Does SAT Discriminate Against Minorities?

Published May 1, 2001

Although University of California President Richard Atkinson disparages the SAT I and wants to drop it as a requirement for UC admissions, other college officials endorse the test, which focuses on higher-order reading and math skills.

Jack Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, says the SAT is a very good test that provides important information about an applicant. A 1997 study by the College Board, which oversees the SAT, showed that a combination of SAT scores and high school grades is a better predictor of student success in college than grades alone.

Evidence from a 1993 College Board study doesn’t support Atkinson’s claim that the SAT discriminates against black and Hispanic students. The study reviewed the records of 46,379 students at 55 colleges and universities across the country and found that “for most ethnic groups the SAT alone is a better predictor of course grades than are high school grades alone.” Significantly, for African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians, “the SAT tends to predict a slightly higher GPA than the students actually earn.”

Officials at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas point out that the SAT is the best instrument available for establishing a common national yardstick. The SAT allows colleges to compare students from widely varied high schools and backgrounds without excessive reliance on grades, which, as a UC report acknowledges, are subject to biases due to differences in high school curricula and grading practices.

Moreover, Atkinson’s proposal to rely more heavily on high school grades may not increase African-American and Hispanic enrollment at UC. A 1997 UC study found that if SAT scores were eliminated as admissions criteria, the current GPA admissions standard of 3.3 in core high school courses would have to be raised to 3.65 in order to keep the pool of eligible students at the state-mandated top 12.5 percent of public high school graduates. Under such a scenario, white student eligibility for UC admissions would increase by 17 percent, Hispanic eligibility would rise only slightly, and African-American eligibility would fall by 18 percent.

Atkinson’s fall-back position is to support a so-called “holistic” approach that emphasizes student life experiences. But many observers are troubled by the prospect of admissions officials at a taxpayer-supported institution exercising subjectivity and arbitrariness in their evaluations of tens of thousands of UC applicants. The fear is that Atkinson’s proposal could be a backdoor way to override Proposition 209 and UC’s own ban on racial preferences.

UC Regent Ward Connerly notes Atkinson is constantly pressed by minority legislators to “get our people in and we don’t care how you do it.”