What ‘Everyone Knows’ about the SAT Is Wrong


Last week I lamented that the College Board’s new practice of assigning applicants an “adversity score” will perpetuate a widespread myth — that the SAT is biased against students from poor or minority backgrounds. SAT scores predict college performance for underprivileged students about as well as they do for everyone else. To the extent there is a difference, the College Board’s own data show that a high adversity score is associated with slightly lower college grades than testing would predict. The idea that the SAT scores of high-adversity applicants need to be corrected upward to ensure a merit-based system is wrong.

Richard Kahlenberg is apparently not familiar with this evidence. Writing for The Atlantic, he argues that the adversity score is “a quantitative counterpoint to the SAT” that will improve merit-based admissions:

…[An] adversity score offers colleges some way to acknowledge what everyone knows: A student who scored 1200 on the SAT despite having grown up in a high-crime neighborhood and attending high-poverty schools has more long-run potential than a student who earned 1200 while having access to the best private schools and paid tutors.

Kahlenberg supports this claim not with data, but only with the insistence that “everyone knows” it’s true. In reality, the claim is too vague to evaluate. What does “long-run potential” mean? It cannot mean college performance, because we know that the SAT predicts about as well for the underprivileged as it does for the privileged. If anything, the underprivileged perform below expectations, not above.

Maybe “more long-run potential” refers to economic and social success after college? If so, Kahlenberg would have us believe that once we control for a test score such as the SAT, then people from poorer backgrounds are more successful than people from wealthier backgrounds. That’s empirically false. Controlling for test scores does attenuate the correlation between environment and future life outcomes, but the correlation remains positive.

So we are left with “more long-run potential” that is apparently never realized. I understand the frustration that Kahlenberg and others feel about that. In their view, privilege carries certain people through all stages of life — helping them with their SAT performance, helping them through college, helping them get a high-paying job, etc. Perhaps the underprivileged deserve special consideration as a form of redistribution.

If advocates of affirmative action in college admissions couched their arguments entirely in that social-justice framework, I would find their position more respectable. But giving preferences to lower-achieving students is in no way compatible with a merit-based system. When college administrators favor lower-scoring applicants, with no evidence that their scores underestimate their future success on campus or in the broader world, they have prioritized redistribution over merit. Why not acknowledge that?

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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