OPINION | Is the SAT really the problem?

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WHEN the University of California announced it will stop using the SAT and ACT for admissions, it sent tremors through the world of higher education.

If only because of its sheer size — the UC system covers 285,000 students over several campuses — others are bound to follow.

The recent decision by the Board of Regents was taken, as are so many decisions in academia these days, in the name of equity and diversity. Requiring SAT scores, the argument goes, discriminates against low-income, black and Latino children who perform poorly on the tests because they lack advantages such as prep courses. To amp up the pressure, a coalition of students and activist groups filed suit in November against the Board of Regents, challenging the SAT requirement on these grounds.

Undeniably wealth is a big advantage. But if the idea is to address what’s keeping children from a college degree, instead of papering over the achievement gap, it might be better to address the elephant in the room: family.

It’s taboo to raise it, but for all the invocations of “science” and “data-driven decisions,” seldom is any recognition given to what the data tell us about the most privileged kids of all: those living with their biological parents under the same roof.

“Family structure is about as important as family income in predicting who graduates from college today,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. “In the absence of SAT scores, which can pinpoint kids from difficult family backgrounds with great academic potential, family stability is likely to loom even larger in determining who makes it past the college finish line in California.”

The data are pretty conclusive. The more intact the family, the better the education outcomes. In a new IFS study, research psychologist Nicholas Zill reports that when it comes to graduation from top colleges, “students from intact families are twice as likely to do so as those from all other family types combined.”

By dropping SATs, UC hopes to produce a student body that includes higher percentages of blacks and Latinos. This requires discrediting the SATs as an indicator of college performance (a point contested by the UC Academic Senate). It also requires finding a way to make room for the students it wants by reducing the number of Asian-Americans (13.6% of California’s population but 29.5% of UC undergraduates). This is why the Asian American Coalition for Education warned the regents that, without the SAT, Asian-American applicants will “become easy victims of various radical acts of racial balancing.”

Wenyuan Wu, who addressed the regents on the coalition’s behalf, tells me she cringes whenever the anti-SAT crowd invokes the “racial/socioeconomic biases argument.” She asks: “What about those Chinatown kids whose parents toil in ethnic enclaves with low incomes and tremendous language barriers?” Which raises a further indelicate question: Is it a coincidence that Asian-Americans, who disproportionately earn entry into UC, disproportionately come from intact families?

If it’s unjust that rich kids get test prep from their parents, why doesn’t the university simply come up with a good prep course and provide it free to anyone who wants it? If the rejoinder is that the wealthy kids enjoy the further advantage of better schools, why do so many SAT opponents also reject measures that might help level the playing field — vouchers and charter schools come to mind — by giving underserved kids the opportunity of going to a good school too?

The modern American university isn’t afraid to weigh in when it comes to issues outside its direct purview. Two days before UC announced its decision on the SAT, it boasted of having completely divested from fossil fuels. But when it comes to addressing a major factor keeping students out of its system and thus widening the achievement gap — crickets.

As Charles Murray noted in “Coming Apart” (2012), the data showing the advantage to children of living with their biological parents across a range of outcomes are broadly accepted by social scientists. But those data are “resolutely” ignored by “network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.” Not to mention the UC regents.

“Given the science,” Mr. Wilcox says, “why can’t universities bring themselves to tell the truth that if you’d like your kids to get a college degree — especially from a selective college — you’d do well to get and stay married?”

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