Entry test charged with bias

October 10, 1997

Standard admission tests for United States universities are being jettisoned in response to complaints that they are racially and culturally biased and exclude students with talents that maths and verbal tests cannot measure.

The number of schools that have made the Scholastic Assessment and American College Tests optional for admission jumped to 280 this year, out of 2,200 four-year universities and colleges. The state of California is also considering eliminating the tests from admission requirements at all of its 138 public universities and colleges.

Instead, admissions officers are tending to rely on secondary school transcripts, personal interviews and essays.

Laura Barrett, director of FairTest, an organisation that has pressed for dropping standard tests, said: "All the (standardised) tests even purport to predict is first-year college grades, which is a pretty narrow measure when you think about it."

"They have a disproportionately negative effect on students who are minorities or low-income, and there's also a gender bias element in these tests against girls. They serve as a gatekeeper, restricting access to colleges."

FairTest contends that students educated in mainstream middle- and upper middle-class schools have had an advantage in answering some questions that rely on knowledge of cultural activities rare in urban, rural and ethnic communities.

Previous SATs have required students to know the definitions of words such as "dividends", "stockholders", "royalties", "chess", "oarsmen" and "regattas".

Critics say low-income, rural and inner-city students probably are unfamiliar with these terms; the testing authority concedes that only 22 per cent of blacks could correctly answer the regatta question, for example, compared with 53 per cent of whites.

"The very nature of these kind of word analogies benefits certain people who have been educated in a certain way," Ms Barrett said.

There is evidence that the higher a student's family income the higher his or her test performance. Investigations have also shown that the authorities have been slow to crack down on cheating.

But perhaps the greatest spurs to dropping SAT scores from admission consideration have been court decisions making it illegal for schools to accept minority applicants with lower scores than whites.

These have prompted universities and colleges in Texas and several other states to admit all students who graduate in the top 10 per cent of any high-school class without considering test scores.

That way, it is argued, students from predominantly black schools are not competing for admission against students from wealthier, predominantly white schools.

The tests are taken by 1.7 million students each year and many universities and colleges continue to require them, at least as part of the admission process.

Joyce Smith, director of the National Association of College Admission Counsellors, said: "We still live in a time when, whether it's the Harvard universities or the Stanfords, they are receiving 20,000 applications for admission and that makes it increasingly difficult to give an individual review to every single file.

"We always need some type of standard measurement, and that standard measurement has always been the ACT or SAT," she added.

Even as higher education moves away from standardised tests, such tests are becoming more and more common in the lower grades. Seventeen states now require passage of standardised tests to graduate from high school, and five more soon will do so. President Clinton is pressing for national assessment tests of mathematics and reading in primary schools.

"It's two steps forward, one step back," Ms Barrett said. "On the one hand, we have seen an increasing number of colleges recognise the weaknesses of these tests. On the other, we've seen an increase in the number of tests being used to make high-stakes decisions about whether students can advance."

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