Standardized Tests May Go, But Bias Will Remain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This week, several private schools in and around Washington, D.C., announced that they were dropping Advanced Placement classes from their curriculum. This is the latest case of elite educational institutions moving away from standardized testing.

While there are plenty of reasonable criticisms about an academic culture revolving around standardized tests, eliminating them doesn't eliminate all the concerns. There will be winners and losers as testing is de-emphasized. Expect rich kids to have a new leg up on students from more modest financial backgrounds.

One of the biggest criticisms of standardized tests is that they give an advantage to rich kids whose families have the resources to spend money on test preparation and tutors. It's not clear that de-emphasizing testing does anything to change the underlying socioeconomic dynamic.

Removing an application requirement, like removing any other barrier to entry, should lead to an uptick in applicants to colleges, some percentage of whom will come from less-privileged backgrounds. But rich families are still going to have significantly more resources to spend on their kids' education than poorer families, and de-emphasizing testing will just mean those resources get allocated on something else.

A teacher at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the schools dropping AP classes, said that after the change she'll rename her AP Environmental Science class to Advanced Global Applications in Environmental Science. She can teach more and different material than is on the AP test. Of course her students can also study for and take the AP test. But students at a poorer school, where the only advanced environmental science class is the AP version, will not have an equivalent opportunity to follow the Holton-Arms curriculum.

In general, if private schools that cater to rich kids make a big change to their curriculum, we should assume that they're doing it because it benefits the students and families who are paying top dollar to attend. (Holton-Arms tuition for the 2018-2019 academic year approaches $43,000.) As someone who took my share of Advanced Placement classes in high school, I'm sympathetic to teachers and students who feel constrained by the rigidity of standardized test course material. I have no doubt that freeing schools from the strictures of that curriculum could lead to a more enriching educational experience.

That being said, I can't help but see a national movement against testing as coinciding with the growing tensions around Asians competing for slots at prestigious schools. Whether it's lawsuits about whether there are quotas capping the number of Asian students admitted at Ivy League schools, or a fight over the role of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in New York City, there's a growing debate about racial dynamics in elite education, and especially whether Asians should get more or fewer slots than they're currently getting.

Sometimes this ends up being a racial conflict between wealthy white students and Asian students, many of whom come from working-class or immigrant backgrounds. If there's a general agreement that part of an elite school's mission is admitting at least a certain percentage of black and Hispanic students, then unless the elite schools enroll more students in general, the remaining slots are mostly a zero-sum fight between white and Asian students.

As someone who's part Asian myself, I'm sensitive to the stereotype that Asians are strong test-takers but aren't well-rounded. A lawsuit alleges this is exactly the bias that manifested at Harvard: Emphasizing murky factors like "personality," and de-emphasizing testing and more purely quantitative factors, seems like putting a thumb on the scale to benefit one group at the exclusion of the other.

In a test-driven admissions process, rich kids with educated parents had an advantage over kids from other backgrounds. Removing testing changes the game: Rather than competing on an uneven playing field, poorer students might not get to play at all.

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