Wake Forest University is hosting a conference this week on making the SAT optional for admission, and they invited Daniel Golden to headline. Golden, author of a book called The Price of Admission that documents all the ways children of wealth and privilege are favored in college admissions, was an interesting choice to headline this conference, because he’s actually ambivalent about the SAT:
Some, including our friends at colleges like Wake Forest that have made it optional, argue that using the SAT in admissions amounts to a preference for privilege, because of the sizeable scoring gap between whites and minorities, and between high and low-income students….I agree with [SAT] critics that disparities in scoring by race and social class, exacerbated by test-prep and other coaching options available to affluent students — are profoundly disturbing. I also don’t believe students should be admitted on the basis of test scores — or grades — alone. Creative aptitude, extra-curricular activities and leadership are all important.
At the same time, though, I’m a product of the SAT generation. I was one of the thousands of bright, middle-class public high school students who were able to attend a elite college at least partly because the test helped extend the vision and reach of the Ivy Leagues beyond a cluster of old-boy prep schools. Emotionally, I guess, it’s hard for me to accept that a test that broadened opportunity for so many young people is now responsible for denying that same opportunity to others.
It also seems to me that opponents of the SAT often talk as if it’s the only instrument of privilege in college admissions — ignoring the preferences for children of legacies and donors. Unlike those preferences, the SAT at least tries to gauge the candidate’s individual merit. And, even granting a bias toward the white and wealthy, the SAT may remain useful in comparing two candidates within the same racial and economic groups — or when a score goes against type. For instance, if a minority applicant from a low-performing high school does well on the SAT, that score could be a noteworthy indication of academic potential.
But if–as in so many of the examples I cited in my book–a legacy or a development applicant, with all of the advantages of wealth and parental education, bombs on the SAT, that’s a strong signal that he or she may not be serious about learning–and that the admissions staff should resist lobbying on the applicant’s behalf by the development or alumni office. Indeed, without SAT scores to act as a check on these preferences, it’s likely that the number of legacies and development admits at elite universities would be even greater than it already is.
This, I think, is the key argument against the eliminate-SAT crowd. It may or may not be biased against minorities and low-income youth, and kids can be coached on how to improve their score. But, what else do we have that’s better, that elite colleges and universities would trust as a replacement? High school GPAs are tarnished by grade inflation and high schools themselves are yoked to reputations. Personal statements are no less coachable than SATs, and extracurricular activities favor the children of parents with time and money. Even worse, none of these things are objective; a student in Abilene, TX cannot be compared to a student from Anchorage, AL on these things.
The SAT, on the other hand, is a national test. A perfect score means the same thing everywhere. College and university admissions offices are already overburdened with applicants to the point of making admissions like lotteries. Taking away one of the more objective measures would make the process all the more opaque.