BERKELEY VERSUS THE SAT: A Regent, a Chancellor and a Debate on the Value of Standardized Testing in Admissions by John Aubrey Douglass CSHE 3.19 (January 2019)


The following essay details a debate between UC Berkeley and a Regent who made charges of discrimination against Asian-American students that are similar to the current legal challenges facing Harvard University. The crux of such charges: on average, that one racial or ethnic group is more “qualified” than other groups, often underrepresented minorities, yet they have lower admissions rates. In 2004, Regent John Moores, convinced of discriminatory practices toward Asian-American students in the admissions process at Berkeley, did his own analysis of UC admissions data focused on SAT scores and that he publicized in the LA Times and other venues. Moores claimed his investigation provided clear evidence of discrimination. In the aftermath of California’s Proposition 209 barring the use of race in admissions, Moores complained that Berkeley’s adoption of a “holistic” review of applications reduced the importance of test scores by elevating subjective "measurements" that served as possibly illegal proxies for race and ethnicity. Conjuring memories of charges of discrimination in the 1980s by the Asian-American community regarding Berkeley’s admissions processes, Moores asked, “How did the university get away with discriminating so blatantly against Asians?” For anti-affirmative action advocates, like Moores, standardized test scores were, and are, seen as the gold standard of academic ability since it is a “universal” measure unlike grades that are local assessments of abilities and subject to grade inflation. However, when compared to grades in high school, test scores have proven weak indicators of subsequent academic success at highly selective universities that must choose among a large pool of highly qualified students. Test scores also are not necessarily good measures for predicting the future engagement of students in the wide range of experiences and opportunities offered by major universities – including public service, undergraduate research, and co-curricular activities. Anti-affirmative action advocates largely see admissions as a reward based on test scores and are not terribly concerned with the predictive validity of other admissions criteria. This essay concludes with a brief discussion of the similarities of Moores’ analysis and charge of discrimination in admissions with that at Harvard, and the probable legal path toward a new Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.

Publication date: 
February 1, 2019
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)