The SAT is elitist and obsolete

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FILE – In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2016, a student looks at questions during a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md. The SAT exam will move from paper and pencil to a digital format, administrators announced Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, saying the shift will boost its relevancy as more colleges make standardized tests optional for admission. Photo by Alex Brandon/AP Photo

When I think back to the biggest stressors of high school, standardized testing in the forms of the SAT and ACT are at the forefront of my mind. It was drilled into my head by teachers and guidance counselors: study for the SAT and you’ll get scholarships, and you’ll get into a good school. I was recommended review books, like Kaplan and The Princeton Review, two-day SAT “bootcamps” that were held on certain weekend mornings to help prepare for the different sections and I knew of some who even attended regular tutoring sessions. 

Especially with the start of the pandemic, many colleges have chosen to move to a test-optional method. The SAT is becoming more and more obsolete, as studies have repeatedly emphasized that the SAT is not a very good predictor of college success. Due to all these factors, the College Board recently announced changes to the SAT which will supposedly make the exam easier and  shorter, and it will be administered digitally. 

Regardless of all the changes to the SAT, standardized tests in general are still poor methods to determine college acceptances and success. Moreover, standardized tests in general are classist, as students from lower-income backgrounds are often unable to access the same resources that wealthier students use to succeed. More colleges should become test-optional or do away with this method altogether in order to help make the college admissions process more fair for students. 

In 2013, researchers found that wealthier students tend to score higher on standardized tests, such as the SAT, as compared to students from lower-income households. In 2014, researchers found that students belonging to households with an average yearly income of greater than $200,000 scored an average of 1,714 points out of 2,400 on the SAT. Students belonging to households with an average yearly income of less than $20,000 earned an average score of 1,326 out of 2,400. Although the SAT changed after 2014, these differences in scores depending on household income were still present as of 2019, which found that students belonging to households with an average yearly income of greater than $200,000 scored approximately 300 points higher than students belonging to households with an average yearly income of less than $20,000. 

With such blatant differences, and data that clearly highlights how SAT scores increase as household income increases, why is the SAT still used to determine college acceptances across the country? When data clearly shows that wealthy students benefit so much more from these SAT scores, it is elitist to continue using them. 

A student writing information on a notebook. Studies show that higher household incomes yield better results on the SAT. Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

The history of the SAT is something important to consider as well. Standardized tests were first used during World War I in order to measure the intelligence of recruits and separate them based on scores. In 1923, psychologist Carl Brigham, published a study regarding this version of the SAT where he concluded that White people of Dutch and/or Scottish descent were at the top while “recent immigrants from Poland, Italy and African Americans were at the bottom.” Brigham went on to help create one of the first iterations of the college entrance exam in 1926. In his recent book titled, “The Racist Origins of the SAT,” author and historian Gil Troy emphasized how racist and bigoted Brigham was, stating that the original test was biased toward English-speakers and those with access to education.  

The SAT’s problematic past is important to look at in terms of how it continues to perpetuate inequalities today. Given how expensive the SAT itself is, plus the money wealthier households can pour into tutoring and test prep books, the SAT still favors students who can afford to prepare for it.  

Currently, the SAT costs $52 without the essay and $68 with the essay. Although many lower income students do get waivers so that they can take the SAT free of charge twice, wealthier students would be able to afford more attempts. 

Now, I couldn’t find an exact average for how many times students take the SAT. I remember taking it three times, but I had no idea whether that was above or below average. However, while searching for the average, I did find different recommendations from tutoring programs and college blogs. Tutoring program SoFlo recommends that students take the SAT three times while the PrepScholar blog says students should not take the test more than six times. The College Board recommends that students take the SAT at least twice so students may take advantage of super scoring. None of the websites that I found seem to take into account that some students may not be able to afford taking the exam more than once or twice. 

And this does not even take SAT prep into account. Kaplan offers SAT prep courses ranging from $199 to $1,999 while the Princeton Review offers full SAT courses ranging from $499 to $1,499.

Students who are able to afford these prep courses will reap those benefits solely because they can afford to pay for them. 

This is not just the case for the SAT; this pattern continues for other entrance exams as well, including graduate-level exams such as the GRE, MCAT, LSAT and GMAT which are all priced at $205, $325, $200 and $250 respectively. Test prep for each of these exams is also exorbitant with students often spending hundreds of dollars in order to get a good score during their first attempt. These exams all follow the same pattern of the SAT; inaccessible to those with a lower socioeconomic status. 

With all the evidence that shows how classist and elitist the SAT is more colleges should move further away from using this as such an important aspect of a student’s application. The SAT is clearly not a good predictor of college success — several studies have proven that time and time again. Instead, since its inception, the SAT has been working on creating divisions ensuring that students from wealthier families get accepted into more colleges and students from lower-income families suffer the consequences of something out of their control. 

4 COMMENTS

    • What a concise, clear comment you’ve left here! Clearly, you have a lot of critical thinking going on in that brain of yours. I feel so enlightened, having read your comment! Whenever I criticize an author’s piece, I also comment with three clown faces. It definitely does not make me sound like an elementary school-aged child or anything! Your writing here outclasses the works of Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw, Wilde, and so many more. Thank you, thank you!

      /s

  1. Anika,

    You’ve used this statistic as support for the conclusion that the SAT is classist and elitist:

    In 2014, researchers found that students belonging to households with an average yearly income of greater than $200,000 scored an average of 1,714 points out of 2,400 on the SAT. Students belonging to households with an average yearly income of less than $20,000 earned an average score of 1,326 out of 2,400.

    The problem here – Consider the stark difference in the income brackets you are choosing to compare. Parents and children of households earning less than $20000 per year are in such constant turmoil and stress that there’s precious little time for focus on or development of ANY life skill – academic or otherwise. You could show that children of such households are not nearly as successful at playing baseball as children from $200,000+ households. Well, of course not: mom and dad are too busy trying to figure out how to provide the next meal to have any interest in teaching their child how to throw a ball or when to sign up for little league. Further, such parents can’t afford to buy their kid a glove or bat in the first place. Of course money matters but we can’t conclude that the above makes baseball classist or elitist. The problem is clearly poverty, not baseball.

    In criticizing the SAT, which seems to be the hot thing to pick on, you’re pointing your finger at a symptom of poverty, among thousands of other symptoms. An impoverished child is statistically more likely to perform worse at almost any endeavor because money nearly always provides the resources to better oneself in that endeavor. And money provides the stability of household to allow one to even consider endeavors outside survival.

    Of course the academic issues you bring up regarding SAT performance should be addressed. But by focusing on canning the SAT, you’re dealing with a symptom and completely ignoring the obvious root problem.

    • In some ways, I agree with you while also agreeing with the author. In some other ways, I disagree with both of you. In some ways, even though you both are in disagreement, it sounds like you both are in agreement wholly. I will hand it to you – you’ve certainly written better than the person above you.

      There is an element of classism to the SAT so long as a fee is involved, and studying for that exam is hardly cheap. I went to a public school and am of middle class background, but even I remember hearing stories of my classmates complaining of how expensive the exam was. The tutoring that I could get was never going to compete with what the wealthier students of Connecticut’s gold coast would receive. Even back at UConn, there were many students who went to elite private schools, and then soared through their classes. As the author has written, to deny the role of money in a standardized test would be wrong.

      All the same, I see your point as well – money dominates most of school life. The SAT is hardly the only thing affected. There were reasons why lower-income students were so underrepresented in my youth orchestra – their parents cannot afford the private lessons that so many of us took for granted.

      I personally am not sure if scrapping the SAT/ACT is the best idea. That may leave only a GPA as a statistical indicator, which in many ways isn’t so much better than standardized testing.

      Funding for public schools, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, needs to be handled better. Poverty is the root cause, of course, but it certainly does not need to be made any worse than it already is.

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