The Problem With Kendi

Why the SAT Is Anti-Racist

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action ruling, many progressives have responded with a flurry of proposals to push colleges to find alternative methods of pursuing racial equity. Common ideas include pushes to end legacy admissions, invest in more robust recruiting, increase enrollment, and strengthen wealth-based admissions preferences. I support most of those ideas — as we discussed recently on the Lost Debate — as do many experts across the political divide. 

However, a more polarizing and destructive response has been gaining steam in liberal circles. Many prominent commentators have called for an end to standardized tests. The most prominent form of this argument comes from Ibram X. Kendi, who had been calling for universities to abandon the SAT and ACT long before the ruling. In an Atlantic piece written days after the decision, Kendi once again laid out his argument:

When admissions metrics value SAT, ACT, or other standardized-test scores, they predict not success in college or graduate school, but the wealth or income of the parents of the test takers. . . . Standardized tests mostly favor students with access to score-boosting test prep. A multibillion-dollar test-prep and tutoring industry was built on this widespread understanding. Companies that openly sell their ability to boost students’ scores are concentrated in immigrant and Asian American communities. But some Asian American ethnic groups, having lower incomes, have less access to high-priced test-prep courses. 

The problem with Kendi’s argument is that he doesn’t discuss the alternatives to standardized tests, which are often even more regressive. I wrote about this issue in a recent article:

Do you know what else correlates with family income and education? Every alternative to standardized tests. This includes GPA, extracurricular access, the quality and quantity of letters of recommendation, college admissions editing and assistance, and connections to admissions offices. At least standardized testing is transparent and consistent. A student in Harlem is taking the same test as a student in Scarsdale. And though they won’t have the same access to resources to prepare, the tests are evaluated using the same criteria. The same can’t be said of many of the alternatives, which have all of the same resource inequities, but none of the objectivity on the back end. A student can have a 4.0 GPA at their zoned public school but may face college admissions officers who don’t respect that score as much as a 4.0 GPA at an elite private school. If that Harlem student sat for the same test and did better than that kid in Scarsdale, then that student from Harlem will get the admissions officer’s attention.

Now, thanks to a new comprehensive study from Raj Chetty’s team over at Opportunity Insights, we have data to demonstrate the difference between standardized tests and other measures. Here’s what his study had to say:

[O]ur results raise questions about the equity implications of holistic evaluation policies. Highly selective public colleges that follow more standardized processes to evaluate applications exhibit smaller disparities in admissions rates by parental income than private colleges that use more holistic evaluations. While holistic evaluations permit broader evaluations of diverse candidates in principle, in practice, they appear to create incentives and scope for students from high-income families to further differentiate themselves from others (e.g., by enrolling at private high schools that provide non-academic credentialing). Similar challenges may arise in many other settings where applicants are evaluated on complex criteria, from internships to job applications to memberships in selective clubs.

According to Chetty, these so-called holistic practices are “uncorrelated or negatively correlated with post-college outcomes, whereas SAT/ACT scores and academic credentials are highly predictive of post-college success.” 

So, not only do these squishy practices harm poor students, they also select for students who are less likely to succeed in life, which is precisely the opposite of what Kendi claims. 

Kendi also argues that standardized tests are racist: 

[T]he tests themselves have racist origins. Eugenicists introduced standardized tests a century ago in the United States to prove the genetic intellectual superiority of wealthy white Anglo-Saxon men. These “experimental” tests would show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture,” the Stanford University psychologist and eugenicist Lewis Terman wrote in his 1916 book, The Measurement of Intelligence. Another eugenicist, the Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham, created the SAT test in 1926. SAT originally stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” aptitude meaning “natural ability to do something.”

This is a textbook case of the genetic fallacy. If something originated from an invalid or illegitimate (or racist) source, then it must always be wrong. According to this logic, if Isaac Newton was racist, then gravity must be racist. Of course this is silly. But let’s pretend for the sake of argument that an idea with a racist past must always be racist. In that case, the subjective admissions policies that would become our sole criteria in Kendi’s world would also become suspect. 

During its early history, Harvard’s admissions were based purely on academic achievement. But in the 1920s, the rising number of Jewish students led to unease among the university’s leaders, prompting a shift towards a “policy of equal opportunity.” This involved adopting Columbia University’s application system, which evaluated “character” and “fitness,” and subtly included inquiries about “religious affiliation” and “mother’s maiden name.” Adopted across Ivy League universities, this change enabled Harvard to justify a nearly fifty percent reduction in Jewish students in subsequent years.

The difference between the alleged racist origins of standardized tests and the newer “holistic” admissions processes is that the universities have weakened the former in order to discriminate against students of color, most recently against Asian-Americans. And they have kept the latter, the holistic processes, to mask their discrimination. Meaning, this isn’t about the genetic origins of the practices; it’s about their modern form. Universities like Harvard had been using the subjective measures to punish a minority group until a lawsuit exposed their practices

At almost every turn of this debate, Kendi has it backward. The subjective measures aren’t the solution, they are the problem. They are the tools of the racists and elites. If we want to be truly anti-racist, we should preserve the tests and abandon anything that can’t be measured.