The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are both reporting that a coalition is suing the University of California system to remove standardized tests. This is ostensibly in the interests of equity.
But really the issue is ethnicity and race. The UC system does not represent the students of California very well. This may not be sustainable for a public university system. I say the issue is ethnicity and race because UC does a reasonable job with economic diversity. A few years ago The New York Times reported that UCLA was the elite university with the highest proportion of students from the lower and middle class in the nation. If you use the interface at the story you see quite clearly that the UC schools have a very large proportion of students (30-40%) from the bottom 60% economically.
But, for example, 35% of the undergraduates at UC-Berkeley are of Asian ethnicity. 15% of California’s population is. This is causing problems.
Most of the people reading this weblog know all the facts (you have surely read Intelligence: All That Matters). Rather, I would like to remind readers that Chinese society has utilized testing to select officials for thousands of years.
What can we learn from this? First, the tests were not fair. You often needed resources to engage in the study of “classics.” They clearly favored those with privilege. But, they were invariably fairer than other paths to an official position. If someone was bright, but without resources, a village or a whole lineage might pool resources to subsidize their learning. There were cases of people from very poor backgrounds who obtained high office, even if it was irregular.
In contrast, other paths toward an official position, such as recommendation, tended to be monopolized by those with connections.
The “natural experiment” has happened many times. The plaintiffs in the above case assert that “teacher recommendations” “would provide a fairer way of judging students.” They are either ignorant or being disingenuous. Teachers are human, and there is a fair amount of evidence that they naturally bias toward believing children with polish and who “look the part” are smarter and more competent.
In the near term, I think the UC system can tune their demographic problem of nonrepresentation by removing standardized tests, since Asian students, in particular, do so well on these. But over the long run the more you move toward subjective and intangible methods of judgment, the more people with connections and privilege will manipulate the system and benefit from it.
Note: Just to be clear, I think American society will get rid of “objective” measures that have a “disparate impact.” But, ironically or not, I think in the long-term it will probably just solidify class privileges even more than is currently the case.