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Experts: SAT Biased Against Minorities

Campus Minority Leaders React to Report

By Melissa Lee

Test experts and campus minority leaders interviewed this week say the results disclosed in a confidential report on admissions data only confirm their belief that the Scholastic Aptitude Test discriminates against certain ethnic and economic groups.

The report, published by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, an organization of 32 private colleges, compiled admit rates and SAT scores on the basis of ethnicity. Data showed that SAT scores for most minorities in the class of 1995 were below the overall average.

At Harvard, Black students in the Class of 1995 averaged 1290, Hispanics scored 1310, Asian Americans averaged 1450 and whites averaged 1400. The overall average score for Harvard was 1390.

Experts and minority students say the scores do not accurately reflect students' aptitude because the minority groups which score lower often come from less privileged economic backgrounds. Questions on the test are often biased in favor of the more privileged student, according to stud- ies by Fairtest, a Cambridge-based "national center for fair and open testing."

Dean of Financial Aid and Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons '67 last week minimized the importance of SAT scores, as they are "only one of the many criteria" in the admissions process.

But those opposing the SAT go even further, contending that the test is a worthless criterion.

"The SAT is Trivial Pursuit--how one can answer 145 questions in a very short period with no context and in many instances no thought does not tell you anything about a person's ability to succeed in college," says Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director at Fairtest.

La Vonda Williams '93-94, who is Black, says the test "clearly does not show aptitude" and that background directly influences student performance.

"Perhaps [the test scores] show the nature of the test or the experiences of the people who have taken the test" but it is not an accurate measure of academic ability, Williams says.

High-priced test preparation courses can train students to master the SAT, but are often inaccessible to students of lower socio-economic background, says Xavier A. Gutierrez '95, vice-president of Raza.

"If you have access to review programs like Princeton Review, you can master the test. But it's a matter if you have access to the resources to [enroll in such a program]," he says.

Schaeffer says numerous studies indicate that SAT questions discriminate against minorities and less privileged students.

A Fairtest report cites examples of biased metaphors in the verbal section, such as "dividends is to stock-holders" and "checkmate is to chess."

Alvin L. Bragg '95, president of the Black Students' Association, says from his personal experience he believes the test is biased, both socio-economically and racially.

Bragg says passages in the reading comprehension section of the test were "remote" from his experiences despite his education at a private preparatory school in New York City.

"It was a barrier I had to overcome," Bragg says. "The argument that it's a socio-economic bias and not a race bias is wrong."

Julia M. Reyes '95, president of LaO, says that she understands how the test can be biased, although she did not encounter any discriminatory questions when she took the test herself.

"I don't like judging a person's intelligence or quantitative reasoning based on a standardized test," says Reyes, adding that Hispanic students' lower overall average scores at Harvard do not accurately reflect the group's aptitude.

Gutierrez also says he did not find the test biased, although he says, "Looking back, if I didn't have the money [for a preparation program], there's no way I could have gotten [certain questions]."

Fitzsimmons acknowledges that studies on the SAT show that certain ethnic groups and students of poorer socio-economic background have a pattern of lower average scores.

He also says that a higher percentage of minorities, particularly Blacks, are on financial aid at the College.

"A complicated factor in the United States is that there is enormous differences in terms of socio-economic background, access to the best schooling, summer programs," Fitzsimmons says. "There are therefore some ethnic groups that experience more disadvantages."

According to a study by the College Board, minority students, with the exception of Asian Americans, have consistently scored lower than white students for the past 16 years.

Despite this trend, College Board spokesperson Janice Gams still says the test is a good standard measure for colleges to use in the admissions process.

"The colleges find them useful because not every student in America is required to take the same courses," Gams says, acknowledging that factors such as education of parents and economic situation can affect a student's performance.

In an effort to reduce the test's biases, says Gams, the College Board has completely revamped the all-multiple choice test. The new test, to be given next year, will include a writing section and a math computation section.

Many colleges, however, are moving away from using SAT's in the admissions process.

One hundred and twelve colleges across the country do not require the SAT for admission and several, including MIT, are de-emphasizing the value of a candidate's scores, Schaeffer says.

Schaeffer says that with the increasing number of experts disputing the SAT's validity, he hopes the test will no longer be required for college admission.

"I would like to see a national leader type of college--like Harvard--go SAT-optional and I'm sure you'll see a domino effect after," Schaeffer says.

Reyes also said "it would be nice to see colleges de-emphasize the test." And Gutierrez says making the test optional would be the best way to ensure that college admissions officers do not solely focus on SAT scores.

But Harvard officials say the University will not be joining the trend, despite a move by another Ivy League school, Columbia University, to de-emphasize the test. While Fitzsimmons says scores are a small part of a candidate's portfolio, the University is reluctant to completely discount the SAT's validity.

"I feel they're a reasonable predictor of academic work," says Dean K. Whitla, associate director for admissions and former member of the board of trustees of the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the SAT

Dean of Financial Aid and Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons '67 last week minimized the importance of SAT scores, as they are "only one of the many criteria" in the admissions process.

But those opposing the SAT go even further, contending that the test is a worthless criterion.

"The SAT is Trivial Pursuit--how one can answer 145 questions in a very short period with no context and in many instances no thought does not tell you anything about a person's ability to succeed in college," says Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director at Fairtest.

La Vonda Williams '93-94, who is Black, says the test "clearly does not show aptitude" and that background directly influences student performance.

"Perhaps [the test scores] show the nature of the test or the experiences of the people who have taken the test" but it is not an accurate measure of academic ability, Williams says.

High-priced test preparation courses can train students to master the SAT, but are often inaccessible to students of lower socio-economic background, says Xavier A. Gutierrez '95, vice-president of Raza.

"If you have access to review programs like Princeton Review, you can master the test. But it's a matter if you have access to the resources to [enroll in such a program]," he says.

Schaeffer says numerous studies indicate that SAT questions discriminate against minorities and less privileged students.

A Fairtest report cites examples of biased metaphors in the verbal section, such as "dividends is to stock-holders" and "checkmate is to chess."

Alvin L. Bragg '95, president of the Black Students' Association, says from his personal experience he believes the test is biased, both socio-economically and racially.

Bragg says passages in the reading comprehension section of the test were "remote" from his experiences despite his education at a private preparatory school in New York City.

"It was a barrier I had to overcome," Bragg says. "The argument that it's a socio-economic bias and not a race bias is wrong."

Julia M. Reyes '95, president of LaO, says that she understands how the test can be biased, although she did not encounter any discriminatory questions when she took the test herself.

"I don't like judging a person's intelligence or quantitative reasoning based on a standardized test," says Reyes, adding that Hispanic students' lower overall average scores at Harvard do not accurately reflect the group's aptitude.

Gutierrez also says he did not find the test biased, although he says, "Looking back, if I didn't have the money [for a preparation program], there's no way I could have gotten [certain questions]."

Fitzsimmons acknowledges that studies on the SAT show that certain ethnic groups and students of poorer socio-economic background have a pattern of lower average scores.

He also says that a higher percentage of minorities, particularly Blacks, are on financial aid at the College.

"A complicated factor in the United States is that there is enormous differences in terms of socio-economic background, access to the best schooling, summer programs," Fitzsimmons says. "There are therefore some ethnic groups that experience more disadvantages."

According to a study by the College Board, minority students, with the exception of Asian Americans, have consistently scored lower than white students for the past 16 years.

Despite this trend, College Board spokesperson Janice Gams still says the test is a good standard measure for colleges to use in the admissions process.

"The colleges find them useful because not every student in America is required to take the same courses," Gams says, acknowledging that factors such as education of parents and economic situation can affect a student's performance.

In an effort to reduce the test's biases, says Gams, the College Board has completely revamped the all-multiple choice test. The new test, to be given next year, will include a writing section and a math computation section.

Many colleges, however, are moving away from using SAT's in the admissions process.

One hundred and twelve colleges across the country do not require the SAT for admission and several, including MIT, are de-emphasizing the value of a candidate's scores, Schaeffer says.

Schaeffer says that with the increasing number of experts disputing the SAT's validity, he hopes the test will no longer be required for college admission.

"I would like to see a national leader type of college--like Harvard--go SAT-optional and I'm sure you'll see a domino effect after," Schaeffer says.

Reyes also said "it would be nice to see colleges de-emphasize the test." And Gutierrez says making the test optional would be the best way to ensure that college admissions officers do not solely focus on SAT scores.

But Harvard officials say the University will not be joining the trend, despite a move by another Ivy League school, Columbia University, to de-emphasize the test. While Fitzsimmons says scores are a small part of a candidate's portfolio, the University is reluctant to completely discount the SAT's validity.

"I feel they're a reasonable predictor of academic work," says Dean K. Whitla, associate director for admissions and former member of the board of trustees of the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the SAT

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