The University of Chicago announced last week that it would no longer require applicants to submit their SAT or ACT scores. The University of Chicago’s dean of admissions, James Nondorf championed the move as a blow for fairness, arguing that some students don’t test well and that “one little test score” shouldn’t end up “scaring students off.”
Nondorf explained that the move “levels the playing field” and now “the application does not define you — you define the application.” William Hiss, former dean of admissions at Bates College, declared, “This certainly feels like a big Antarctic ice shelf just fell into the ocean.” Richard Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech, said, “It makes everybody stop and ask, ‘Can we do this?’”
Consider how higher education admissions worked before the introduction of these tests. Back in the 1920s and early 1930s, Ivy League students were admitted less because of demonstrated academic ability than, as Columbia University’s Nick Lemann explained in “The Big Test,” because they had “the money and the right background." That state of affairs prompted James Conant, then the president of Harvard University, to propose in 1933 the adoption of a standardized assessment which would help to identify students based on academic merit — rather than privilege or favoritism. That assessment turned out to be the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Advocates embraced the test for a variety of reasons. Some thought that it would expose ethnic and racial differences in ability — helping to keep out “undesirables.” In practice, the SAT did just the opposite. Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University, noted that the SAT “mock(ed)” supposed “biological distinctions” and “helped talented immigrants and minorities breach the elite’s ivy-covered bunkers.” In 1960, more than three-quarters of admissions directors deemed the SAT “absolutely essential” to the admissions process.
In 1959, Everett Franklin Lindquist, a professor of education at the University of Iowa, developed the American College Testing program (ACT) to serve a range of students and colleges than was served by the SAT. By the early 1970s, 750,000 were taking the ACT each year — in addition to the one million per year taking the SAT.
Now, one might be tempted to dismiss as ancient history whatever democratizing role the SAT and ACT once played and argue that we have entered into an era when those tests have outlived their purpose. Perhaps testing is now as an obstacle that makes it harder for fair-minded admissions officers to do their job.
That case would be easier to make if it weren’t for a second major higher education story that unfolded last week. Even as the University of Chicago announced its big move, an explosive lawsuit presented a wealth of evidence that Harvard University has systematically discriminated against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. One previously-unpublished 2013 internal Harvard study found that the Asian-American admission rate would be 250 percent of its current level if admissions were based solely on academic merit.
For instance, one component of Harvard’s admissions process is the “personal” rating — which rates applicants on subjective factors such as “kindness,” “likability,” and “positive personality.” Although Asian-American applicants collectively boasted the best academic performance, extracurricular ratings, and alumni interview scores, they were consistently rated worse than any other racial group when the Harvard admissions office judged them on personal qualities like “kindness” and “likability.”
How Harvard’s admissions staff came to such a conclusion is not yet clear — the courts will sort out the facts of the case. But the dispute does illustrate the perils of subjectivity. Absent some kind of common measuring stick, it’s all too easy for universities to rationalize policies which advantage those who bring dollars or connections to the institution, those who have the right parents or right ethnic profile, or those who reflect the views and values of those who work in the admissions office.
To be sure, the SAT and ACT have manifold limitations and ought not be romanticized. But, especially in a sprawling, diverse nation in which millions of students graduate every year from thousands of very different high schools, standardized assessments provide a useful tool for calibrating some of the capricious forces at play, from essay-coaching to the role of grade inflation. These tests provide a comparison-enabling standard that can illuminate when universities may be admitting students for reasons far removed from merit.
Like all of us, admissions staff bring a host of subtle (or not-so-subtle) biases to their work. The ACT and SAT can serve as a modest check on those biases. In weighing whether to follow in the University of Chicago's footsteps, university leaders — and certainly public officials charged with overseeing public institutions — would do well to remember that.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. R.J. Martin is a research assistant at AEI.