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On White Preferences by Jay Rosner (participation)

April 17, 2012

On White Preferences by Jay Rosner

This article was originally published in the Nation Magazine on April 14, 2003 (pg. 24)

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases on April 1. In these cases, the white complainants argue that it is fundamentally unfair that Michigan accepts black applicants with lower SAT scores (or LSAT scores at the law school) than some whites who are rejected. But a new analysis of the SAT that I conducted reveals something startling: Every single question carefully preselected to appear on the test favors whites over blacks.

These data have the potential to reframe the affirmative-action debate, especially if they spark advocates to ask the iconoclastic question, What’s wrong with admitting some black students with lower SAT scores, when every question favors whites?

On the October 1998 SAT, for example, every single one of the 138 questions (sixty math and seventy-eight verbal) favored whites over blacks. By favoring whites, I mean that a higher percentage of white than black students answered correctly every question prescreened and chosen to appear on that SAT. I call these “white preference questions.”

This is not a quirk of one particular SAT form. SAT forms are designed to very strongly correlate with one another. And the pattern I’ve identified is a predictable result of the way the tests are constructed.

Latino test-takers are similarly affected, faring only a bit better than blacks.

I don’t believe that ETS–the Educational Testing Service, the developer of the SAT and the source of this October 1998 test data–intended for the SAT to be a white preference test. However, the “scientific” test construction methods the company uses inexorably lead to this result.

Each individual SAT question ETS chooses is required to parallel the outcomes of the test overall. So, if high-scoring test-takers–who are more likely to be white–tend to answer the question correctly in pretesting, it’s a worthy SAT question; if not, it’s thrown out. Race and ethnicity are not considered explicitly, but racially disparate scores drive question selection, which in turn reproduces racially disparate test results in an internally reinforcing cycle.

Here’s a verbal question that illustrates the SAT’s skewed test construction process:

The actor’s bearing on stage seemed _____; her movements were natural and her technique _____ .

(A) unremitting … blasé

(B) fluid … tentative

(C) unstudied … uncontrived (correct answer)

(D) eclectic … uniform

(E) grandiose … controlled

This looks like a typical SAT verbal question. Yet this question differs from others in one important respect: according to ETS, “8 percent more African-Americans than whites answered this question correctly.” I call this a “black preference question.” I don’t know why blacks did better here, but nearly all SAT questions capture something about race that can’t be determined until pretesting. Because it favored blacks, who score lower on the test overall, this “actor’s bearing” question, which was pretested by ETS in 1998, did not favor high scorers and therefore was rejected for use on the SAT. I have identified several other examples, including a black preference SAT math question, that were rejected.

My considered hypothesis is that every question chosen to appear on every SAT in the past ten years has favored whites over blacks. The same pattern holds true on the LSAT and the other popular admissions tests, since they are developed similarly. The SAT question selection process has never, to my knowledge, been examined from this perspective. And the deeper one looks, the worse things get. For example, while all the questions on the October 1998 SAT favored whites over blacks, approximately one-fifth showed huge, 20 percent gaps favoring whites.

Skewed question selection certainly contributes to the large test score disparities between blacks and whites.

Supporters of affirmative action can take solace in the broad cross-section of higher education, labor and business institutions that filed amicus briefs favoring the University of Michigan in the Supreme Court cases. But defenders of affirmative action in university admissions have shied away from confronting the term “preferences” and from vigorously attacking the assumption of test neutrality. It is essential that we document the plethora of powerful white preferences throughout the admissions process, ranging from disparities in family wealth and income to unequal K-12 education–and, we now know, biases in SAT question selection. Affirmative action, at the very back end of this entire process, serves as only a partial corrective to the considerable white preferences preceding it.

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From → Participation

  1. Anna Chrisman 11143058 permalink

    This is an interesting article. I have never heard about how they choose the questions, but I don’t know if I like the way that they do it. It seems like some of the questions should not benefit the high scorers, despite their race. As long as a decent number of people answered the question correctly it should be considered for the test. I think that that would make it a little more fair.

    Obviously no one is trying to purposely make it easier for whites and harder for blacks. I don’t know how to even the playing field on this one, because it is difficult to change something so subjective and that affects everyone who applies to college.

  2. Tucker Creek permalink

    This is definitely intriguing and a little confusing as to why there is certain questions that would favor one race rather than the other. Going to the beginning of the article though I feel like the white students who got rejected over black students need to shut up and just deal with it. Life is unfair and they need to realize they are not going to get everything they want. But going back to the questions, I would like to see the testing data on the questions and if they notice that the questions are not as favorable for whites so they toss it out. Also, maybe because more whites take the SAT that is why they throw the question out because the majority of the test takers got it wrong, even if that majority is predominately white.

  3. Hannah Zabel permalink

    This is a prime example of how the SAT and other standardized tests are a poor representation of a student. In my opinion, these tests should not be as weighted as highly as they are when accepting or rejecting a student into a specific university due to issues such as these. The SAT is supposed to be a consistent exam that do not favor a student based on race, but as this article shows, the majority of SAT questions are “white preference questions”, giving whites an advantage to receive higher scores than those of other races. When white complainants argue that it is “fundamentally unfair that Michigan accepts black applicants with lower SAT scores than some whites who are rejected,” they should know that these tests are actually in their favor to begin with. I do not believe it is right in any means to let in a certain number applicants based on race, but I believe this article should be made aware to every race that is taking the SAT as well as universities that weight the SAT highly.

  4. Megan Grichel permalink

    I agree with Hannah that this is another example why standardized test scores should not hold so much weight in the application and admition processes. I was suprised that these questions could favor a race. I don’t think this was the intention of the test makers. But it goes to show that if different races answer questions differently then there are other factors that are affecting the outcome of these tests.

  5. Julia Balaban permalink

    I believe that along with Hannah as well that yes, these are a bad explanation of a students abilities because they are based off a persons race whether people who made the SAT and other tests are judged on a persons race rather than their intellectual abilities. I think this is very unethical and should not be allowed especially now that they have these statistics saying that African Americans aren’t as equipped to take the SAT as whites. As did Hannah say, that yes, this needs to be known and this article should be made a bigger deal because i guarrantee if this was more well known, there would be many more disagreements on how the SAT is ran to get into different univiersities.

  6. Kyla Chappell permalink

    I agree with Julia, in that if there were more awareness of how the SAT tests were constructed, they probably wouldn’t be so popular, and would probably bring up more arguments against it. I think it is completely unfair that any questions that are considered to be of “black preference” are thrown out as not worthy to show up on an actual test. Although, anything that is answered correctly by whites is considered “good enough” to be on the SAT exam. Even from all this, there are still complaints from whites that blacks are taking their admissions spots with lower SAT scores. Of course they have lower scores when the tests are made in order for whites to succeed!

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