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July 17, 2007

New Sociological Research Shows that Lowering the Weight of SAT Scores in Admission Decisions Could Eliminate the Need for Affirmative Action


WASHINGTON, DC — National debate about the use of Affirmative Action in America’s higher education system has a long, controversial history. Should institutions simply admit college students based solely on academic merit? Or, should they continue to give weight to other factors, especially to actively address the need to ensure racial and/or ethnic diversity?

In the August 2007 issue of The American Sociological Review (ASR), sociologists Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University and Marta Tienda of Princeton University show that resolving this debate does not have to entail an either/or decision. Instead, universities can achieve a diverse campus by using different measures to define “merit.” Relying on SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test) scores as the main measure of merit, as is the current norm, does not achieve the desired diversity. But, if universities place more weight on performance-based measures of merit, like high school class rank, they can achieve the goal of enrolling a diverse student body while not compromising excellence.

Lead author Alon says, “The ‘tension’ between test scores and diversity motivated us to show how Affirmative Action was required because the weight placed on test scores in admission decisions, especially at selective institutions, rose over time.” The authors dub this increasing reliance on test scores to screen applicants as the "shifting meritocracy." This shift occurred despite the mounting evidence that test scores have low predictive validity for future academic success. The emergence of a test-score meritocracy amid pervasive test-score gaps required selective institutions to give underrepresented minorities an admission boost to achieve campus diversity.

The authors find that class rank is “highly compatible with achieving institutional diversity and does not lower graduation rates.” In examining Texas’s “top-10 percent” law, in which public universities in Texas ignored test scores in admissions for the top ten percent of each graduating high school class, Alon and Tienda found that by ignoring SAT scores, elite schools can broaden access to selective institutions, achieving results comparable to affirmative action policies. The authors caution from generalizing these findings to the entire nation but they question the wisdom of the growing emphasis on test scores in college admission decisions relative to the costs of restricting educational opportunities. The ideal of equality of opportunity can be better served if test scores are considered in admission decisions, but interpreted using the applicant’s background information.

The authors also offer an explanation into why there is an increased reliance on SAT scores. Alon says, “First, there is the college squeeze: An increased competition for every slot, especially at the more selective schools. This leads to pressures to find a measure of merit, supposedly a measure of innate ability, to sort and rank an increasing number of applicants. Second, the inflated weight given to test scores in the admission decisions is directly related to the ranking business. An example would be U.S. News and World Report. These latter rankings underscore test scores as the key indicator for institutional selectivity, forcing institutions to place an even greater weight on scores in order to climb the ‘pecking order’ within the rankings.”

The authors believe this competitive pressure creates a self-fulfilling prophecy within which institutions are trapped. The only way to minimize the ranking competition and its destructive consequences for admission practices is if several elite institutions declare they will not participate in the annual ranking. This action alone will deflate the weight given to test scores.

Alon believes that the inequality between race and classes in scholastic achievements is unacceptable. “This inequality is a major source of societal conflicts, impairing the cohesion of the social system. We need a better understanding of the mechanisms that constrict the educational pipeline for disadvantaged students.”

Ultimately, Alon thinks that if this country wants to discontinue Affirmative Action practices in 25 years, as suggested by the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision, higher education needs to start thinking now about the mechanisms that generate and maintain inequality and that restrict opportunity for minority students.

Alon explained that “given the changing demographic contours of the U.S. population, the importance of broadening the pipeline to higher education cannot be overstated. Test scores seem to be an increasingly important barrier for minorities' chances to attain a bachelor's degree, restricting their opportunities to become leaders in all walks of life."

A copy of the study can be found here.

The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the 101-year-old American Sociological Association (ASA). Vincent J. Roscigno and Randy Hodson, both of Ohio State University, are co-editors of the American Sociological Review.

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.