How Admissions Tests Discriminate Against Low-Income And Minority Student Admissions At Selective Colleges


A new study of college admission tests finds that the SAT and ACT tests discriminate against low-income, minority and female students in college admissions at selective colleges.

This chart shows that average SAT test scores increase as family income increases.

The average combined SAT test score grows with increasing family income.

Mark Kantrowitz

The cause is not intentional discrimination, but rather a statistical artifact of the way in which the SAT and ACT tests are scored.

The SAT and ACT admission test scores follow a normal distribution, also known as a Bell Curve.

When the location of the Bell Curve is shifted due to changes in the average test scores, small differences in test scores at the mean can be magnified at the highest and lowest test scores. This leads to big differences in the percentage of students with high test scores when test-takers are aggregated by income, race and gender.

The paper’s key findings include:

  • Students with family income of $100,000 or more are more than twice as likely as students with family income under $50,000 to have combined SAT test scores of 1400 to 1600.
  • White students are three times more likely than Black or African-American students and twice as likely as Hispanic or Latino students to have combined SAT test scores of 1400 to 1600.
  • Male students are 42% more likely to have combined SAT test scores in the 1400 to 1600 range than female students, possibly due to differences in performance on math exams.

These problems are more likely to occur at two or more standard deviations beyond the mean, such as when the combined SAT test scores are 1400 or more and ACT test scores are 31 or more. But, the problems can also occur to a lesser extent at lower test scores, such as at combined SAT test scores of 1200 or more or ACT test scores of 25 or more.

These results may have a significant impact on college admissions of minority and low-income students at more than 280 selective colleges, especially at the 24 colleges with 25th percentile combined SAT test scores of 1400 to 1600. These colleges have significantly below-average enrollment of Black or African-American students, Hispanic or Latino students, and Pell Grant recipients, despite being some of the nation’s wealthiest colleges.

The paper recommends that colleges stop using SAT and ACT tests in college admissions decisions. The SAT and ACT are at best weak predictors of college success and do not add value beyond the consideration of high school GPA and class rank. Given the equity issues raised by this paper, colleges should permanently abandon the SAT and ACT tests.

Bob Schaeffer, Executive Director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing said, “[This] important new paper uses strong, simple graphics to demonstrate what college admissions test critics have long claimed: reliance on ACT/SAT scores to evaluate applicants creates rigid barriers to access for many minority and low-income applicants.”

He continued, “Because of long-standing differences in scores among demographic groups, expecting incoming students to post extremely high test results guarantees that enrollments at selective institutions will be skewed toward children from white, Asian and affluent families. This process ends up excluding many academically talented young people from historically disenfranchised groups.”

The use of admissions test scores may also affect eligibility for academic scholarships and merit scholarships at less selective colleges.

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