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The test-taking savant who helped rich kids cheat their way into elite colleges was sentenced Friday. And a jury convicted the University of Southern California water polo coach accused of taking bribes to get kids with fake resumes admitted.
Read CNN’s full report on those developments.
But don’t expect the ongoing fallout from “Operation Varsity Blues” – the sprawling 2019 investigation that uncovered the crooked lengths to which the super rich will go to get their kids into top schools – to fix the larger system.
Last week, I wrote about the ongoing debate over whether the SAT and ACT exacerbate the larger inequality in colleges. After the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reinstated its SAT/ACT requirement, I looked at the argument that standardized test haters might have it wrong and the belief at schools like MIT that test scores help them improve diversity on campus.
This week, we look at the opposite view.
I talked to Paul Tough, who has written extensively on college admissions. His book, “The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us,” is deeply reported – and reporting it led Tough to applaud the end of standardized test requirements at many colleges.
Our conversation, conducted in a series of emails that were combined and lightly edited, is below.
Don’t believe the hype about the SAT/ACT
WHAT MATTERS: I was surprised that MIT was reinstating its SAT/ACT requirement to protect diversity. What’s your reaction to that argument?
TOUGH: I don’t think it’s true that MIT is reinstating the SAT to protect diversity. MIT’s admissions office managed to enroll just as diverse a freshman class in 2021 without the SAT requirement, as it did in previous years when it required it.
MIT’s admissions staff knows full well that family income predicts SAT scores twice as strongly as it predicts high school grades. The most effective way to admit a more socioeconomically diverse class is to put more emphasis on high school grades and less on test scores.
The real reason MIT is reinstating the SAT is because it really likes admitting students who score very high on the SAT! Before the pandemic, almost every student MIT admitted had a 780 or above on the math section of the SAT. Those super-high test scores were an important part of MIT’s identity, and if MIT were to abandon the SAT for good, it would lose that identity.
So, it’s no surprise the school has brought back the test requirement. Standardized tests are a core part of who the school is. Other colleges define themselves differently.
What UC’s report on the SAT/ACT actually says
WHAT MATTERS: I was doubly surprised when a large University of California study suggested retaining the SAT/ACT. (The Board of Regents ultimately ignored it.) You applauded UC for dropping its testing requirement. What did you think about that UC report?
TOUGH: A couple of years ago, when the University of California was debating losing the SAT, different groups at the university studied the effect of the tests, and they reached widely varying conclusions.
The UC senate report didn’t find that using the SAT enhanced diversity in admissions at UC. It found that “disparities along lines of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES) evident in the undergraduate population of the University are a function of multiple factors, and that the SAT and ACT are smaller contributors” (p. 6).
So in other words, the report found that the SAT did contribute to disparities by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status in admissions, but that there were some other factors that were even worse.
What the senate report did claim, perhaps more controversially, was that test scores were a better predictor of college success than high school GPA. That’s something that not even the College Board claims; their research has always found that high school GPA alone is a better predictor than SAT alone. So that claim attracted a lot of attention, and a lot of dissent.
The dissenting research by other UC professors that I find persuasive includes:
- This paper by Saul Geiser at Berkeley, which found that the central finding of the senate report was “spurious, the statistical artifact of a classic methodological error.” Geiser writes, “When student demographics are included in the model, the findings are reversed: High-school grades in college preparatory courses are actually the stronger predictor of UC student outcomes.” He also found that at UC, family income correlates three times more strongly with SAT/ACT scores than it does with high school GPA.
- This report by Michal Kurlaender and Kramer Cohen at UC Davis, which finds that at California State University schools, high school GPA is a stronger predictor of first-year college GPA and second-year persistence than the SAT, and also finds that, “High school GPA as a predictor of college success results in a much higher representation of low income and underrepresented minority students in the top of the UC applicant pool, than (does) SAT … test scores.”