Why the SAT needs to stay

Or, Debunking the arguments of the standardized testing haters.

When COVID-19 essentially derailed the 2020 school year, one of the casualties was SAT and ACT testing. Both tests were forced to cancel several exams, leaving students scrambling. Many colleges and universities reacted by making temporary changes to their admissions process: “test optional” became a buzzword across higher education.

As the country moves forward and schools return to some semblance of normalcy, many of those colleges and universities are keeping their admissions “test optional.” Critics of the SAT and ACT–and there are many, including a group that recently asked U.S. News to drop test scores from their college ranking profiles–have pounced on this opportunity, calling for the dismissal of the tests for college admissions completely. They argue that the SAT favors wealthy white students over disadvantaged groups. They say that success on the SAT has no correlation to a student’s eventual success in college. In our age of social media echo chambers and cursory interest in facts and reasoning, these arguments would seem to ring true. However, there are a number of flaws with the arguments against the SAT and ACT.

Does the SAT work against disadvantaged students?

One of the longest and most tired arguments against the SAT is that the test is racially biased and that using the test as a college admission tool favors white students.

When you see arguments attempting to prove that the test itself is somehow racially biased, the detractors often use specific question examples from SAT tests from decades past. College Board, for all their actual faults, have worked diligently to remove any potential biases from the test questions. The Great Global Conversation reading passage, for example, highlights a meaningful speech or other primary document from history, and most of the examples offered involve civil rights or gender equality. The analogy questions (car is to road as train is to rails, for example), long the target of critics, are long gone, taken away in the 2015-2016 redesign. The math questions specifically target mathematical principles, with word problems carefully constructed as to be as neutral as possible. While there may have been a valid argument at one time about the biases of the tests, those have been made moot by College Board’s efforts to combat them.

And while test itself is often the target of critics, its use by college and universities is often decried as racially biased. The argument states that, because wealthy students have the wherewithal to purchase expensive exam prep, those wealthy, primarily white students see a disproportionate number of high scores. This has been the mantra for SAT critics for many years now, and it’s been echoed by think tanks, politicians, and college admissions boards without much vetting as to the validity of the argument. In fact, there are several problems with this premise.

First, there is more free assistance to improve on the SAT or ACT than there ever has been. College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy has helped countless students prepare for and improve on the SAT. The ACT has also introduced free online help for those taking that test, and they’ve also partnered with Kaplan to help students find other potential resources. Determination and the desire to improve are not racially dependent qualities, and these free resources help to level the playing field for prep.

Next, critics don’t offer any sort of alternative to the SAT, other than for colleges to rely more on a student’s grade point average and personal essays. Unfortunately, GPAs can be subjective. If one student attends an academically rigorous high school and achieves a 3.8, while another student goes to a less intense program and earns a 4.0, should the 4.0 student be given preference? Even when it comes to Advanced Placement exams or other higher level classes, not all of them are taught the same. One teacher may run their class like a college program, requiring students to do college-level work. Another may run their AP course the way they’d run a normal class in that subject, making it less about the discipline and more about a mark on a report card. Across the country, states don’t have any sort of standardization of method or educational requirements. This means that, out of the thousands of applicants who report 4.0 GPAs to their colleges of choice, the students’ actual abilities and development are very likely vastly different.

So use the personal essay and the extracurriculars to evaluate a student, say the naysayers. Sadly, thousands of wealthy students–the same ones who would potentially have the resources to get expensive exam prep–pay essay coaches to either help them write or, more nefariously, to actually write their application essays. Because there are no established security measures to ensure that a student’s work is their own, relying on the personal essay can (and very likely would) favor advantaged students to a much larger degree than standardized tests do. In fact, in a Newsweek opinion piece on July 13, Helen Raleigh argues for the validity of standardized tests and how they actually help disadvantaged students by allowing them to compensate for other students’ family connections or intergenerational wealth. She addresses the idea that essays are a better tool for admissions departments by both citing a study that calls that premise into question and by making the claim that personal essays and similar tools favor privileged students to a much larger degree than any standardized test would.

Raleigh, as an immigrant herself, makes a compelling case for how standardized tests actually help disadvantaged students by levelling the playing field considerably. Responding to claims by the head of the American Federation of Teachers that standardized testing, like the SAT, has no educational value and encourages teachers to teach to the test, Raleigh makes a systematic and effective defense. She makes a compelling case for the value of a standardized measuring stick that can allow underrepresented groups to overcome a lack of family wealth or legacy.

Does the SAT give any indication of college success?

The short answer is that it seems to.

Raleigh addresses this in her piece, citing studies from Science and other journals to show how success on the SAT can be an indicator of future success. Why would this be true? One answer to this might be that, because success on the SAT can take hard work and dedication, success on the test might also be a good indicator of a student’s willingness to pursue that success.

Correlating with these findings was a survey conducted by the faculty of the University of California system. While critics railed against the supposed evils of the test, the university faculty urged the system to continue using the SAT, as the test gave one of the best indicators as to whether a student was ready for success in college, especially for underrepresented groups.

In fact, the report insists that test results actually help identify many talented Latino, black and low-income students who otherwise might be rejected because their high school grades alone were not high enough.

Gordon and Burke, EdSource (Feb. 4, 2020)

While there will always be those who naysay the SAT, the facts indicate that it has real value for both students and institutions of higher learning. Rather than eliminating such a valuable tool, more effort should directed at making this tool as useful as possible for as many students as possible.

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