What Do Comparisons of Test Scores Tell Us About Fairness in Admissions Practices?

September 22, 2011 | Blog

Heard this before?

“The average test scores of minority students admitted to UW-Madison are lower than those of nonminority students admitted to UW-Madison. This is simply not fair, and is evidence of discrimination.”

In other words, if minorities and nonminorities were treated equally in the admissions process, there would be no test score differences.

This claim is common and demonstrably incorrect.

Test scores in the general population are lower for minority students than for nonminority students. This means that even if UW-Madison were to rely solely on test scores for purposes of determining admission, and had the exact same cutoff point for admission (regardless of race), the average scores of minority students would be lower than those of nonminority students. In case that’s unclear, try this. Say instead of a test requirement we imposed a weight requirement: you must be at least 200 pounds to be admitted. The proportion of football players admitted to UW-Madison would undoubtedly exceed the proportion of non-football players admitted. Same exact criteria, totally different chances of getting in, and totally different average weights of those admitted.

Among all of the factors you could use to assess whether two applicants are being treated equally, test scores are among the very worst, since they are more unevenly distributed than many others (e.g. minority/non-minority differences in average strength of letters of recommendation are likely much smaller than differences in average test scores).

It is for this reason that experts agree: “evidence of differences in [test] scores does not prove and almost certainly overstates the role of preferential treatment in admissions.

As we can all see, it is incredibly common to mis-interpret the significance of test score differences. Heck, the experts at the Center for Equal Opportunity do it all the time. But that doesn’t make it right.


Please, read more about this— stop the spread of incorrect information.

1 Comment

  1. Reply


    September 23, 2011

    There's also the assumption that admissions decisions are made solely on the basis of test scores. Or that test scores are the most important criteria.

    I can't find the reference right now, but I know there have also been studies done to determine the relative predictive value of test scores vs. GPA in college retention/completion. And for students of color, GPA is a far better predictor of success - due in large part to the inability of tests like the SAT and ACT to provide a legitimate prediction for students of color.

    But the reality that folks seem to miss all the time is that CEO is part of a larger effort to minimize the attention to race, ostensibly for the purposes of pursuing a "color-blind" society. But as the Bible would say (and all these right-wing so-called Christians should know this) they shall be known by their fruits. They want to minimize the use of race so that they can continue to engage in functionally racist activities.

    I think it's important to remember that the folks who are vociferously anti-affirmative action, are often the same folks who are vociferously anti-immigration, pro-school segregation, anti-welfare, so-called small government, pro-racial profiling, and pro-guns.

    Long and short, they are the old White Citizens Councils in better suits.

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