The racist history of standardized testing in college admissions

July 25, 2020
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Competencies
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Holistic Admissions
  • admit it
  • Standardized Testing
young black woman smiling on campus

Admit It, the AACRAO admissions podcast, is back with Season 2.

The first episode features Dr. William (Bill) E. Sedlacek and focuses on "noncognitive assessments," a term that is not without controversy. These are non-traditional measures of students' potential to succeed that move away from solely defining "best students" by known scales such as GPA, test scores, leadership, involvement, and accomplishments and instead attempt to assess who students are as people.  Many campuses already use a holistic admissions process, which may include gauging a student's positive sense of self, realistic self-appraisal, and more.

Homogenizing effect of testing

"[T]here were some insidious ideas behind what testing could do in terms of keeping a student body more homogenous,” Sedlacek said during the interview. “[E]ven in the 60s, there was a lot of conversation around how unfair the college admissions process was.”

Many higher education professionals and students remain unaware of the history of admissions in higher education, and the transformation it underwent in the 1960s, which affects how people understand the process today. During that period, the admissions office moved away from the registrar's office to become its own unit, focused on recruitment. At the same time, changing demographics of the country, school integration, white flight to the suburbs, and the resurgence of school segregation affected practices and policies in higher education. Not coincidentally, the SATs became more prevalent, becoming a universal requirement, despite having existed since the early 1900s. 

“When we say elite, we’re really talking about white men.”

Higher education is, by definition, an elite institution. Standardized testing has been one tool used to maintain this status.

Sedlacek began work in exploring racism in higher education before the term “systemic racism” even existed. He acknowledges how he passed his undergrad at Iowa State because of all the breaks he was given--breaks that he wouldn’t have received if not for being a white, male athlete. 

“How come I am getting a break and what are the systems that supported me?” he asked.

Sedlacek encourages people to view higher education as a grouping of systems. The reality is that the process has several biases in it, backed up by the data.

So how to correct this? The first step--get a picture of your systems, and where the gaps are. Work against the advantages of the system that benefit the elite. 

Learn more. Listen to the full podcast episode -- "Implementing Noncognitive Assessment - Part 1 of 2" now.