A landmark California lawsuit prohibiting the nine-campus University of California system (Berkeley, UCLA, etc.) from using the SAT or ACT next year has changed the discussion of equity in admissions, introducing the phrase “test blind” (refusing to consider test scores) into the national conversation. To their credit, the University of California Regents voted unanimously on May 21, 2020, to discontinue requiring SAT/ACT scores for student admissions. Yet the regents endorsed a gradual move away from what it acknowledged were racist, flawed tests by letting each of California’s nine campuses decide whether to be test blind or “test optional” (accepting, but not requiring, test scores). Three campuses opted for test blind -- Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine -- the other six went test optional.
This “house divided” arrangement was brought to an abrupt end on Aug. 31, when Judge Brad Seligman of the Superior Court of California ruled that the UC is “enjoined from using SAT and the ACT test results for admissions or scholarship decisions.” All nine campuses of the University of California must now do test-blind admissions for 2021. Judge Seligman’s decision is a preliminary injunction, but it has national significance. Given his ruling, at minimum, every public university in the United States should be discussing both test-blind and test-optional admissions, and we, as a nation, would be much better off for that.
The 2020 test-blind movement represents a sea change in college admissions. Prior to this year, only a few colleges were test blind. In the six months since COVID’s emergence in the U.S., 59 colleges and universities have announced that they are switching to test blind, most for next year, some for longer. Joining UC Berkeley and UCLA as newly test blind are such selective schools as Caltech and Reed College.
Clearly, COVID is the accelerant for the test-blind movement, but test optional had been gaining momentum over the last few years. Before the pandemic, the ranks of test-optional colleges already included more than 1,030 institutions; now, as of Aug. 31, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing could report that over 1,550 four-year colleges and universities, representing three-fifths of the total in the U.S., will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. Test optional is an important step that removes the burden from students of submitting test scores, but it does not erase from our national landscape the damage done by a racist testing system. To continue with reference to this nation’s greatest conflict, test optional is like the Missouri compromise, while test blind is like the Emancipation Proclamation. Test optional, while a significant improvement to requiring tests, involves coexistence with a testing industry that perpetuates systemic racism; test blind is consistent with an antiracist position on testing.
We have published extensively on the discriminatory biases and predictive weaknesses of the test industry’s SAT/ACT. The antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi has drawn on our work to support his verdict on the racism of those tests for nearly a decade (see his “New Mind-Boggling Evidence Proves SAT Bias”). Everyone should be appalled that Black men are three times more likely to be felons than to be college graduates. We should be encouraged that Black/white disparities in high schools have narrowed, but alarmed that that they have increased in college enrollments. If we did college admissions based mainly on high school academic grades, which have always been the best variable predicting college success, then we would narrow the Black/white enrollment gap. Black and Hispanic applicants to the University of California were 23 percent of candidates from the top high school decile, but merely 5 percent of top-decile test takers. The Berkeley sociologist Saul Geiser has proven that "Underrepresented minority applicants are far less likely to rise to the top of the pool when ranked by test scores in place of high school grades." As we have said elsewhere, "university admissions based on test scores perpetuate racial disparities; high school grades narrow them. If we are serious about rooting out systemic racism, we must toss these racist tests."
Barriers to college access due to the systemic racism of a test industry are, however, perhaps just half of the total problem. Test score disparities by racial groups provide grounds for bigoted collective beliefs and for legal challenges to race-sensitive college admissions. Too many people still view SAT/ACT scores as “objective” measures of individual intelligence, although that view has been hemorrhaging adherents.
If entire racial groups perform badly on these standardized tests, then people can wrongfully conclude that Blacks and Hispanics are the problem, not the tests. Whenever there is a court case against affirmative action, it always rests primarily on test score differences, never high school grades. Even on “elite” campuses, there is what Harvard University professor Natasha Warikoo describes as the “diversity bargain” -- white Ivy League youths all too often view their classmates of color as academically less accomplished but there to provide white students with an exposure to diversity. We live in a miseducated nation that suffers from a discriminatory metric for analytical intelligence. We have allowed an unregulated multibillion-dollar test industry to pass off as scientifically neutral a labeling machine that produces racial stigma and that puts barriers in front of upwardly mobile youths of color and those with low family incomes.
Test optional eats away at the market share of the test industry but still leaves it alive to cast its shadow over youthful aspirations and life chances.
Test blind has the virtue of sending a straightforward signal that biased tests are worthless as measures of merit.