Do College Entrance Exams Discriminate? Yes, that is exactly what they were designed to do.


Author: Lisa S. Romero is an Associate Professor at the California State University Sacramento.

The death knell of standardized college entrance exams has been tolling for a while. More parents, students, and community members have come to realize what many researchers have long known—that the best predictor of college performance is prior performance (AKA: grades in high school) and not a score on a test like the SAT or ACT. It is also well established that, on average, students of color, first generation college students, and students from lower income households do not do as well on these tests as white middle or upper class students in spite of being otherwise well-qualified. The COVID-19 crisis has now pushed the use of these tests one step closer to the grave.

Recently, an Alameda Superior Court Judge ruled that the University of California must immediately cease its use of ACT or SAT scores as a determinate for admission because they discriminate against students with disabilities. And while Judge Brad Seligman’s order was in the form of a temporary injunction, he made clear that he sees a much larger issue in play. In fact, Seligman rightly included in his opinion that these standardized tests may not at all be reliable indicators of college performance.

While some earnestly maintain that tests like the SAT and ACT are necessary to validly judge academic potential, given a limited number of college seats and scholarships, what few know is that college entrance exams were designed, from the start, precisely to exclude minorities and immigrants.

In the 1920’s, as college enrollment began to expand, elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, and others became concerned about the expanding number of applicants from “undesirable” backgrounds. The colleges saw themselves as institutions run by and for Americans—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans—and were troubled by increasing numbers of “unfit” applicants and students, namely immigrants, Jews, Italians, and Catholics.

Enter the birth of the college admissions office and a host of new requirements including admissions tests, letters of recommendation affirming that prospective students were of good character and “college material,” legacy admissions, interest in athletic ability, concerns about where applicants are from and regional diversity (rural applicants are more likely to be white), and quotas. New applications asked for a prospective student’s religion, their family’s religion, and if the family name had ever been changed.  Students were rejected for not having the “right character,” a not-so-subtle code word for non-Protestant. Concerns were raised about certain students being “too intellectual,” another not-so-subtle code word, in this instance, for Jewish. The first Scholastic “Aptitude” Test was administered in 1926.  Standardized tests asked questions designed specifically to test knowledge of dominate culture.  Just consider the question: “Runner is to Marathon as Oarsman is to [Regatta].”  In short, a vast array of non-academic criteria were created and specifically designed to filter out those who were not representative of the dominate culture.

Many believe that these are problems of the past. But we should not be so sanguine. In fact, universities today maintain many of these practices. SAT and ACT scores are still considered in spite of their known impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Asian applicants with higher grade point averages, tests scores, and rankings on extra curricular activities are passed over for white applicants rated higher in, what else?—character.

Consider that in the recent admissions cheating scandals, applicants faked participation in elite sports such as sailing, tennis and water polo, with “coaches” submitting letters attesting to the character of the applicants. And that just scratches the surface of non-academic criteria that are part of the contemporary admissions process.  So, back to the original question, do college entrance exams discriminate?  Yes, that is exactly what they were designed to do.