Expect others to follow. Selective institutions that don’t use standardized tests will fall behind.
by Jason Riley, The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2022
During oral arguments in a 2003 Supreme Court case about affirmative action at the University of Michigan law school, Justice Antonin Scalia told lawyers who were defending the school’s racially discriminatory admissions policies that they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too.
“I find it hard to take seriously the state of Michigan’s contention that racial diversity is a compelling state interest—compelling enough to warrant ignoring the Constitution’s prohibition of distribution on the basis of race,” Scalia began. “The problem is a problem of Michigan’s own creation. That is to say, it has decided to create an elite law school . . . [and] it’s done this by taking only the best students with the best grades and the best SATs or LSATs, knowing that the result of this will be to exclude to a large degree minorities.”
Scalia said that if Michigan wants to be an elite law school, that’s fine. But there are trade-offs involved if the school also wants to prioritize enrolling some predetermined percentage of underrepresented minorities for aesthetic reasons. “If [racial diversity] is indeed a significant compelling state interest, why don’t you lower your standards?” he asked. “You don’t have to be the great college you are. You can be a lesser college if that value is important enough to you.”
Last week, the highly selective Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faced with a similar dilemma, apparently chose to maintain its high standards. It became the first prominent school to reinstate the requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores, a practice that MIT and many other colleges had abandoned during the pandemic.
MIT explained the reversal in a blog post. “Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT,” wrote Stu Schmill, the dean of admissions. “Our ability to accurately predict student academic success at MIT is significantly improved by considering standardized testing—especially in mathematics,” he added. Thus, “not having SATs/ACT scores to consider tends to raise socioeconomic barriers to demonstrating readiness for our education.”
None of this is unique to MIT. Mr. Schmill cited a major study released in 2020 by a University of California task force that highlighted the SAT’s ability to assess accurately high-school students for college readiness. Opponents of standardized testing claim the SAT is biased toward more-affluent whites. According to race scholar Ibram Kendi, “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever designed to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies.”
If that’s true, how is it that a racial minority—Asian students—tend to score highest on the SAT? And how is that even low-income Asians outperform middle-class students from other racial and ethnic groups? Moreover, social science has long demonstrated that the SAT is a better predictor of college performance than high-school grades are for black students, while the reverse is true for white and Asian students.
Thus, black students have the most to lose as schools move away from objective test scores and toward more-subjective holistic assessments of applicants. The University of California system simply ignored the social science and ditched its SAT requirement. MIT should be applauded for putting the interests of students ahead of racial balancing.
Racial differences in test scores are less a reflection of innate intelligence and more a reflection of a young person’s developed academic capabilities. Given that millions of blacks are relegated to some of the worst-performing K-12 schools in the country, why would anyone be surprised by racial gaps in SAT scores? In large cities such as New York and Chicago, most black students cannot read or do math at grade level. Standardized tests aren’t causing these disparities, just revealing them. And the responsible way to address the problem is not by scrapping the test but through more school choice and better test preparation.
Of course, to Justice Scalia’s point, MIT also realizes that double standards for admissions will eventually lead to double standards for grades and degrees. The school must keep its eye on such competitors as the California Institute of Technology, which has a race-blind admissions process. “I have a hunch that MIT’s decision was driven by competitive pressure,” wrote Steven Hayward, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, since “its arch-rival for science supremacy in academia—Caltech—might start to leave MIT conspicuously behind if MIT continued down the road to politically correct admissions practices.”
No doubt. But the broader concern is that other nations—China, Japan, South Korea—will gain a competitive edge on the U.S. as our elites wage war on meritocracy in the name of equity.