November 15, 2015

BERKELEY, CA, Nov. 16, 2015 – Saul Geiser, research associate at Center for Studies in Higher Education,  will present surprising findings from his new study, which indicate that race is now the most influential factor of all the socioeconomic background factors that account for variation in SAT scores, on Nov. 17th at Berkeley.  The study, “The Growing Correlation Between Race and SAT Scores: New Findings from California” is based on a sample of over 1.1 million California residents who applied for admission to UC between 1994 and 2011.  The author, Saul Geiser, is former director of research for admission and outreach at UC’s Office of the President.  The study uses a statistical method known as regression analysis to examine the relative influence of different socioeconomic back ground factors on SAT scores, after controlling for other factors. 

In 1994, family income, education and race together accounted for a quarter of the variance in students’ scores, and parent’ education was the strongest predictor.  By 2011, the same socioeconomic background factors accounted for 35% of the variance in SAT scores, and race/ethnicity had become the most important factor. “Rather than declining in salience,” states Geiser, “race has now become more influential than either family income or parental education as a determinant of test performance. The California findings should give pause to those who assume that racial and ethnic disparities in educational opportunity will inevitably narrow over time.”

Geiser cautions that more research is needed to determine whether the California findings reflect a broader national trend.  A major obstacle to that research is missing data on the socioeconomic backgrounds of SAT takers.  When students take the test, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire about their background, but over half of all students now decline to report family income and other socioeconomic information on the SAT Questionnaire.  The best alternative source of data may be other state university systems that, like the University of California, receive applications from a sizeable proportion of test takers in their states. Because those institutions collect socioeconomic data on applicants for purposes of financial aid as well as admissions, the quality of the data they collect tends to be more complete and accurate than the SAT Questionnaire data.

The study calls on institutional researchers in other state university systems to independently replicate the California study with their own applicant data from the past 20 years. “It is important that this work be conducted independently of the national testing agencies both because of the unreliability of the SAT Questionnaire data and also to avoid any potential conflict of interest, whether in perception or in fact.”

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has offered to serve as a clearinghouse for this research.  NACAC has long called for colleges and universities to “take back the conversation” from the national testing agencies and conduct their own independent research on admissions testing.  NACAC has offered to support this effort by providing a forum for institutions to share their findings.

In his talk, Geiser will discuss the policy implications of the study findings for the continuing national debate over consideration of both race and the SAT in college admissions.  One key implication concerns the use of SAT scores to predict how applicants are likely to perform in college.  Because socioeconomic background factors are correlated not only with SAT scores but also with college outcomes, much of the apparent predictive power of the test actually reflects the proxy effect of socioeconomic status (SES).  After controlling for SES, SAT scores are a relatively poor predictor of how students will perform in college, especially students of color.  At the same time, racial and ethnic group differences in SAT scores are not reducible to differences in family income and parental education alone. “There remains a large and growing residual effect of race/ethnicity after those factors are taken into account.”

Accordingly, colleges and universities that continue to use the SAT need to take account of applicants’ socioeconomic background, including race, in order to ensure fairness in admissions.  As Geiser states in his study,

“SAT scores can have different meanings for different applicants, so that it is essential to consider test performance in light of individual context and circumstance. Race is a demonstrably relevant aspect of that context.”

Carol Christ, Director of Center for Studies in Higher Education, will moderate the presentation by Saul Geiser at 240 Bechtel Hall, from 12:00-1:00pm on Tuesday, Nov. 17th.

Sponsored by: The Center for Studies in Higher Education and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion


Saul Geiser is a Research Associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley and former Director of Research for Admissions and Outreach for the University of California Office of the President. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from UC Berkeley and taught there before joining UC’s Office of the President in 1981.  Geiser served as director of admissions research for the UC system after Californians voted to end affirmative action in 1996, and he helped redesign UC admissions policy.  His work has focused on issues of equity and predictive validity in college admissions, with the aim of identifying admissions criteria that have less adverse impact on low-income and minority applicants while remaining valid indicators of student performance in college.

Carol Christ is the Director, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley; former President, Smith College; and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, UC Berkeley.

 Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) was established in 1956 and was the first research institute in the United States devoted to the study of systems, institutions, and processes of higher education.  The Center’s mission is to produce and support multi-disciplinary scholarly perspectives on strategic issues in higher education, to conduct relevant policy research, to promote the development of a community of scholars and policymakers engaged in policy-oriented discussion, and to serve the public as a resource on higher education.