California Seeks to Eliminate SATs and ACTs... and it’s a Good Thing

Under consideration in California’s higher education system is the permanent removal of SAT and ACT scores from its admission requirements. The battle lines of the debate are forming as quickly as they are hardening.

At stake is nothing less than the choice between two different visions of the future of higher education in America, for what begins in California seldom ends there.

The right end of the political continuum charges that this is a continuing attempt by the higher education elites to thwart the decision of California voters who supported Proposition 209, which terminated the racial and ethnic preference system in admissions to California’s elite public universities.

The left end of the political continuum argues that standardized tests are too reflective of socioeconomic status and ignore the hurdles that minorities have to overcome to gain access to the best tax-supported universities.

The Right sees itself as defending against a growing deterioration of academic standards. The Left sees itself as defending a vision of social justice necessary to incorporate underserved minorities into the better parts of America’s economic fabric.

Ironically, both sides are somewhat correct; but neither side will recognize the truth inherent in the other’s position.

Studies continually show that SAT scores are positively related to college grades and graduation rates, but they are marginal at best.

Public universities face enormous pressures to create a diverse student body and then to retain it and in so doing modify standards.

You do not need a doctorate in public policy to understand the meaning of the letter that comes in a special envelope from the provost -- just before final examinations -- that reminds the faculty of the university’s “strong commitment to diversity and retention.”

Nor do you need a course in higher education administration to understand what a powerful state legislator means when he or she says that the university’s commitment to diversity is of great concern to the solons in the capitol.

Educators are clever people and there are many ways to circumvent legislated impediments to diversity and to push underserved students through the system. It would take an essay beyond the constraints of this writing to talk about sympathy grades, heavy editing, do-overs, and remediation, to flesh out just some of these mechanisms.

We have seen them all, as well as a variety of criteria for the admissions process that are sparsely related to academics.

Such exercises in duplicity promote neither academic standards nor social justice. Instead, they turn the system from admission to retention to graduation into a farce.

 If we genuinely believe in the value of diversity and the need to overcome such impediments as structural racism, we need to acknowledge that the barriers to higher education by the underserved need to be removed directly and not through artificial and hypocritical means.  

At best, the SATs predict about 25% of success in college grades.  The summation of things they do not measure is more important than what they do measure.

I would suggest minimum criteria for admission to any public university based on the attainment of a high school diploma or its equivalent and a grade point average or some other measure that indicates the ability to do college work.

I would stratify applicants by income and not by race or ethnicity to remove the stigma too frequently associated with affirmative action.

The extracurricular component of admissions only serves to show that you did not need to work after school. It impedes the underprivileged in a genuine quest for social mobility. That too needs to be eliminated.

Admissions would be done by lottery from each socioeconomic pool. The larger the socioeconomic stratum of a set of applicants, the greater the percentage of students to be drawn from that pool.

Given the correlation between ethnic and racial characteristics and socioeconomic status, the lottery would generate a racial and ethnically diverse group of students while being open to the economically challenged of all groups.

No one could cast the aspersion of racial or ethnic preference because the decision-making would be based solely on economics. It would incorporate the different struggles for students facing different economic realities.

In addition, it would raise standards because it would eliminate the need for the assorted mechanisms to push students through the system to justify a tainted and often hypocritical admissions process.

High achievers with high test scores could still be incorporated in a special pool for financial assistance based on merit or simply as a special pool of talent.

Most of all, it would transform the higher education system as a true means of socio-economic mobility for the underserved without the creation of racial and ethnic stigmas.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.

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