The SAT: An Inaccurate Measure of Students’ Academic Ability

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For nearly a century, colleges have relied upon the SAT as a consistent metric by which they evaluate applicants. The SAT—originally known as the Scholarly Aptitude Test and now simply referred to as the SAT—has been designed and revised to accurately reflect the transformation of both curricula and shifting demographics over time. Despite these changes, including adding more time per question and eliminating the vocabulary section, the SAT continues to face significant criticism for its perceived inconsistency with providing an accurate reflection of students’ academic ability, along with students usually performing well due to financial and socioeconomic privileges which others lack. Many universities have considered dropping the SAT, and the standardized test requirement in general, as a prerequisite for admission. While the SAT offers a standardized point of comparison that grades cannot provide, colleges should stop considering SAT scores because the exam mirrors racial and economic inequities and poorly reinforces skills linked to success. 

Proponents of keeping the SAT claim that inconsistent grading across the United States renders “a uniform method of evaluation such as a standardized test extremely useful.” What might be an A in one school may be considered a B in another; the SAT strives to equalize those differences while also providing the opportunity for students with low grades to improve their academic profiles. Without a “universalizable” or “broad yardstick,” college admission offices would have to radically reevaluate their admissions methods in order to account for grading inconsistencies, which could potentially damage the perceived fairness of the admissions process and increase the difficulty of applying to colleges for students. With the SAT in place, admissions officers can fairly and efficiently process applications while also being able to highlight students with poor in-school performances that possess academic potential. Indeed, even those who believe that the SAT merely evaluates test-taking rather than academic strength acknowledge that such an aptitude test can objectively measure and predict success in college. In fact, research shows that standardized test scores “correlate closely with individual achievement in college and beyond.”

These so-called advantages of the SAT are overshadowed, however, by other factors such as the question of economic equity. The disparity in economic privilege undermines many of the alleged benefits of the test; that is, the SAT itself does not predict success, but it reflects economic access. Those with more money are more likely to be more successful while taking the SAT, as shown by notable critics of the SAT who claim that “the tests are too easily gamed by students who can pay thousands of dollars for private coaching and test prep.” Families with entrenched wealth can give greater opportunities to their children, therefore perpetuating an endless cycle of the wealthy being given economic and educational privileges throughout generations.  Additionally, this generational retention of wealth and success in the SAT deprives those with less initial capital of both economic mobility and opportunities for success. Wealthy students can use their resources to secure better scores on the exams, while underprivileged students are excluded from classes designed specifically for the SAT or ACT that are not affordable for everyone.  These issues of access extend beyond the financial realm and into the socioeconomic. Experts have found correlations between ethnicity and financial access: “According to the College Board . . . 55 percent of Asian-American test-takers and 45 percent of white test-takers scored a 1200 or higher on the SAT in 2019. For Hispanic and black students, those numbers were 12 percent and 9 percent.” The test fails to meet its own goal of providing students with equal opportunity by remaining complicit in maintaining inequity and racial bias in the educational system; rather than opening colleges up to the underprivileged, the SAT contributes to an already-present lack of socioeconomic diversity on campuses by reinforcing archaic systems of economic inequity.

Moreover, the mere presence of expensive test-taking classes that strongly correlate with success points to the fact that the test fails to accurately examine academic achievement and skills linked to success. Rather, the test may only measure how well students can cram before a high-stakes exam while simultaneously trivializing the long-term study habits and work ethic it purports to champion. As a result, those who test poorly or do not have access to the same privileges and test training—and, as a consequence, receive a lower score—become discouraged from applying to certain schools and fall victim to a toxic culture surrounding college admissions which benefits the wealthy. The result is bifurcated; first, college admissions that rely on the SAT reinforce the fact that college acceptance is dependent on test-taking skills as opposed to actual knowledge or intelligence. Second, a test predicated on financial access diminishes social mobility, creating a bottleneck in access to a college education. 

Until there is a more effective alternative, the SAT and other standardized tests will likely remain in place, as they do provide some insights at a fundamental level into the academic prowess of test-takers. But while thinking about the future of college admissions and maintaining a standardized testing requirement, we must prioritize those who are being educated and cannot neglect the inherent biases entrenched in the existing system. Any supposed merit or universality is undermined by the lack of equitable access to socially disadvantaged groups and the failure to thoroughly test academic achievement rather than test-taking. If the primary defense of the test lies in its efficacy for admissions officers, then there exists a problem.