No, the SAT Isn’t Racist

That’s three down: Last week, Brown University reinstated standardized testing as a part of its admissions requirements, following Yale and Dartmouth, which did the same earlier this year. For all that we have heard about how standardized tests propagate injustice, the decisions at these Ivy League schools are antiracism in action, and should serve as models for similar decisions across academia. (M.I.T. was an even earlier re-adopter of testing requirements, back in 2022.)

Of course, for years, the leading idea has been precisely the opposite: that the proper antiracist approach is to stop using standardized tests in admissions. Many schools first suspended using them a few years back because their administration was too difficult during the peak of the Covid pandemic. But then, in line with racial reckoning commitments in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, many decided not to bring the tests back.

This was in line with longstanding claims, touted as higher wisdom, that the SAT promotes, rather than undercuts, racial disparities in admissions. The idea is that the test simply reflects socioeconomic level, with more affluent, disproportionately white kids able to afford test preparation classes to raise their scores. All the way back in 2001, the University of California president Richard Atkinson was warmly and widely celebrated for eliminating the SAT from the schools’ admissions process. Enlightened consensus was that the SAT predicts nothing important. Grapevine wisdom has been that some test questions are biased against lower-income people (although exactly how many questions about things like regattas the SAT has included has never been clear).

Given this perception, the wave of schools letting go of the SAT after 2020 seemed to many like an acceleration of social justice long overdue. But lately evidence has mounted, steadily, that the SAT is in fact useful in demonstrating students’ abilities regardless of their economic backgrounds or the quality of their high schools. Some studies show scores correlate with student performance in college more strongly than high-school grades, and that without the standardized test data it is harder to identify Black, Latino and lower-income white kids who would likely thrive in elite universities. It was precisely this evidence that led the Dartmouth president, Sian Beilock, to be first out of the gate this year in daring to go back to using the test in admissions. I nominate her as Antiracist of 2024 so far.

Many might find it an awkward fit to label requiring the SAT for college admissions as antiracist. But we must attend carefully to what racism and antiracism actually are, as the words have come to occupy such broad swatches of semantic ground. In this light, the tacit sense of the SAT and similar tests as somehow anti-Black is dangerous.

This is because ideas have a way of undergoing mission creep. What an unspoken idea implies, a resonance in the air, eventually manifests itself as an openly asserted new position. In that vein, there is a short step between acknowledging that disadvantage makes it harder to ace the test — which is self-evidently true — and a proposition that is related but vastly more questionable: that Blackness is culturally incompatible with the test.

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