A majority of colleges have dropped SAT requirements, Matt Yglesias has an interesting theory why

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

So if you have kids in college or heading to college sometime soon then you’re probably already aware that many schools have abandoned the SAT as a requirement for applicants. Forbes reported last fall that the SAT is now optional at a majority of schools.


As the college application process picks up steam for the upcoming academic year, a new survey shows that more than 80% of U.S. bachelor-degree granting institutions will not require students seeking fall 2023 admission to submit either ACT or SAT standardized exam scores…

“An overwhelming majority of undergraduate admissions offices now make selection decisions without relying on ACT/SAT results,” said FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder in the organization’s news release. “These schools recognize that standardized test scores do not measure academic ‘merit.’ What they do assess quite accurately is family wealth, but that should not be the criteria for getting into college.”

Over at his Substack site, Matt Yglesias says this argument, that the SATs test for wealth is not completely wrong but it is a kind of convenient fiction that is meant to distract from the actual goal of dropping standardized tests. That goal, he argues, is hiding the ball on race-based preferences.

This is so obvious that it’s not worth beating around the bush: the schools leading the push toward de-testing are not making some kind of blunder, they are trying to get away with something. I’m fond of Talleyrand’s old quip “it’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake,” but in this case, it’s a crime. SAT scores make it inconveniently easy to demonstrate anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions, so the industry is moving to burn the evidence.


He points to Harvard’s admissions policies which were the basis of a lawsuit that is now before the Supreme Court. One of the things that case revealed was that Harvard had a process of recruiting from 20 rural states which they collectively referred to as “sparse country.” Without those recruiting efforts, Harvard worried it would have few if any applicants from those states. But as the New Yorker pointed out in 2018, those sparse country recruiting letters were directly tied to SAT scores in a way that really showed how Harvard was stacking the deck against Asian applicants:

In his testimony, William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, who has worked in the admissions office since before Bakke, reminisced about his Harvard roommate in the nineteen-sixties, who was “a great ambassador” for South Dakota. He also testified about the letters Harvard sends to high-school students in Sparse Country who have P.S.A.T. scores of at least 1310, encouraging them to apply. The only Sparse Country students with such scores who do not get the letter are Asians; to receive it, an Asian male must score at least 1380. An attorney for the plaintiff asked why a white boy in, say, immigrant-rich Las Vegas with a score of 1310 would get the letter, while his Asian classmate with a 1370 would not. Fitzsimmons responded with generalities about the need to recruit from a broad array of states to achieve diversity.


Yglesias’ point in citing this is that the reliance on SAT scores as cutoffs really makes is clear what’s going on here. It’s a race-based preference for white students (and presumably for Black and Hispanic students as well).

That’s the whole problem with the tests: they make things too clear…

Schools are moving to phase out the tests not because they want to admit a different group of people, but because they are anticipating a Supreme Court ruling that will try to make them change who they admit, and they don’t want to do that…

From the perspective of Harvard and its peers, the concern is almost exclusively public relations. If they admitted students based purely on academic standards (i.e., no special consideration of race, alumni parents, sports, etc.), they would have many more Asian students, many fewer Black and Hispanic students, and a similar number of white students, but those white students would be from somewhat less-rich families. This would be bad for their social prestige and their fundraising, so they don’t want to do it. And that choice means that the next tier of colleges has to do the same thing or else they will be the schools with very few Black and Hispanic students. This entire program of anti-Asian racial discrimination exists to spare a small number of super-elite schools the embarrassment of publicly admitting that, on average, Black and Hispanic high school students do worse than white and Asian students, even though this is clearly visible in the NAEP scores and many other measures.


I think he’s mostly right about this though I would quibble a bit with the relative importance of the two reasons he offers for carrying out this PR exercise in the first place. He says it would be bad for social prestige and bad for funding. No doubt Harvard cares about both but I suspect they feel very much more obligated to care about the first.

Elimination of the achievement gap has been a major focus of attention for decades. It’s one the things that school superintendents talk about and promise to fix. But despite lots of effort the problem hasn’t gone away, not in elementary school and not in high school. And so, for those who’ve adopted an “equity” framework there’s a simple solution: eliminate the test.

This was the explicit intent when the members of San Francisco’s school board voted to get rid of admissions testing at Lowell High School. Because the school used such testing, Asian students were a majority in the school and Black students were underrepresented. Asian parents were accused of “white supremacy thinking” by a Black member of the school board who was later recalled by the voters (including a lot of angry Asian parents).

In any case, I think the commitment to equity is probably a much bigger motive here than fundraising. If Harvard admitted a slightly less rich cohort of white students they would still get along just fine financially. No one at Harvard is genuinely worried about that. The real issue here is ideological.


But, again, I’m quibbling. For the most part, I think Yglesias is correct that eliminating the SAT is about hiding the degree to which these schools are raising the bar for well-qualified Asian applicants for the sake of equity. If they want to keep doing that, and they do, they’ll have to make it less obvious in a future world where affirmative action is verboten. Getting rid of the SAT helps them do that.

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Jazz Shaw 10:00 PM | June 12, 2024