I Cannot Stress Enough That Grade Point Average is Racially Stratified Too
you want to replace the SAT because it's racially stratified with a metric that's... also racially stratified
Columbia University is the latest high-profile university to abandon the SAT. As these institutions always are, they’re cagey about why, couching everything in buzzwords and euphemism. But you can be sure that the most powerful force driving the widespread effort to drop the SAT is the insistence that the SAT is an engine of racial inequality. This has been the claim, again and again, that we need to drop the SAT because its results are racially stratified. As I’ve argued at length, the gaps in SAT results are actually smaller than people on social media like to claim (which is unsurprising because most of them have never read the relevant literature). But the movement to get rid of the SAT and replace it with greater emphasis on high school GPA marches on. What remains utterly bizarre about all of this is that high school GPA is racially stratified too! The correlations aren’t even particularly different from those in SAT data. It’s so utterly mindless; how can you justify replacing a metric because it’s racially stratified so that you can further emphasize a metric that’s also racially stratified?
As Sutton et al say, “Racial/ethnic minority students, boys, and especially black boys, receive lower grades than other groups… young black men are a highly marginalized racial/ethnic and gender subgroup throughout schooling.” This general condition is decades old. The ranking and gaps in high school are about the same as those observed on the SAT:
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.26
If you’d like a visual, this is from the Nation’s Report Card, data pretty old at this point but as I said the underlying situation hasn’t changed much:
Indeed, GPA is not just affected by race, but by skin tone. GPA doesn’t just reflect the presence of racial inequality but of colorism. But this is the metric that people are nominating as the central pillar of admissions, on explicitly anti-racist grounds. So what on earth are we doing here?
Again, I’m repeating myself, but all educational data is racially stratified. The SAT, GPA, the NAEP, the state standardized tests, reams of academic research results, and ancillary data like attendance rates. And that’s a reflection of the fact that we have a racially unequal country. What I find so bizarre about all of this is that liberals who will tell you that we live with extreme racial inequality will then turn around and say that racially unequal SAT results invalidate the test. But the test is just revealing the reality that you describe elsewhere in your politics! If we are a racially unequal country, unequal in as many ways as progressive people describe, then these results are precisely what you’d expect. Quantitative education metrics are an essential part of defining and understanding racial inequality, particularly given that they are metrics related to the success of children. Getting rid of them makes it harder for us to understand the degree and trend in that inequality. Indeed, we know that there are some racial influences on SAT score precisely because the test provides quantitative transparency. Abandoning that advantage is senseless.
Contrast that quantitative transparency with the fact that almost all competitive colleges have proprietary formulas which they use to adjust GPAs before consideration for admission. These adjustments are hugely important for admissions decisions, and yet they represent a black box, as schools usually keep their particular adjustment systems secret. So in GPA we’ve got a racially-stratified metric that gets modified by individual schools with secret formulas that make it impossible to know how that metric is actually used. Seems like a bad idea to make that so important in the admissions process. I’ve been trying to get some education reporter to investigate this dynamic for years, to no avail.
Oh, by the way, the SAT and high school GPA correlate at .785 anyway:
So an increasing focus on GPA won’t dramatically change who gets in anyway. Why then would we want to use the SAT? Because that ~.4 of the variance that’s not explained by GPA in SAT results can represent very different kinds of students. GPA rewards grinders; it rewards grade-grubbers; it rewards teacher’s pets. It’s as much a function of effort as of academic ability. And that’s fine; I would never want to remove GPA from the application process. But there are other kinds of kids, the brilliant but disengaged, the talented but unfocused, the gifted whose difficult lives keep them from doing well in school. Those kids are the ones the SAT rewards. So why not use both? And, for the record, the people who stand to gain the most from getting rid of the SAT are not poor Black kids but affluent white kids whose parents have the sway in the local school district they need to lean on teachers and get the grades they want for their children. People complain that SAT scores can be gamed with expensive tutoring. In fact, SAT tutoring has little effect, but let’s set that aside and point out what should be obvious: rich kids can get expensive tutoring to raise their GPA too! How on earth is tutoring an argument against the SAT but not against GPA, when grades are likely more easily influenced by tutoring?
You guys aren’t creating some level playing field where the rich kids won’t get ahead. Instead, you’ll be disadvantaging the brilliant but poor Black kid from a low-income school who used the SAT as the way to announce themselves. And you’re giving a hand to the idiot sons of privilege whose tony private academies will ensure they get a good GPA but who could never crack the SAT.
There’s always a lot of talk about media bias buzzing around out there, as well as a counter-narrative. It’s certainly true that most reporters and pundits are registered Democrats, and tend to have social and cultural politics significantly to the left of the median American. It’s also true that the media is fundamentally corporatist and militarist and other things. I don’t think the media is simplistically liberal. But I do think that this issue has been covered with almost total sympathy to the removal of the SAT, and I think that this certainly reflects the left-leaning bias of our journalist class. I also think there’s a subtler bias at play: journalism and punditry and analysis attract a particular kind of person. And that kind of person tends to be a humanities type, a words person, who struggled in math and thus viewed the SAT with stress and resentment. There’s a lot of people in the media who went to Bates when they thought they were entitled to go to Columbia, they think the SAT is why, and they never got over it. And I believe that this resentment plays a large role in the remarkably unbalanced coverage we’ve had of the SAT issue. I really do.
Let me address the education reporters out there one more time. I am begging someone at the New York Times, or The Washington Post, or anywhere: many colleges are dropping the SAT. They’re doing so because the test is supposedly racially biased and because the role of tutoring is thought to bias the results. But the metric that will receive even more emphasis without the SAT, high school GPA, is both just as racially stratified and just as subject to manipulation through tutoring. Can you please, please, please, find someone at one of these elite universities, stick a recorder in their face, and ask them how this makes sense?