What Do Comparisons of Test Scores Tell Us About Fairness in Admissions Practices?

Thursday, September 22, 2011
Heard this before?

"The average test scores of minority students admitted to UW-Madison are lower than those of nonminority students admitted to UW-Madison. This is simply not fair, and is evidence of discrimination."

In other words, if minorities and nonminorities were treated equally in the admissions process, there would be no test score differences.

This claim is common and demonstrably incorrect.

Test scores in the general population are lower for minority students than for nonminority students. This means that even if UW-Madison were to rely solely on test scores for purposes of determining admission, and had the exact same cutoff point for admission (regardless of race), the average scores of minority students would be lower than those of nonminority students. In case that's unclear, try this. Say instead of a test requirement we imposed a weight requirement: you must be at least 200 pounds to be admitted. The proportion of football players admitted to UW-Madison would undoubtedly exceed the proportion of non-football players admitted. Same exact criteria, totally different chances of getting in, and totally different average weights of those admitted.

Among all of the factors you could use to assess whether two applicants are being treated equally, test scores are among the very worst, since they are more unevenly distributed than many others (e.g. minority/non-minority differences in average strength of letters of recommendation are likely much smaller than differences in average test scores).

It is for this reason that experts agree: "evidence of differences in [test] scores does not prove and almost certainly overstates the role of preferential treatment in admissions."

As we can all see, it is incredibly common to mis-interpret the significance of test score differences. Heck, the experts at the Center for Equal Opportunity do it all the time. But that doesn't make it right.


Please, read more about this-- stop the spread of incorrect information.