To get into college, it’s almost mandatory to take the SAT. This test, distributed by CollegeBoard, represents a culmination of years of work by millions of students across America. In the school year prior to taking the SAT, countless hours are spent on test-taking strategies and studying techniques; compared to the SAT, class finals seem insignificant.
Recently, though, many people are asking why students have to take the SAT to get into college. Their reasoning hinges on two key issues: racism inherent in the test, and the test’s apparent lack of impact on predictions of success later in life.
There’s one important thing to note about the SAT for those who have not taken it in a long time: In January 2016, the highest possible score on the SAT was revised from 2400 to 1600. If you want to compare equivalent scores on the SAT versions, this website has translated scores in both directions.
The SAT, and standardized tests in general, have a history of being used to propagate racism and pro-eugenics ideals. Standardized tests as we know them today were originally designed for military use in 1917. These exams, the “Alpha and Beta Tests,” were designed to separate individuals into high intelligence and low intelligence categories. Those of “inferior intelligence” were, of course, considered inferior in every other way too. Discrimination of those who scored low on these tests, and other tests of intelligence, later evolved into laws enforcing sterilization of those with similarly poor scores on standardized tests.
This disproportionately affected poor people and people of color, who may not have had access to the same learning opportunities as people from the almost exclusively white upper class. Carl Brigham, who was one of the creators of the original “Alpha and Beta Tests,” had this to say about supposed intelligence disparities between races: “Our results showing the marked intellectual inferiority of the negro are corroborated by practically all of the investigators who have used psychological tests on white and negro groups,” and that America’s status as an intelligent nation was threatened by “incorporating the negro into our racial stock, while all of Europe is comparatively free from this taint.”
Although not perfect, ACT and SAT test scores are (currently) the best measure of a student’s knowledge, not subjective grades.
— Böb T. (@the_rtaylor) December 11, 2019
Those quotes come from Brigham’s influential 1923 book, “A Study of American Intelligence.” Three years later, he created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, better known as the SAT.
Even though it’s been almost a hundred years since Brigham had anything to do with the SAT, its history of racism still affects students today. When the 2017 SAT results were analyzed, it was discovered that “Asian (1181), white (1118), and multiracial (1103) students [scored] far above the average composite score of 1060, while Hispanic (990) and African-American (941) students [scored] significantly below it.” The results today show that minority groups are affected disproportionately by these tests.
Even the method of choosing questions for the test is unfairly biased against African American students. In the process of choosing questions for the 1998 SAT, numerous test questions that African American students answered correctly more often than white students were removed from the exam. They were replaced with similar questions that white students were more likely to get correct. This happened multiple times over the course of the exam due to the methodology of choosing questions.
The methods of choosing questions themselves are not intentionally racist, but they end up having a racist effect. If a question is chosen correctly more often by students who end up with a high score — often white students — then it is considered to be a good question. If a question is chosen correctly more often by students who end up with a lower score — often non-white students — that question is considered to be flawed in some way. This method, although seeming to be fair at face value, ends up hurting the scores of students of color by removing the questions they tend to know the answers to.
Today we remember taking 5 AP courses in high school just for 3 of them to be useless because my ACT/SAT test scores were high enough to let me bypass the credits they gave me 😔
— Brayden (@braydenuwu) December 17, 2019
Another issue with the SAT is its lack of reliability in judging a student’s success in college. A lot of research has been put in toward figuring out the SAT’s accuracy in predicting success later in life, and the results don’t paint the SAT as a prophet by any means. Overall, a higher score on the SAT does correlate slightly with higher grades in college, but there are a few issues.
One concern is that of influence. Sending in scores on standardized tests like the ACT and SAT can predict higher scores in college, and even higher pay afterwards, but the difference is incredibly small. In one study, students who sent in scores had a GPA that was five one-hundredths of a point higher on average than those who did not. That’s a minute difference on any scale.
Another concern is correlation versus causation. It’s hard to prove that the SAT score itself is what’s causing the better grades. There could be other factors involved; for example, those with higher SAT scores may have had access to tutoring for the tests, and might continue to utilize tutoring throughout college.
There are other problems that apply to all kinds of tests, not just the SAT. A lot of people don’t do well on tests and have trouble with high pressure situations. Because of the way college admissions work, this one test will have a huge impact on their choice of college, and it’s hard to focus on math questions when one’s entire future hangs in the balance. They also may have had a sleepless night beforehand, or had a personal issue on their mind while taking the exam. Basing one’s academic performance on one day of examination can’t take personal problems into account.
ACT / SAT Test Dates (ignore local test location) pic.twitter.com/sF4VgEUlv5
— Steven Reiter (@stevenreiter14) December 17, 2019
So, who’s taking action? One institution, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, removed its ACT and SAT requirements in 2014. Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College at the time, reported in 2015 that the decision was “the right thing to do” and yielded the positive results that the college was looking for; notably, its class diversity increased to 31% students of color as opposed to 21% two years prior.
Lash continued to say that “tests and rankings incentivize schools to conform to test performance and rankings criteria, at the expense of mission and innovation,” which went against his school’s dedication to the personal growth and achievements of its students. To many who disagree with the requirement of a standardized test for college, nourishing these skills is more important than coaching students on test-taking strategies.
Even though there does seem to be a small amount of correlation between an SAT score and success in college, it’s not worth basing a student’s entire college life around. The parameters to apply to college should be adjusted so that standardized tests have a less prominent role.