The SAT Needs to Go

It’s that time of year again: the wonderful, magical season of SAT prep and testing. This year, people have been wondering how to do SAT testing with the pandemic still raging. But with most colleges not requiring test scores to apply to their schools, many are now asking, what’s the purpose of the SAT anymore, and should we even have it at all? The SAT has long been a point of fear and anxiety for students in the US and international students hoping to come to college here. What could be scarier than a test that purports to determine your intelligence, the school you’re going to end up going to, and your future level of success? To truly understand how obsolete, inaccurate, and downright stupid the SAT is, you first need to understand the history of this test.

During the 1920s, the IQ testing movement was at the forefront of testing feasible army recruits to see if they were fit to serve by using the “Army Alpha” to test their intelligence. A professor of psychology at Princeton named Carl Brigham adapted the Army Alpha to use it as a college admissions test. In 1923, Carl Brigham wrote a book called “A Study of American Intelligence” outlining the intellectual superiority of certain people based on race and geographic location. He hypothesized that those from “Nordic” countries were intellectually superior to immigrants from other countries. Brigham’s conclusions reinforced the false notion that intelligence is based on race, and in doing so perpetuated hateful narratives suggesting that those of Northern European origin have intellectual superiority and that society should strive to breed a homogeneously European civilization. We should not give 2.2 million students a test that was meant to validate the beliefs of a eugenics-touting racist. If you don’t know, eugenics is the study of trying to organize reproduction to remove or keep certain characteristics and traits. In Carl Brigham’s book, he wrote “important steps [to improve US intelligence] is the prevention of continued propagation by defective strains.” Brigham essentially wanted to spread the theories and teachings of eugenics to end the reproduction of those with what he perceived to be mental and physical handicaps. 

Another core intention of the early SAT was to test the intelligence of those who take it. The problem with intelligence tests is that they are not only racially biased against non-white people, but they don’t test intelligence. The Princeton Review, a group that sells itself on its guarantee to get you above 1400 on the SAT if you pay enough, has a slogan in their ads that represents this. They say, “Here at the Princeton Review, we’ve long said that the SAT only tests your ability on mastering the SAT.” This is a huge problem. Will Sexton, a junior at Franklin says, “I wonder why something so widely hated exists. Students hate it and I’ve heard teachers aren’t too fond of it either and then you realize it’s just another part of the world’s worst jigsaw puzzle that is the American schooling system. The only people that really care about the SAT are colleges and they think the SAT shows who’s the smartest, but they don’t. They show who can game the system the best.” The SAT has evolved far past its original intention of serving as an intelligence test and instead into the realm of a corporate scam to con thousands of people into paying money to get a good score. Due to universities’ reliance on the SAT, families can pay thousands of dollars for SAT prep courses and tutors. The New York Times found several courses costing thousands of dollars. ArborBridge has a course with videoconferencing for $9000, and a New York tutor reportedly asked for $1000 an hour to “guarantee” a 400-point increase. Now, it’s fairly obvious that not everyone can shell out four figures to prep for a test, which is where another problem arises: the inequity of access to resources to prepare for the SAT. 

The numerous college admissions scandals within the past several years have highlighted the massive advantage wealthy and white students have regarding college admissions. Specifically related to the SAT, wealthy students have an abundance of advantages. As stated before, wealthy students have better access to preparation, but they also have a better ability to cheat on the SAT and other college entrance exams. In 2019, news broke that actress Felicity Huffman and her husband had paid over $500,000 in bribes to get their daughter into USC, and over $15,000 to get their daughter unlimited time on her SAT exam. The reason why this is so problematic for the SAT is not that it’s vulnerable to cheating—cheating will happen no matter how secure tests become.The problem is that the SAT is so important to college admissions that people are willing to risk jail time to get advantageous scores. To be fair, this can be said about anything used for college admissions. With grades, parents may bribe or ask to boost grades and teachers may fear giving out low grades due to negative responses from parents, while bribes can also be given to people to falsify extracurriculars, like in the USC scandal. We need some way to determine who should be admitted to college, but the SAT is in no way the most accurate, ethical, or equitable means to go about this.

In terms of accuracy in testing the knowledge of students, the SAT falls short. The SAT tests a very small range of skills that a student has, limited only to math and reading comprehension (it used to test writing if you paid extra for it, or if your school happened to have it, but the College Board recently eliminated it). If a college wants to assess a student’s readiness for college and the skills that student has, the SAT is not how to accomplish it. Instead, a broader range of topics would need to be addressed, or even a more limited field of subjects if a student is trying to get into a certain field of study. The SAT does not test physics, foreign languages, advanced math, or any number of other subjects. The SAT is “intended” to give colleges insight into potential students, but its scope is so limited and culturally specific that the goal is impossible. The SAT’s topics and questions are targeted towards a very specific type of knowledge that white students are more likely to know and be educated on.

One thing that may show that the SAT is not needed for college admissions is that many colleges are now not requiring, or even not allowing SAT scores to be reported. After this year’s admissions season, we will have a clearer picture of how well colleges fared without using the SAT to admit students. So far, I have received notifications from schools without using the SAT in my admissions, and thousands of others around the country have as well. These early notifications are showing that schools not using the SAT this year, notably, the UC system, are still able to make informed decisions concerning their new admits. Before results started coming out this year, many thought that schools wouldn’t be able to make educated decisions without using the SAT. If anything, colleges not using the SAT will help with the issue of equity surrounding college admissions. The SAT negatively affects BIPOC students, as well as low-income students.

Every year, The College Board releases its “SAT Suite of Assessment” results and they are available to the public. The most recent assessment for 2020 showed that BIPOC students, low-income students, AND students whose parents had lower levels of education, all fared worse than their counterparts. In the 2020 results, Native American, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Pacific Islander students scored on average 150 points lower than white students. Native American students scored an average of 902, while white students scored 1104, over 200 points lower. Students who needed a test fee waiver and used it scored an average of 994, while those who didn’t scored an average of 1063. Those whose parents had lower levels of education also scored lower. Students whose parents had only a high school diploma scored an average of 981, while those whose parents had a Bachelor’s degree scored 1114. These aren’t even the highest disparity groups, just the groups with the most amount of people. Students whose parents didn’t receive a high school diploma only scored an average of 919.

College Board’s Suite of Assessment clearly shows that students in underrepresented groups consistently score lower than others. This enough should be the grounds to remove the SAT, because it puts certain students at a disadvantage. Rising test costs, coupled with a rising average in the number of times students take the SAT, means that some low-income households can’t afford to take the SAT multiple times to try and boost their child’s score. College Board’s essential monopoly over standardized tests and college entrance exams means that there are no cheaper ways to take these crucial tests. The ACT is a well-known alternative to the SAT, but it has many drawbacks. The ACT isn’t as widely known or accepted as the SAT, and the prices for both are nearly identical (~$50 each). Thankfully, College Board’s fee waivers are valid for two SAT tests, which helps families that can get them. In 2020, about 17%, or 376,468 students used the fee waiver on their tests, but again, these students consistently score lower. 

Another large challenge that students face when taking the SAT, or any College Board exam, is the large amount of stress and anxiety about these tests. Because colleges rely so heavily on the SAT, students often stress about it a lot and worry what it could mean for their future. The SAT wants itself to be a measurement of how well a student will do in college, but it doesn’t necessarily measure that. The higher your SAT score, the higher your chances of getting into an elite school and therefore a chance at higher earning potential, but it doesn’t guarantee you will do well in college. Performance in college is relative due to the average difficulty of any given school. A student in the lower percentile at an elite school still performs similarly relative to a student of the same percentile at their respective school. Changes in schedules and COVID restrictions have also caused students to stress because testing and class schedules have been changed or canceled. One Franklin senior said, “I’ve had to drop multiple AP classes simply from the stress and burnout. After the first semester, it felt like I had already done a year’s worth of work thanks to the condensed schedule and it’s difficult to convince yourself to keep going with stressful AP tests after that. I also had no chance to retake the SAT due to COVID restrictions.” 

The SAT also has strict time limits which aim to make students go through questions quickly. Many students need to take their time on questions, or work slower but just as well as others, so why should we hinder the college opportunities of students just because they take more time? Working more slowly often means accomplishing a task more diligently than if that process was rushed, and colleges should want diligent thinkers. The time limits punish students who need more processing time.

No matter how well a student will do on the SAT, they will likely have some amount of stress about the test. Because of SAT hysteria and pressure, many students feel overwhelmed by needing to do well on it. This pressure of one test possibly deciding your life has caused increases in anxiety and depression and has even contributed to suicides. Schools are trying to reduce stress around standardized tests, but none of this matters if the stigma about needing a high SAT score to be deemed smart, successful, or get into a prestigious college, isn’t eliminated. In 2016, a California high school student committed suicide and wrote, “One slipup makes a kid feel like the smallest person in the world. You are looked at as a loser if you don’t go to college or if you get a certain GPA or test score.”

With all this being said, I can’t minimize the accomplishments of those who worked hard to achieve great distinctions. To those who have done well on College Board exams, and other standardized tests, congratulations. But remember, there are people not as privileged as you or who may be experiencing things out of their control, or who have incredible funds of different types of knowledge and skill not recognized by these tests. To anyone who has stressed about not receiving a “good” score, know that in the long run, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. Everyone needs to understand that in a decade you probably won’t remember any of your scores, and even in the year after high school, you likely won’t care about your, or anyone else’s scores. To those of you who may not have scored as well as you had hoped, your future is not over as some may have you believe. In the end, the school you go to helps with networking and opportunities, but that in no way means you will be better off at a prestigious school. You need to pick what is best for you to be financially secure, have opportunities, and be happy. 

Students studying in a library, via Wikimedia Commons. Photographed by Josh Lee.

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