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Opinion: Test-blind policies may not always be effective in eliminating racial bias

A Scantron sheet used for multiple choice tests is pictured. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Chiara Grasso

Jan. 9, 2024 10:50 p.m.

In a post-pandemic era, test-blind policies have been adopted by universities across the nation, including the UC. After years of dissent against the inequities of standardized testing, this shift has been applauded by students and the general public alike. But it may be too early to celebrate.

The SAT and ACT have been around for decades – since 1926 and 1959, respectively. They were originally used as measures of college readiness, aiming to measure a student’s “aptitude” rather than their comprehension of school curricula to ensure that the brightest students went to the most prestigious universities.

These exams have been publicly criticized due to the systemic inequities they reinforce and exacerbate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, people from underrepresented racial backgrounds, specifically Black and Latino students, tend to score lower on standardized tests than their white and Asian counterparts. Moreover, female-identifying students tend to perform worse than male-identifying students, which is especially evident in the math section.

These results may be partly due to the content of the exams. Certain questions tend to favor the background knowledge of middle-class white Americans, promoting racial bias, while passages relating to stereotypical representations of women encourage gender bias.

It is important to recognize the sociocultural differences embedded in our society that contribute to this phenomenon. For instance, the poverty rate for Black and Latino communities is the highest among the United States population, being 17.1% and 16.9%, respectively. Therefore, white people are more likely to hold more wealth and attain additional resources to support future generations. This creates an unequal landscape in which affluent families are more likely to send their children to better-funded schools and pay for costly college exam preparation courses as well. On the other hand, low-income and middle-class families have limited access to these valuable resources and support systems.

Based on a 2018 study by the College Board, 63% of students increase their scores by taking the SAT multiple times. The Princeton Review and Kaplan Educational Centers claim that students enrolled in their prep courses improve their SAT scores by 140 and 120 points on average, respectively. However, these prep courses can be financially burdensome for lower-income students because of the additional costs of high enrollment prices.

It is apparent how the concept of the tests themselves isn’t the main issue but rather reflects a larger societal problem of systemic racism. In rushing to eliminate standardized testing as a method of evaluation for college admissions, admissions offices are forced to rely on even more racially skewed metrics.

This creates a myriad of ramifications that must be effectively addressed by universities across the U.S. to ensure that test-blind policies don’t end up causing the exact problems they were designed to prevent.

The main issue with removing standardized testing from the college admission process is that it eliminates an academic benchmark. Without this universal measurement, it is exceedingly difficult to objectively weigh students against each other when carrying out admission decisions.

A prime example of this is the difficulty in assessing the academic performance of international student applicants without a standardized measurement. Since high school grading systems differ drastically across countries, admissions officers are led to rely on other methods of evaluation instead, such as the type of institution attended.

This gives some students an advantage if they attend international high schools since these institutions have standardized grading systems such as the International Baccalaureate. Furthermore, students at these high schools are provided with resources that make the process of applying to international colleges smoother.

Ourania Efraimoglou, a third-year mathematics and economics student from Athens, Greece, attended a Greek-American high school with an International Baccalaureate program.

“We had counselors that would help with writing essays and tell you tips for the cities and each university. In Greece, public high schools don’t have these kinds of resources,” Efraimoglou said.

Because of the additional support, international schools are typically more expensive than public schools, giving students from affluent backgrounds an advantage when taking standardized tests as well, thus emphasizing how these disparities affect students globally.

In January 2020, a report released by the UC Standardized Testing Task Force extensively studied standardized testing measurements and urged the UC administration to maintain standardized testing to combat the problem of unequal access. The report also mentioned that grade inflation is skewed towards more wealthy schools, which further benefits affluent students.

Li Cai, a professor in the School of Education and Information Studies who has also served on the UC STTF, said it is difficult to compare students even across state lines because of a lack of universality in grading standards and school curricula.

Standardized tests are used to evaluate students from different backgrounds and school districts to identify those who may have not had equal opportunities, and prioritize individuals with higher test scores relative to their profile.

Cai said a high SAT score contributed to one-fourth of underrepresented students getting into UCLA before the standardized test ban.

José-Felipe Martínez, a professor in the School of Education and Information Studies, echoed Professor Cai’s stance.

“Test scores were being used essentially in a way that only benefited some students,” Martínez said. “It’s important that we understand that we have effectively lost those students.”

Even when standardized testing was in place, UC admissions placed a higher value on high school records than the scores themselves. The STTF states that it is uncommon for qualified students to be rejected from the UC exclusively due to their exam results. Therefore, it seems that the UC was trying to use test scores in students’ best interest.

Since the removal of the standardized testing requirements, some students have expressed concern because grades and GPA would be weighted more heavily.

“It’s one less thing you have to make up for something like a low GPA,” said Rocco Hage, a fourth-year history student.

Even with all this concern, many news sources, including the Los Angeles Times, have noted an increase in diversity among school populations in the last several years since the adoption of test-blind and test-optional policies.

However, correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation. Both Cai and Martínez said UCLA has been increasing the diversity of its incoming class annually for the last six to eight years.

Upon closer examination of racial-related bias on the SAT, the UC STTF report concludes that the bias is very minimal with no racial bias detected in the math portion, and mixed evidence regarding Black and white differences was found in the verbal portion. In the latter, the bias reverses and favors white students for questions that may be easier and Black students for harder questions.

The report concluded that the effects are too minimal to associate such a large statistical difference in test scores among racial groups.

This doesn’t eliminate the draining stereotype threat – the fear of marginalized students confirming stereotypes attached to their respective groups – which may lead to lower average test results among marginalized groups. This must be addressed in some manner, as eliminating standardized testing does not appear to provide a viable long-term solution.

Standardized testing is a complex issue that requires in-depth analysis. In our polarized era, it’s essential to acknowledge that not everything is black and white: We must carefully weigh the pros and cons while critically considering the impacts of our actions and who actually benefits.

Otherwise, we end up aggravating the very problems we were trying to resolve, and the people who had no voice are the ones who pay the consequences.

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Chiara Grasso
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