Often considered an integral part of a student’s path, going to college is a common milestone in the experience of those deemed as ‘successful young adults.’ For decades, a crucial component of the college admissions process has been standardized exams like the SAT and ACT.
However, these tests have served as significant and disproportionate barriers in the college application process. Despite the inequities in these tests, many colleges have historically required and relied heavily on standardized test scores when evaluating whether students would be able to succeed at their college.
Senior Emelia Gauch said that in her experience, getting a good standardized test score has a lot to do with wealth. As someone who has gone through the college application process, Gauch said knowing the tricks and strategies for taking the SAT often makes a big difference in the score a student gets, but these important tricks and strategies are reserved for those who can afford SAT tutors or prep courses that can cost up to $6995.
The effect that wealth and access to tutor programs has on a student’s success on standardized tests is intertwined with the racial wealth gap and with other factors such as the stereotype threat and existing disparities in education. This combination of factors has led to Black, Hispanic and Latino, Pacific Islander and American Indian students performing less well on the SAT than White, Asian and Asian-American students.
In 2015, the mean score of white students on the SAT was 299 points higher than that of Black or African American students. SAT performance is also skewed by whether a student has dyslexia or not, their socioeconomic status and the education level of their parents.
2020 SAT performance by Race, full data set here: https://reports.collegeboard.org/pdf/2020-total-group-sat-suite-assessments-annual-report.pdf
Joan Casey, Founder and Lead Consultant at Educational Advocates College Consulting, said that having a poor SAT score has long been a substantial barrier for many students, prompting them to underestimate themselves and aim low.
“A student self-selects out if the school requires tests, and they look at the middle 50 percent, and they’re way below. They say, ‘I’m not going to apply there, I’m not going to get in,’” Casey said. “Whereas if the test is not an obstacle, and they have decent grades, they qualify on other factors to apply to that school.”
The College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB, now simply College Board) was founded in the 1920s in an effort to standardize the college admissions process. At the time, colleges were beginning to consider adapting intelligence tests being used in the military for their admissions process. The CEEB soon after developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT, to be used in college admissions.
Carl C. Brigham, the main designer of the SAT, viewed intelligence scores as proof of inferior intelligence among certain racial groups in his book, A Study of American Intelligence (1923). In reference to standardized tests, which were beginning to see more widespread use at this time, Brigham said, “(This) army data constitutes the first really significant contribution to the study of race differences in mental traits. They give us a scientific basis for our conclusions.” Brigham later renounced his claims when the College Entrance Examination Board made the SAT available in 1926.
Although its origins are steeped in explicit racism, the SAT has changed extensively since the 1920s to try and alleviate cultural biases that make it more white centric. In recent years, at least 12 professional test developers review each question and pretest it with a sample of students for fairness.
The purpose of this thorough research process for developing SAT questions is to ensure that colleges have a way of comparing students coming from vastly different high schools, Dean of Admissions and Enrollment at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) Lauren Wilshusen said.
“(It) was a way to level the playing field, acknowledging that students come from very different backgrounds. You have schools that are very rigorous, you have other schools that are less rigorous. Some students are taking APs, some students are taking honors. Perhaps the idea was if we have this standardized test, that’s a way for us to evaluate everyone on the same point,” Wilshusen said. “Knowing how your school grade is probably different then how my high school graded and every teacher might be nuanced in how they grade, so take all of that away and standardize it in a test.”
An important factor in many colleges’ application reviewing process is a students grade point average (GPA), as it allows them to quickly gain an overview of a prospective student. Relying heavily on a student’s GPA, however, is a challenge for college admissions because of the vastly different grading systems that high schools use, Assistant Head of School Hal Mason said.
“Grading systems are arbitrary. What a 3.7 means here is not the same thing that it means in Lexington or in Brighton high, so that part of the SAT is valuable,” Mason said.
However, according to Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) Program Coordinator, Amy Bayer, the “diamond in the rough” logic behind requiring standardized tests is flawed. Although standardized testing may seem like a good way for schools to find exceptional students in under-resourced areas, the test is too skewed by wealth and privilege to meaningfully provide any sort of equal playing field.
“What allowed a student to be able to do that kind of test well? There’s so many variables that go into that. Wealth is one of them, because if a student had the money to go to a Stanley Kaplan test prep course or (have) a tutor that specifically helped them learn test taking strategies, they’ve got an advantage that most kids don’t have,” Bayer said. “There’s just a lot of research that’s been done as to the nature of those tests not being particularly objective. There’s evidence that the way the questions are formed, that the language that’s used, there’s a lot of bias in who will do well. It’s troubling.”
Because of the substantial effect wealth and privilege have on standardized tests, Casey said that they are not a metric of how good a student is; instead they are an unnecessary and disproportionate barrier in college admissions.
“Many other schools that had gone test-optional realized it didn’t negatively impact the quality of the students that came to the school and how they did,” Casey said.
As schools began to realize this, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a slow-moving trend towards test optional admissions that was driven by data around standardized tests failing to predict student success in college.
“A lot of schools were test-optional before the pandemic. They all said that SATs and ACTs were not a good predictor of the students’ success in college, and that the best predictor there were the grades in high school,” Casey said.
In March of 2020, SAT and ACT tests were cancelled, students were stuck in their homes stressing over the unknown of what was next, and the world seemed to halt in almost every aspect. Standardized testing wasn’t available, and the burden of the pandemic seemed to be too much for schools to require submitting SAT or ACT scores. As a result, schools stopped requiring tests and what was a slow moving trend driven by equity, quickly exploded into a widespread change in college admissions prompted by immediate circumstance.
“Just to give you a sense, the year before the pandemic, 77 percent of students submitted test scores, and this year only 44 percent did overall (out of those) that use the Common Application,” Casey said.