McGowan: SAT Bias? It’s a Good Thing

February 1, 2022

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D

US News reported that Cal State University no longer requires the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). That is so the school system can “bolster the momentum building in the higher education community to drop the testing requirement as schools make more concerted efforts to diversify their campuses.” 

Following this “momentum,” Indiana schools, public and private, also offer on a temporary basis “test optional” admission protocols, including Butler University, IU, Purdue and all their branch campuses, Notre Dame, Valparaiso, Franklin and the University of Indianapolis.

Is optional SAT and ACT testing the best policy?

PrepScholar, an online SAT/ACT preparatory site, observed that “research has shown that students from more affluent backgrounds consistently have higher SAT and ACT scoresso many schools are dropping the standardized test requirement so students from more disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t put at a further disadvantage during the college admissions process.” The assumption is that bias is at work and correlation equals causation.

In “What Matters Most for College Completion? Academic Preparation is the Key,” Matthew Chingos states that “Demographic characteristics such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status consistently predict college enrollment and success rates. Troubling disparities between students of color and their white peers and among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds persist.”  California educators observed that “High school GPA as a predictor of college success results in a much higher representation of low income and underrepresented minority students in the top of the UC applicant pool, than do SAT scores.”

However, Anthony Carnavale, et al., says, “Results obtained from this experiment show that the current admissions system disproportionately benefits affluent Whites, and supports the argument that just as an SAT-only admissions standard isn’t the answer, neither is an admissions process without any standardization at all.”

Professor Meredith Frey wrote in 2019 “Fifteen years ago, Frey and Detterman established that the SAT (and later, with Koenig, the ACT) was substantially correlated with measures of general cognitive ability and could be used as a proxy measure for intelligence.” The research done by Frey and Detterman has been replicated by others to this end: ”The SAT predicts college achievement, and a combination of SAT scores and high school grades offer the best prediction of student success. In the most recent validity sample of nearly a quarter million students, SAT scores and high school GPA combined offered the best predictor of first year GPA for college students.”  Paul Westrick, et al., also looked at the validity of the SAT. They found that “SAT scores are strongly predictive of college performance — students with higher SAT scores are more likely to have higher grades in college.” They concluded that “Using SAT was a useful way to predict future academic performance.” Finally — and ironically — they discovered that “Colleges can use SAT scores to identify students who may be in need of academic support before they start college and throughout their college education.”

The conclusion is that the SAT appears unbiased and useful for assessing potential student performance. Nonetheless, I believe the SAT has a bias.

M.M. Jaeger investigated factors that influence educational success. He stated that “resources in the extended family compensate for lacking resources in low-SES (socio-economic status) families, which in turn promote children’s educational success. The main conclusion is that the total effect of family background on educational success originates in the immediate family, the extended family and in interactions between these two family environments.”  Socioeconomic status has little effect on educational success compared to a supportive “immediate family” and extended family of close relatives.

Other researchers have made similar observations: “Parental involvement variables that show promises according to their correlations with academic achievement are: a) reading at home, b) parents that are holding high expectations/aspirations for their children’s academic achievement and schooling, c) communication between parents and children regarding school, d) parental encouragement and support for learning.”  Another article noted that “parental involvement . . . in children’s schooling and children’s academic adjustment (i.e., achievement, engagement and motivation) that were maintained over time” promoted educational success.  As well, “parents’ involvement was also positively related to children’s social . . . and emotional adjustment.”  Further, parental involvement “negatively related to their delinquency.”  Finally and importantly, they found that “There was little variation due to age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status in the links between different types of involvement and children’s academic adjustment.”

Whatever the unalterable characteristics a child might display and regardless of SES, children fare well in school with involved parents who are caring and attentive to the child’s education. Love and care trump ethnicity, race and socioeconomic status.

So yes, SAT scores are biased in favor of those kids, the ones with parents who care.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 


Leave a Reply