No, Minorities Do Not Earn Bonus Points on the SAT

April 10th, 2016 | Categories: Uncategorized

In a recent conversation the idea came up that minority students, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, earn extra points on the SAT’s by virtue of indicating their racial identity. I dismissed the idea as not relevant to information I immediately needed to be aware of and moved on with the discussion as those around me wished to proceed which was on the basis that this idea was indeed true. I did this for three reasons. 1) My children are far from the age to worry about  the SAT’s. 2)  I do not have any knowledge on the topic myself with which to disprove the idea at the time though I was incredulous. 3) I have a deadline for a huge project, actually my fourth book, and with the deadline five days away time is not my friend and looking up extraneous information from what I need to focus on is not high on my agenda.

In an entirely unrelated search for information, I came across this assertion again online. Although not relevant to my immediate need for the book project, I thought I would take the opportunity to follow the footprints to see where they would take me. I had a designated amount of time in my head of how long I would allot to this pit-stop.

So there is plenty of information about SAT scores and minorities. But the most immediate hits from this type of search yields two types of sources.

1) Sources that discuss the score disparity on the SAT for minorities and discusses why it exists, how it has changed over time, and what still can be done to change it. These articles are from places like PBS and Inside Higher Ed.

2) Sources that discuss the bonus points that minority students of color receive or that highlight the point deductions that Asian students are subject to on the SAT’s. These articles are from places like The Conservative Treehouse and The Daily Stormer (self-described as an alt-right website with a symbol that looks an awful lot like a lightly veiled swastika and so I will not provide the link).

So I always like to go to the source of the research. As a researcher whose gone through a doctoral program I have a slight advantage over others who have not had these years of experience. However, if it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and looks like a duck, regardless of whether you have training as a veterinarian you can probably figure out it’s a duck.

duck doctor


Red flag # 1 The clearly partisan nature of the URL’s for the sites.

Red flag #2 The four articles I read all discussed the same single study.

Red flag # 3 All the articles referred to a loosely named “Princeton University Study” without reference to any researchers, research institutes, journals that published the study, or title of the study.

Red flag # 4 No article linked to the actual study.

Red flag #5 The links that were provided were to other articles which made the same claims.

Red flag #6 The articles cited the same chunk of text (or paraphrased) without indication of where the actual text came from except that it is from a powerpoint presentation from someone named Ann Lee. The original article, from the Los Angeles Times, seems to be the first to discuss the powerpoint presentation and is linked to and/or cited by by the others.  A seemingly legitimate (unbiased) source it does not actually tell us who this Ann Lee is either.

Red flag #7 The articles do not discuss the research. Rather, they discuss Ann Lee’s powerpoint presentation about the research.

Red flag #8 To find the actual research I have to stop following the path led by these articles and instead do an entire new search for the research itself. I was able to find the study and another related study by the same lead researchers easily once I stopped looking at these clearly partisan sites that were discussing the study. In other words, the articles citing the study as evidence actually made it hard for me to find the actual study itself by not giving the basic information on the study (authors, title, or link).

Red flag #9 Eventually, I came across one cite that was more neutral and provided relevant information. This was an article from The Daily Pennsylvanian which provides more information on this mysterious Ann Lee who it turns out “runs a college preparatory tutoring center in Arcadia, Calif.” This article also specifies the authors of the study “Thomas J. Espenshade, Chang Y. Chung and Joan L. Walling” and provides more details about their research by way of a description and a, unfortunately broken, link to the actual research.

Turns out, the actual study concludes the exact opposite of what Ann Lee’s powerpoint presentation concludes. In the “Princeton University Study” research, the authors reach three conclusions:

1) Colleges provide lots of preferences that benefit certain students and not others including legacy admissions; despite this,

2) affirmative action in admissions processes that only serve to benefit Black and Hispanic minorities, regardless of SAT scores, are the only ones that are surrounded in controversy; and

3) without these preferences for Blacks and Hispanics (because of the ways in which racial and socio-economic disparities intersect in the country at large), members of these groups would be disproportionately unable to be admitted to elite universities.

What the article actually says is:

It is possible to convert the magnitude of these preferences to a common SAT metric. The bonus for African-American applicants is roughly equivalent to an extra 230 SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), to 185 points for Hispanics, 200 points for athletes, and 160 points for children of alumni. The Asian disadvantage is comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points. [p. 1431]

Where is the confusion between this research and Ann Lee’s powerpoint about the research? Ann Lee, the author of the LA Times article, and all those who cite that article and discuss Lee’s presentation misinterpret the study and assert some version of the following related to SAT scores:

African Americans received a “bonus” of 230 points, Lee says…. “Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points.”


The disparity between the powerpoint presentation and the research is that there is no bonus points on the SAT but instead there are a combination of considerations that go into decision making to accept any person that applies to a college, one of which is the SAT. These considerations can be “converted” statistically to have a value that can look like SAT points, which is done in the research in order to demonstrate the weight of these alternate considerations. The researchers use the idea of “bonus” points as a metaphor to demonstrate to the reader of the research that the SAT is insufficient as a single marker for admission. The authors note other considerations for enrollment like athletics and legacy that also could be converted as part of a “bonus” score to demonstrate that lots of students benefit over others because of these considerations and, yet, these considerations affecting non Hispanic and non Blacks are viewed as uncontroversial (and not dismissed as an unearned handout).

So, no, minorities do not earn bonus points on the SAT.

Think of it this way. In decision making for entrance into college a student may submit SAT scores, demographic information, references, past experience relevant to academics, high school GPA, an essay or two, may get interviewed, and so forth. The reason all of these are required is because colleges, as they should, identify that a student is more than a single test score. The study shows that if all that mattered for Black and Hispanic minorities was the SAT, they would be disadvantaged in trying to get into elite colleges. That is in part because of the advantage that other groups have outside of their SAT scores (legacies for example) and from birth (high socio-economic status). But the reasons that other considerations are in place is because all students are more than their SAT scores. And all students should be given considerations, and are, that allow college admissions processes to balance out things that are out of the students’ control (from socio-economic status to having a bad day when you took the exam, to being a terrible test taker) to those that are more in the student’s control (personal essay, high school gpa, etc.)  to demonstrate that student’s fit for the school.

So what’s the moral here. Actually, it’s not about SAT scores at all in my view. I’m always a big picture kind of person. The moral here serves us beyond the single issue of SAT scores. The moral is do your research.

If you see one red flag be cautious and do your own research. If you see nine red flags, as I did, I recommend writing a blog about it. So, here I am. Two hours from when I started writing this. The deadline for my book has not changed. Yet, I have taken the time, precious precious time, to write this blog. Why? Because I must do so.  Now knowing the path from which this misunderstanding stems I feel obligated to take the time to do my research. Book project be dammed. The stereotype guru cannot let such detrimental stereotypes stand unchallenged. 

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