By Mark Bauerlein

Why would selective colleges no longer require all or part of the SAT and ACT exams for admissions?

Lots of them have made the decision to eliminate the writing portion of the exams in a remarkably short period of time—Stanford, Princeton, etc.—showing just how carefully schools monitor one another’s admissions practices and vie for advantage.  If one school makes a change that the other schools suspect may draw a few top students who might otherwise go to their schools, the leaders of the others will quickly follow suit.  The Ivies compete maniacally with one another for high school talent.  If the applicant pool at Williams College rises by ten percent and Amherst’s stays the same, the admissions dean at Amherst frets, wonders what happened, and searches for corrective tactics.  A larger pool yields a higher “selectivity” rating, which figures in college rankings.  If an adjustment in the application process attracts more high school seniors, it makes no sense not to do it.

There is one qualification, though: there must be no decline in the remaining measurable qualifications of the individuals in the final entering class.

And so school officials must explain the changes on the grounds of access and fairness and simplicity, and downplay any adverse effects on the quality of the newly-garnered applicants.  Columbia justifies its new procedure on grounds of personalization and stress relief.

“Standardized tests are simply one component of our holistic admissions review, in which quantitative credentials are assessed within the broader context of an applicant’s interests, background, personal qualities and accomplishments,” says Columbia Undergraduate Admissions on the change.  “We hope the increased flexibility with our application will ease some of the stress students may feel when going through the college admissions process.”

An official at Mills College in Oakland, CA likewise highlighted the decision to eliminate tests scores as a way to individualize the process:

“Mills College Provost Chinyere Oparah says when students do not submit test scores, the admissions office focuses more on other parts of the application including grades, recommendations, essays, and other unique material a student chooses to submit.

“We actually have a holistic review . . .”

Brown University stated that it dropped the writing part of the SAT because it disadvantages low-income high school students.  While upper-income students can afford SAT tutoring that includes writing instruction, the free SAT coaching available to poor students often doesn’t include it.  A spokesman for Brown added that the change in the application isn’t as drastic as it sounds, once again emphasizing the holistic nature of the process:

“Standardized test performance is only one point of measurement, and we look at a wide range of factors when considering each applicant for admission,” he said.

Princeton also attributes dropping the writing exam to the financial burden it imposes on low-income students.  Its admissions web site states:

Students who do not take the writing section of the [SAT or ACT] exam will not be disadvantaged in the application review process.  With this policy, Princeton aims to alleviate the financial hardship placed on students, including those who have the opportunity to take the test without writing during the school day and for free.

Princeton and many other schools aren’t skipping the writing element entirely, however.  Several of them ask that applicants submit a graded writing sample from high school coursework, which, they imply, will be a more authentic representation of a student’s interests and ability than a standardized essay response.

Obviously, whatever the causes identified and rationales offered, the trend runs against quantification.  In cutting writing scores from the dossier, selective schools remove a hard-and-fast data point, thereby increasing the impact of softer and fuzzier variables such as teacher recommendations, the personal essay, and extra-curriculars.  Those elements singularize an applicant.  Numbers generalize him.

The Columbia statement quoted above mentions the “increased flexibility” that its application process will afford students now that one numerical factor has disappeared, I presume because applicants will be able to showcase personal attributes and accomplishments to a greater degree.

But the real flexibility will happen in the review of applications by the admissions office.  Test scores don’t allow much room for judgment calls.  You can’t compare two applicants’ scores and form subjective opinions.  You need “context”—demographic profiles, schools attended, location, etc.—in order to interpret those scores in one direction or another.  And the fewer scores they have to interpret, the more latitude they have to judge the applicant.

But why now?  Why, suddenly, have top schools rushed to kill the writing component?  People have criticized standardized tests for years, and one reason the SAT added an essay section in 2006 was because of general concerns in the professional and business worlds over the quality of writing by college graduates.  Also, as the stories above and many other commentaries on the loss of the writing requirement show, nobody wants to say that writing skills aren’t crucial to college readiness and career success.  Why, then, drop a test that measures them?

Because Anthony Kennedy has stepped down from the Supreme Court.  That’s my guess.  Justice Kennedy delivered the last Supreme Court opinion that licensed affirmative action in college admissions, stating in Fisher v. University of Texas that policies at Texas were properly “narrowly tailored.” He accepted, too, the university’s ambition to create a “robust exchange of ideas, exposure to differing cultures, preparation for the challenges of an increasingly diverse workforce, and acquisition of competences required of future leaders.”  (Those were the university’s own words, quoted approvingly by Justice Kennedy.)

Whoever the replacement for him turns out to be, chances are that he will not share Justice Kennedy’s credulousness.  The Trump Administration has already shown its hostility to progressivist social engineering in the education realm, and a story last week in the Harvard Crimson within days of Judge Kavanaugh getting the nod bore the title “Kavanaugh’s Nomination May Jeopardize Affirmative Action, Experts Say.” Admissions officers surely have discussed how a Trump choice will affect their “flexibility.”  With the Asian American challenge to affirmative action headed to the Court in the coming term, they see their jobs undergoing a drastic revision in 2019.

Moreover, evidence that Asian applicants were strong on test scores but weak on the personal-skills side, at least in the eyes of admissions officers, indicates why selective admissions are shifting away from numbers and toward individualism.  The score gap between Asians/whites and blacks/Hispanics is vast, and in recent years it hasn’t closed, and one way to overcome it is simply to reduce the impact of scores and raise the impact of context.

Selective institutions are moving quickly, preparing to limit the damage (in their eyes) that the unconstitutionality of affirmative action will do to their institutions.  That’s what the current policy changes are really about.