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 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.
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A young subscriber runs through some of our recent coverage:
I’m a recent Ivy League grad, having studied history with a focus on slavery/antislavery in the United States. While I really benefitted from those studies and was exposed to scholars whom I admire greatly, I have grown increasingly alarmed by the censoriousness that is overtaking many of our country’s elite academic institutions (I guess I’m an old-fashioned liberal fogey at heart). It is really hard these days to find publications that are not a) bending over backwards to establish their “woke” bona fides, or b) cynically lampooning cancel culture in an attempt to dunk on “the libs.” The precipitating event for this email was reading Don McNeil Jr’s posts describing in detail his ouster from the NYT. Watching one of my trusted sources of information descend into this petty and inquisitorial infighting has only deepened my appreciation for the Weekly Dish.
I discovered it last summer, and it very quickly become a real intellectual role model for me (I can’t tell you how much I look forward to Friday afternoons when your email hits my inbox!). I commend the Dish’s humanity, its open-mindedness, and its fearless insights. I have really enjoyed all of the recent guests on the podcast and especially admired your willingness to host Michael Anton, which I’m sure you received a tremendous amount of (undeserved) flak for. I think I learned more about the anxieties undergirding Trumpism in those two hours than I did in the last five years.
The Dish’s willingness to have humane and civil conversations about transgender rights has also been extremely helpful to me. Like many, I imagine, I have not really had an opportunity to think through these issues or educate myself on what it’s like to be transgender, given the suffocating atmosphere around these questions. It’s easy to conclude these days that it’s not even worth engaging with certain issues.
I don’t have much more to say, but please know that there are young minds like mine hungry for the kind of intrepid commentary the Dish has to offer in an increasingly rigid intellectual landscape. Your advice to Shadi Hamid to never “read the room” is something I have really taken to heart.
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 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.
(Read the whole post here)
Dissents Of The Week: Two Sexes. Infinite Genders.
Responding to my criticism of the Equality Act, a 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.
From another reader:
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:
To read those dissents, and my responses to both those readers and two others, go to the full edition of the Dish.
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