Studying for the SAT and ACT

The Business of Education – “Why are we still taking the SAT?”


In 2019, over two million students spent months studying only to be fed into a machine, designed to covertly reduce all of that work into a single number. The SAT generated just over $1 billion that year for the College Board, a non-profit organization. It’s no wonder since almost every student hoping to attend higher education in the United States is planning to take it. Most handle the extra studying under the impression that the test is an accurate measurement of how prepared they are to enter the next phase of their education, but is it really?

The first and most obvious problem with the test is that it’s a massive burden for every student. It takes months or even years of dedication to secure a score they will be happy with. In addition to that, students will often find themselves studying subjects they have no intention of pursuing in order to prepare for a single belittling test score. It begs the question, why do I have to be an expert in geometry and passage analysis if I plan to study science or fine arts in college? Is this to say that some skills and majors (math and english) are “essential” or more important than others? Or is this to say that the SAT is simply a way of ensuring that every student applying to university can read an excerpt from an article and count to ten?

If the test were really implemented to ensure a student met basic academic requirements, it should be a pass/fail system that well-rounded students would have no reason to worry about. But this kind of test doesn’t turn a profit. A student and their family won’t invest in the College Board without serious incentive and competition driving them to spend their money. They need to sell textbooks and prep classes yet appear essential. They need to parade the title “non-profit” to mask the pointlessness of the brutal oversimplification of a student’s worth and potential. So instead of pass/fail, students are graded on a point scale so that they may be compared with one another. Then the College Board holds the test periodically throughout the school year instead of over summer vacation. Students who would’ve found the test manageable are therefore likely drowning in classwork, and stress is proven to reduce test-taking abilities. In order to do well, families have to devote their money and their time to the college board’s scheme. They have no choice but to give in to the system if they want to send their child to a top university.

Now let’s entertain the hypothetical idea that you don’t care about or see anything wrong with the monopolization of a child’s education. If you don’t care that American college prospects are put through a machine, maybe you will care why. Why is the SAT still required? And why do Universities continue to claim it is essential when many of their best have gone test-optional in the face of a global pandemic? Why didn’t they go test-optional years ago? There is no hiding the fact that education, especially higher education, is a business. A university needs to house its students, fill its classrooms with brilliant professors, and employ campus staff. All of this is riding on the tuition and application fees that thousands of students pay each year. However, some students simply do not have this kind of money. 

A business cannot reasonably expect to allow thousands of students to attend with financial aid and still turn a profit at the end of the day. Some of the best schools in the country, like Harvard University, tout the title of a “need-blind” admissions process. This is certainly fairer because it’s harder for admissions officers to know whether or not students will be able to pay their tuition upon acceptance, but it’s still not impossible to discern. The SAT claims to evaluate merit, but without test prep classes and textbooks which could amount to thousands of dollars, it isn’t likely that the true merit of the student will be reflected in their test score so much as their family’s ability and willingness to prepare them. Thus, the SAT no longer reflects the student, but the student’s circumstances and the college may take a guess on whether or not it is in their best interest to accept the applicant. This is great for universities, but the admissions process should not be about the school, it should be about the students who enrich it. This system directly discriminates against low-income families in order to benefit the college.

In Paul Tough’s book “The Years That Matter Most” the original intention of the SAT (previously called the Scholastic Aptitude Test) is revealed to have been to determine whether or not a given student was born with this sacred aptitude. The team of Ivy league Presidents that had just founded the College Board some 20 years earlier in 1900 claimed there was no point in studying for the test, you were either smart or you weren’t. It had been created to break up the elite class of prep students that made up the Ivy league student body and reach into the middle class, but by the 1960s and 70s, the test was under heavy scrutiny by journalists and philosophers who recognized the discrimination that was inevitably reinforced by this test. As students began to take advantage of their resources and study for the test, those who lacked such resources fell behind. Those students were disproportionately minorities and low-income students who were unfairly denied the increasingly necessary tools to excel on the SAT. Now, entire communities fall behind due to underfunding and lack of counseling in college admissions. 

The solution? The College Board needs to live up to its title as a non-profit and reinvent the SAT with the same intention of measuring a student’s overall knowledge as proposed in the 1920s and 30s. It’s far too late to stop children from studying for it, but it’s not too late to change the way the test is scored. On one end of the spectrum, a first-generation American student could be supporting their family with a full-time job, and not have the time or money to adequately study for the SAT. It wouldn’t matter if they were smarter than a child from Beverly Hills who had been attending prep school and SAT workshops since grade nine. The wealthy and supported student will always win. If it wasn’t revealed that either one “won” and scored higher, yet they both passed the test with no number attached to their evaluation, the playing field would be leveled. The admissions counselor would move on to their resumé and essays in the context of their lives. If that’s too much to ask, then mandate SAT classes in public schools if the subject material is so essential. This way, the resources are available for everyone. However, this still wouldn’t completely level the playing field because schools with more funding would likely provide more substantial test prep classes for their students. As long as it costs money to perform in high school, it will cost money to attend university – no matter how much financial aid is granted.

Even if we chose to ignore the lucrative discrimination taking place right before our eyes, the SAT is a paradox. The majors available to students have greatly expanded since the 1920s and 30s. It is now common for schools to expect diverse and interesting applications. Students are expected to have impressive extracurriculars and life goals that make them unique. If every student accepted into a top university is unique and interesting, how can they all reasonably be expected to ace the same exact test? Not every brilliant candidate is going to be good at both math and reading. What if they plan on majoring in art history, science, or foreign languages? Their SAT score won’t reflect their intelligence, and they don’t deserve a lower chance of acceptance just because their passions don’t align with information that is only relevant for a fraction of college prospects. Not to mention, extracurricular activities can be engaging and enjoyable, but most of the time they are still work, and a developing teenager needs time to be just that – a teenager. They need sleep, they need time to figure out who they are and want to be, and they need time to relax and be unproductive. The test takes away even more time from those essential parts of growing up and, frankly, being human. 

Still, the machine of standardized testing shows no mercy. A scantron doesn’t know how much time was spent preparing to fill it in, and a number doesn’t say anything about meaningful events and activities in a student’s life; it simply shows how much time and money were poured into the test. An honest and hard-working student shouldn’t have to waste their youth and income raising a score that doesn’t reflect who they are, how they’ve grown, or even how smart they are.