The End of Affirmative Action and the Testing Landscape

Jed Applerouth, PhD
July 24, 2023
min read
The End of Affirmative Action and the Testing Landscape

Thirteen years ago I was invited to attend a national gathering of college counselors for independent schools (ACCIS) where the question was posed to a panel of admissions directors at highly selective colleges, “What would happen if the Supreme Court overturned Affirmative Action?”

Without missing a beat, the then Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Columbia University, Peter Johnson, responded that Columbia would have no choice but adopt a policy of test-optional admissions: the other admissions directors on the panel agreed. To preserve diversity, a primary institutional objective for these top schools, the test-score submission requirement would have to be dropped due to differences in scoring across ethnic and racial groups.

But it wasn’t the high court that drove nearly every highly selective school in the country to adopt test-optional admissions; it was the pandemic. That seismic change is already in the rearview. What further impact might the SCOTUS ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, banning affirmative action in higher education, have upon the testing landscape?

Standardized testing and score gaps

When it comes to standardized testing in education, mean scoring differences across different ethnic and racial groups appear on a wide variety of assessments including the NAEP, the PISA, the SAT, the ACT and many others. Given that in the US, there are significant differences across ethnic and racial groups in terms of educational attainment, family income, accumulated wealth and many other measures, it would be surprising if these background differences did not manifest on standardized measures of educational attainment.

With affirmative action in place, admissions officers could consider the race and ethnicity of an applicant, and factor in that context while reviewing grades and rigor and test scores. Absent affirmative action, admissions officers seeking to maintain a diverse student body have to work harder to achieve their goals. Over the last several decades, nine states have outlawed affirmative action in higher education, from California in 1996, to Florida in 1999, to Michigan in 2006, and Idaho in 2020—with varying impacts on the diversity of students in the post-secondary public school systems.

The Case of California

California is often designated as the case study for how to retain diversity absent affirmative action. The diversity of the flagship state schools, particularly UC Berkeley and UCLA, initially plummeted following the passage of Proposition 209. However, targeted recruitment, focused outreach, and an overhaul of the admissions process led to significant gains in diversity while UC maintained a test-required admissions policy until 2020.

The University of California demonstrated that it is possible to both require test scores and achieve a diverse student population using race-neutral admissions, but it is neither easy nor cheap. In an Amicus brief filed to support Harvard and UC in the SFFA case, UC admitted that its outreach efforts to low-income students and race-neutral measures to increase diversity cost UC over $500 million.

Flagships in other states did not fare as well in their efforts to maintain diversity without affirmative action. The diversity of the student body at Michigan declined significantly following the passage of a constitutional amendment, Proposal 2, which restricted public universities from considering race in admissions. The percentage of black students at the University of Michigan decreased from 7% to 4%, in spite of the university’s outreach initiatives.

Race-blind admissions in a test-optional world

Test-optional admissions, now in place at over 1800 colleges and universities across the country, allows students to choose whether they submit their scores. Students with low test scores have no requirement or incentive to submit their scores, and in this new test-optional world, low-scoring students tend to withhold their test scores. While mean scoring differences exist across racial and ethnic groups, the fact that students get to decide whether they send scores lessens the impact of these differences.

Test-required admissions

While it is certainly possible to require test scores and achieve diversity targets without affirmative action, it takes more work.

Do test-required schools like MIT and Georgetown have the resources to do the deep recruiting and outreach necessary to maintain their desired level of diversity? Absolutely.

For the test-required Florida publics, affirmative action has been outlawed since 1999, so this recent ruling will not impact them.

On the other hand, the ruling may have a chilling effect on schools returning to a test-required position following their move to test-optional during the pandemic. With the return to test requirements for the Georgia flagships, the University of Tennessee system and Auburn’s conditional test requirements, we were anticipating more southern schools (e.g., North Carolina, Texas) returning to test-required positions. This ruling may slow or stop that progression.

Test-blind admissions

Will the ruling push some colleges or universities to adopt test-blind policies? Test-optional admissions policies effectively give colleges the cover they need to operate within the legal bounds of a post-affirmative action world, to weight or discount testing to the degree they see fit in their holistic admissions processes.

Test scores are not required. They are considered only if they are included in the application. The floodgates for applicants with lower scores have already opened with the advent of test-optional admissions.

How much more of a benefit, if any, does a school get when it goes test-blind? Students from underrepresented minority groups or disadvantaged communities with relatively strong scores will have their scores dismissed, as will students from every other applicant group. Colleges will turn a blind eye to scores that may help them identify the exact candidates they are looking to recruit. This is one of the major costs of taking a blind position to testing.

Test-optional and Test-blind admissions do not automatically increase diversity

Research has shown that adopting a test-optional stance does not automatically lead to increased diversity: In one compelling study, conducted by Belascoe and colleagues, 180 colleges and universities that adopted test-optional admissions policies showed no demonstrable increase in economic or racial/ethnic diversity resulting from the change.

Ultimately, colleges and universities that commit to building a more diverse campus can do so whether they require test scores, are test-optional, or go test-blind. Attaining diversity goals stems from the prerogatives of the admissions office: where will they invest their energy and resources, and how will they conduct student outreach and build programs and support for a diverse student body?

Schools that are committed to attaining a more diverse student body must actively and skillfully target applicants who might otherwise not apply or matriculate to their institution. Many colleges will look to California, potentially hiring present or former employees from the UC system to help drive diversity in a world without affirmative action.

Considering adversity

Following the announcement of the SCOTUS ruling, President Biden announced that the Department of Education would investigate creating a “new standard” to judge applicants that would take into account and measure the “adversity a student has overcome.”

This is similar to what the medical school at UC Davis has created: the socioeconomic disadvantage Index (SED) to evaluate its applicants. This is also similar to the race-neutral admissions policy enacted by Washington DC’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School, which took into account four “experience factors” including belonging to a low-income household and coming from a school that has historically sent few students to TJ. While TJ's admissions policy has been challenged in court by a group of parents and community members, SCOTUS voted 6-3 to allow the admissions policy to stand while the court case proceeds.

Biden’s call for a standard integrating adversity also calls to mind the College Board’s own adversity score that has been in place for four years to better contextualize SAT scores. College Board’s SAT adversity score accounts for 31 discrete variables from the crime and poverty rates of a student’s neighborhood to the course-taking and free and reduced lunch rates at their high school. This adversity measure may have new life in the post-affirmative action world as colleges move towards class and other race-neutral measures to maintain diversity on their campuses.

What happens next?

SCOTUS has ruled, and now we wait. We wait for the 2,500 4-year colleges and universities to announce to the world their updated policies for testing and admissions. We look to the influencers: the Ivy League and other highly selectives, the big flagship state schools.

How will they respond to the ruling? What will happen with legacy admissions, with the niche sports that are tied to admissions outcomes? And how much will the essay change, given that students can explicitly discuss race in that forum? Thanks to the pandemic, we live in a predominately test-optional world, but will that change?

We will learn much more in the coming months as we approach the first admissions cycle post-affirmative action and track the announcements of colleges across the country as they digest this new ruling and adjust their policies accordingly.


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