Janet Helms

Janet Helms


Implications of Racial-Group Test Score Gap for College Admissions

September 29, 2020 (Tuesday)


Many college admissions committees are faced with a dilemma. On one hand, they would like to diversify their student bodies with respect to socioracial groups and racialized ethnic groups of Color. On the other hand, with respect to Black students in particular, there exists a long history of Black students obtaining lower scores on tests of cognitive abilities and skills relative to White students. The so-called test-score gap is obtained by subtracting the mean scores of Black students (usually the lower score) from the mean scores of White students (usually the higher score). The resulting differences or gaps are generally interpreted as evidence of the cognitive/intellectual impairment of the Black test takers, although various rationales have been offered for the disparities including environmental factors (e.g., social class differences) or racial-cultural bias in the test content. Consequently, universities historically have been legally challenged for admitting Black students with lower test scores than some White student(s) with a higher test score(s). Yet missing from analyses of the gaps is any focus on the effects of disparate sample sizes on the gaps’ magnitudes and on the standard deviations used to estimate the meaningfulness of the disparity between racial group’ test-score means.

In this presentation, I illustrate (a) the methodology for determining each racial group’s contribution to performance gaps on tests, such as the SAT and (b) the effects of disparate sample sizes on standard deviations. Stability in the magnitude of the gap overtime may be attributable to the relative stability of disparities in sample sizes. Admissions committees should consider (a) challenging the legal restrictions that prohibit use of separate racial group norms for selection purposes and/or (b) foster the development of assessment procedures that do not rely on parametric statistics.


Janet E. Helms is the Augustus Long Professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology and Director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. She is past president of the Society of Counseling Psychology (Division 17 of the American Psychological Association [APA]). Dr. Helms is a Fellow in Division 17 (Counseling Psychology), Division 45 (Ethnic Diversity), and Division 35 (Psychology of Women) of the APA. In addition, she is a member of the American Psychological Society and the American Educational Research Association. Dr. Helms has served on the Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Subspecialties, the Joint Committee on Testing Practices, and the APA Committee on Psychological Tests and Assessment, and she provided expert testimony to the Supreme Court in the case of Ricci v Destefano. Her service on editorial boards includes the Psychological Assessment Journal and the Journal of Counseling Psychology. She has written over seventy empirical and theoretical articles and books on the topics of racial identity and cultural influences on assessment and counseling practice. Dr. Helms was the recipient of the 2017-2018 Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award from the Society of Counseling Psychology (Division 17, of the American Psychological Association), the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from APA’s Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race, and the APA/APF Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Public Interest, and she delivered the American Psychological Foundation’s 2019 Arthur W. Staats Lecture on Unifying Psychology.