gains are “more on the order of 5 to 20 points.” Worth taking into account at the margins — but not really significant.  

A key moment in this debate came last year after the influential and massive California higher education system commissioned a deep, scholarly report on the SATs, conducted by their own academics over eighteen months. What the exhaustive study found was that the SAT remains the best measurement available to find capable students who are black, poor, or first-generation immigrant.

Kids who would be otherwise lost in poverty or broken families or terrible schools are uniquely discovered by this test: a full 47 percent of the students admitted because of their SAT scores “were low-income or first generation students. These students would not have been guaranteed admission on the basis of their grades alone.” To repeat: almost half of the SAT places were from minority or poor kids, who would otherwise have been hidden from view. Why on earth would you surrender that tool?

The experts wrote: “Test scores are predictive for all demographic groups and disciplines, even after controlling for high school grades. In fact, test scores are better predictors of success for students who are Underrepresented Minority students, who are first-generation, or whose families are low-income.” My italics.

There’s a reason why white Hollywood celebs cheat the system. It’s the only way their less gifted kids can win out over the disadvantaged. Want to maximize privilege? Make admissions dependent solely on teacher recommendations, school grades, and personal essays. Want to minimize it? Abolish legacy admissions, and use the SAT.

Do SAT scores show lingering racial differences? Yes, they do. Big ones — statistically, one standard deviation between whites and blacks. But are they biased against non-whites? From the UC report: “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.” In fact, the evidence shows that:

[T]he SAT predicts grades for black students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) better than for white students at majority-white colleges. Those who label the SAT white supremacist should inform Howard University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College — all prestigious HBCUs that require SAT or ACT scores.

The most striking rebuttal of the argument that these tests are designed for white people, of course, is the success of Asian-Americans, including the very poor and newly arrived. As this group has surged — a fantastic success story for immigration in America — the defenders of the status quo have done what they can to stop it.

At Harvard, to take the most egregious example, history is repeating itself. When immigrant Jews began to surge in college admissions in the early twentieth century, WASPs initiated quotas to keep the numbers low. When Asian-Americans replicated this a century later, they did exactly the same thing.

But why the racial differences? Here’s what the UC report blames: “systemic racial and class inequalities that precede admission: lower high school graduation rates for Under-Represented Minorities, lower rates of completion of the A-G courses required by UC and CSU, and lower application rates. The most significant contributor was … a result of failure to complete all required A-G courses with a C or better.”

In other words, the differences begin much earlier than college, and are hard to fix thereafter. If you want to increase black and Latino representation in higher education, tackle the real problems, not the fake ones. Insist on higher standards from the very beginning in our failing schools; find ways to strengthen the stable nuclear family among blacks and Latinos, which is by far the most significant advantage Asian-American kids have; challenge the street culture that tells minority kids that reading and studying is “acting white”; make the SAT mandatory for everyone, make it easier to take, and make it free:

Michigan began requiring public school juniors to take the ACT in 2007, and the share of high school graduates taking a college entrance exam rose immediately to nearly 99 percent from 54 percent. That growth was even sharper among low-income students; only 35 percent had been taking the test.

Instead, many on the left want to get rid of the SAT altogether. They insist, against all the evidence, that the nuclear family is irrelevant to success. They are telling black and minority kids that things like perfectionism, hard work, and turning up on time are just “white supremacy culture,” and standards are racist. They are setting up black kids for failure, while telling them that failure is actually success, and then discriminating against Asian kids to cover up for the racial imbalance these policies create.

Standardized testing has always been a progressive idea. It disrupts class and race, unseats entrenched privilege, and offers the poor and the marginalized their best chance of social mobility. And it seems to me deeply depressing that progressives would rather posture about “white supremacy” than do anything to actually help minorities progress in childhood, without condescending, neo-racist discrimination in their favor, long after the die has been cast. 


New On The Dishcast: Glenn Greenwald

The indefatigable Greenwald needs no introduction for Dishheads. He was once a demon for the pro-war right; and now for the woke left.

You can now pre-order his book on Brazil under Bolsonaro, Securing Democracy, and you can donate to the animal shelter he started.

To listen to three excerpts from my conversation with Glenn — on the dangers of living as a gay public figure in Bolsonaro’s Brazil; on Trump’s success when it came to foreign policy; and on the ways in which elite journalists punch down with wokeness — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.

That link also takes you to a bunch of fascinating reader commentary on the transgender episode with Mara Keisling. For example: Mara brought up pool-playing as a sport where the differences between men and women are moot. Not according to one reader who brings the goods, as few experts could.


The Post-Modern Barbarism Of Bush And Cheney

If you haven’t seen the new movie, The Mauritanian, I recommend streaming it. It tells the story of a man, one Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was seized by the US in the war on terror in 2002, spent 14 years in brutal, dehumanizing captivity, was tortured beyond belief, and who was finally exonerated and freed from Gitmo in 2016. This late date is one thing worth noticing. It was clear that Salahi had been horribly tortured and that he was completely innocent by 2010, when a military tribunal dismissed his case, but the Obama administration kept an innocent man in Gitmo for six more years. 

Obama’s abdication of core American values should not be forgotten. Neither should the fact that a man like John Brennan, who is now on MSNBC saying he’s ashamed to be a white male, has never expressed the slightest shame for defending torturers and the torture program in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions, and US law. 

And it says a lot about the United States that those most responsible never faced any consequences for their unspeakable crimes against humanity; and those most involved in the sadism, like Gina Haspel who presided over a black site reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, and then physically destroyed the evidence, was subsequently promoted. Haspel even became the head of the CIA under Trump — which was a huge fuck-you to the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law. But Biden is not that different. He promoted Avril Haines to be Director of National Intelligence, even though she refused to discipline rogue CIA staff who had hacked the computers of staffers working on the Senate Report on Torture, and then redacted the report from 6,700 pages to 525.

But the Salahi case reveals something even darker. The Bush-Cheney administration knew they didn’t have a case against this man, because all the lawful interrogation pointed to his innocence with respect to 9/11. They had no credible evidence. But rather than admit this error, they decided to torture the man into submission.

After stripping him naked, sexually molesting him, freezing him to near-death, threatening to gang-rape his mother, forcing him into excruciating stress positions, keeping him in the literal dark for weeks on end, and waterboarding him, they managed to turn him in the end into a husk of a human being, willing to confess anything they asked. They then used that tortured confession to keep him in custody and to use the death penalty against him. 

This was not an act of torture conducted in a “ticking time bomb” scenario. It began in August 2002, long after the initial terror. It was not an act of torture designed to procure information that could be critical to national security. They knew by then that Salahi had nothing more to give. It was an act of torture, conducted to create evidence to justify the torture. This is a near-universal phenomenon once torture is embedded in a system. Pretty soon, you are not searching for the truth; you are creating it. And the crime is so great you cannot admit that what you’re doing is not just wrong, but evil.

People talk of a post-truth phase for the Republicans under Trump. And it is true that the GOP is now a deranged, delusional shell of a party, fueled by resentment and reduced to a conman cult. But it was Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld who really perfected this. They used torture to invent reality, as totalitarian regimes always do. They used it to create false evidence and to cover up their guilt. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” is what one of these monsters told the NYT at the time. And whenever I see Michelle Obama cuddling up to George W Bush, I think of all the human beings Bush broke, destroyed and murdered by his deployment of torture.

One shocking aspect of the movie — and of real life — is the extraordinary character of Salahi. Constantly smiling and joking, even in Gitmo, he is seen in the credits of the movie at home right now, listening and singing along to Bob Dylan. He learned English in Gitmo, befriended his captors, used his court statement to forgive his torturers, reflecting a Muslim spirituality that is both joyful and unassuming. 

And the inspiring part of this story are the two Americans who rescued him from the tortured oblivion Cheney so wanted. One was a military lawyer, and devout Christian, Colonel Stuart Couch, who, after reviewing the previously secret accounts of Salahi’s torture to the point of hallucination, refused to prosecute. “For me, that was just, enough is enough. I had seen enough, I had heard enough, I had read enough. I said: ‘That's it.’ ‘When I heard that, I knew I gotta get off the fence.’”

The other figure is the astonishing human rights lawyer, Nancy Hollander, who championed Salahi’s case and successfully defended him on the ancient Anglo-Saxon grounds of habeas corpus. In these two characters — from deepest red and deepest blue America — the movie finds some hope. Check it out. It brings the monstrousness of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld into clearer perspective. And it shows how Obama just didn’t have the strength or will to fight back.


The View From Your Window

Hollywood, California, 1.56 pm


Quotes For The Week

“I’m so sick of fucking Donald Trump, man. God, I’m fucking sick of him. … It’s the truth and I’m just going to say it. That I wish I never would have fucking met Trump,” - Alex Jones, in a just-unearthed clip from January 2019.

“Trump and right-wing media spreading misinformation is a problem. Having a single organ of truth deciding what is true and what is not, that everybody else would have to follow, that’s a problem far worse, frankly. That’s stepping from Trump’s world into Orwell’s world,” - Shahid Buttar, a civil liberties attorney.

“No matter what the context is, comparing women athletes to men, especially grown women to boys still in high school, is misogyny. Comparing trans women to men, or trans girls to boys, is transphobia,” - Dawn Ennis, managing editor of Outsports.


Dissents Of The Week: Two Sexes. Infinite Genders.

A reader writes:

I found your essay on gender expectations and your father to be perhaps the most personal and poignant of your writing on The Weekly Dish. And I have two dissents for your consideration:

1. Your intuition regarding “odd” bisexual relationships seems to contain an imbedded math error. The same statistics you cite re: population percentage of hetero/gay/lesbian/bisexuals dictate that we should, in fact, expect the vast majority of bisexuals to be in opposite-sex relationships. Think about it: while a bisexual may be equally attracted to either sex, a relationship requires both partners to be attracted to each other. Since the pool of opposite-sex heterosexuals is >10X higher than same-sex homosexuals + bisexuals, the pool of people who can return the attraction is massively skewed towards opposite-sex heterosexuals. Nothing odd about this at all — just probability math.

2. Trans folks have made massive gains in societal acceptance, and while perhaps there are a few small cliques where it’s seen as “cool” or “trendy”, as you put it, I think we are still very far from a point where a significant number of people would go to the effort of publicly identifying as trans unless it’s really core to who they are.

I live in perhaps the bluest neighborhood of the bluest city in the bluest state (Brookline, MA). I am relieved that my trans-daughter has had broad family acceptance and has never been subjected to physical violence. But this is still an extremely challenging path in ways we don’t even think of. Consider for example the simple act of going through airport security. My daughter typically gets “coded” as female by the scanner operator (not something I even knew existed as a cis-man; operators just assume based on visual cues and enter their assumption into the machine), then she is pulled out for invasive manual searching because the machine finds a mismatch with programmed gender. Just one of many examples of hurdles that remain for these people.

I take my reader’s first point. Hadn’t thought of it that way. As for the second, yes, I’m not suggesting in any way that genuinely trans people don’t still face big hurdles everywhere. What worries me is how the “LGBTQ+” formula lumps in many “nonbinary” and “queer” identities with actual trans ones, trivializing the experiences of those who are constitutively transgender. Being “trans” in college is for some is now a woke upper-middle-class pose, not a deep identity.

Shifting gears to my criticism of the Equality Act, this reader is blunt:

I think you are misunderstanding things when you suggest that the Left thinks that “all religious freedom concerns are just a mask for bigotry.” They’re not a mask for bigotry; the religious concerns are the bigotry. If your religion tells you that it’s immoral to bake a cake for a gay wedding, your religion is bigoted! It’s not a mask for anything. The bigotry is right out in the open.

If you think there is no distinction between religion and bigotry, I don’t have much to offer. The injunction against same-sex sex and marriage is embedded in Catholic natural law and in Biblical texts. It’s in Judaism and Islam. The last few years cannot instantly erase millennia of teaching. And we have a First Amendment to protect the right to practice even a widely despised faith, let alone these vast Abrahamic religions.

Another reader is more thoughtful about the tensions within the Equality Act:

I think your argument misses a key distinction between practicing the core tenets of one’s faith without sanction and never having the law require someone to do something they find morally repugnant. Simply put, discriminating against LGBT people is not a core part of the definition of what it means to be Catholic (or other Christian, etc.). It may follow from people’s sincerely held religious beliefs, but why should letting people avoid having to wrestle with contradictions between their faith and the law be given a higher priority than people’s ability to access healthcare, housing, etc?

I say this as a Unitarian Universalist who attends church weekly. My ministers tend to get arrested for civil disobedience a lot (as do some badass Catholic nuns I know). Folks from one of my sister congregations were arrested for continuing to provide food and water to migrants crossing the border even after it was made illegal. (They were acquitted on religious liberty grounds, though I don’t think they should have been.)

Religious liberty advocates make it seem like needing to choose between sincere religious beliefs and legal mandates is the Worst Thing Ever. It isn’t. A) It’s not going to come up that often. B) There are long faith traditions for how to handle those situations, and major religious organizations have the money to pay fines. C) Between prosecutorial discretion, pardons, and the ability to work civil cases out in mediation, there are a lot of options even if the law doesn’t carve out faith exemptions

I take your point. But if the fixes are easy and small, why not allow for them in the law? And forcing others to grapple with the contradictions in their faith is a form of coercion. I favor it as a voluntary activity, of course, and have personally grappled with these things for years and years. But I want to save place in a free society for fundamentalists, just as I would for critical theorists, even as I strongly disagree with them.

One more reader:

Perhaps the best point that Mara Keisling made in your debate over the Equality Act was this: “That’s the difference, that [a religious organization] took public funds. ... [Under the Equality Act] they would no longer be able to take my tax money to discriminate against me.” You didn’t really have a response to that — you just redirected the conversation to the baker case. If a religious organization receives public funds, let alone tax-exempt status, should they really be able to pick and choose what things they will or won’t do for the general public?

Indeed. But ending the funds for religious adoption agencies simply because they won’t place kids in same-sex homes leaves a lot of kids without options. As long as there are secular options, I’d compromise on this one.


The View From Your Window

Santa Fe, New Mexico, 5 pm


Woke Watch

Try to keep up with the constant shape-shifting in language:

“Join us in celebrating and supporting all the Womxn creating their own worlds, building their communities, and leading the way on Twitch,” the company wrote in a now-deleted tweet, the BBC reported. But Twitch’s so-called inclusive initiative angered the trans and non-binary (NB) community, which felt the term suggested that intersex people aren’t women. “Trans and NB women are WOMEN, not womxn,” fumed one detractor of the half-baked term. “With womxn you’re just separating them more, you’re not being inclusive, you’re excluding them from women.”

Sigh. On a far more serious note:

Sacramento school district promotes the segregation of staff and others into “racial affinity groups” as a good way to process emotions like “white racial awakening.”


Cool Ad Watch

A national treasure tells you not to be such a chicken squat:


Hathos Alert

Jamelle Bouie spotlights a cringe-worthy clip of Josh Hawley and his “hapless substitute teacher energy” at CPAC.


Mental Health Break

Enjoy this parody of apartment tours by influencers so you don’t have to watch any real ones:


In The ‘Stacks

  • Greenwald unloads on Biden’s “protection” of MBS and other Saudi goons responsible for the gruesome murder of Khashoggi. A cooler, realpolitik approach comes from Michael Cohen. Here are four other dissidents worthy of awe.

  • Mickey waves his arms over congressional Democrats quietly trying to end Clinton’s welfare reform via the Covid relief bill.

  • John Aravosis, a neighbor of mine in DC, rightly loses it over the city’s clusterfuck of a vaccine website. I’m still without any options in DC, even as they’ve given 40 percent of their doses to people from Maryland and Virginia.

  • Substituting in for Bari on her substack, the always readable Robby Soave summarizes the dismal state of school reopenings under Biden.

  • What are the only eight colleges in the 357-strong Division I to cancel sports this spring? Those in the Ivy League. As Erika Sanzi puts it, “They made the decision in the name of ‘equity’ — a concept that increasingly means that if everyone can’t have something then no one can have it.”

  • Nick Clairmont chews over Dr Seuss and how the left has strayed from its opposition to book censorship.

  • The current threats to sperm.

  • Welcome, Freddie!


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think? Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. Proximity counts. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two TWD subscriptions. Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window, a Woke Watch suggestion, or an Yglesias Award: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Please try to be concise with dissents: the new format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart criticism when it stretches into many paragraphs.

See you next Friday.

(Top photo from Getty Images)