From its invention in 1923, the SAT has been flawed by favoring white, male, upper class students. Aimed at determining who is ready for and deserving of a college education, entrance exams hold a significant amount of power in regards to students’ futures. While the aim of The College Board is to “expand access to higher education,” both the preexisting exam and a newly redesigned version have not accomplished this goal.
According to the Education Writers Association, “The board set a benchmark of 1,550 as the score they say at which there is a 65 percent likelihood that a student will have a college freshman year GPA of B- or higher.”
Scott Jaschik, an editor at Inside Higher Ed, reported that in 2015, white and Asian American students were the only groups to exceed this score. One of the biggest concerns surrounding the SAT regards whether it can predict college success at all, or if high school grades are a better measure of preparedness. The other pressing issue is that the on-average lower SAT scores of bilingual, lower class and non-white students are sometimes enough to deem them “unfit” to attend university.
The College Board, which created the SAT, has recently redesigned the exam, raising concerns from many who are involved in the college application process.
The new exam entails much more reading comprehension than the previous iteration, incorporating material a full grade level higher in difficulty. This means that the math section is comprised of more in-depth word problems and the English sections have been fused with advanced passages from higher level texts.
Basically, this means that students must wade through more intricate and complex writing before attempting to answer the questions at hand.
Bilingual students are expected to suffer the most as a result of this redesign. While bilingualism has been shown to enhance cognitive development, oftentimes academic proficiency is not transferable between languages. A study published by Harvard in 2015 explores this idea, suggesting that the SAT contains questions that disadvantage students who either do not speak English as a first language or are in a lower class.
They suggest this is done by using language that white, middle or upper class students would generally be more familiar with as a result of their school environments. This puts non-white students at a clear disadvantage because oftentimes the language, vocabulary and information tested is not common in their everyday experience.
The disadvantage of the new format will also likely extend to low-income students whose reading comprehension skills have been impaired by poorly funded schools, less exposure to high level vocabulary and lack of access to high quality tutoring services.
According to University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, “Children from high-income families [are] exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare.”
While students should be expected to demonstrate high levels of understanding in all disciplines, this changed test will serve to widen pre-existing achievement gaps due to language and create a rift between students of different backgrounds.
A common argument for the SAT is that proficiency in English should be a prerequisite for higher education. These exams and admissions requirements have made it evident that colleges want students who can read and write well.
Considering this standard, why should we penalize students who are capable of speaking one language for lacking proficiency in their second langauge? How can we critique students from low-income families for lacking the resources students from high-income families may have access to?
There is no doubt that English skills are vital to success in the United States. However, while applying the same standards to all students sounds like an equation for equality, we must not ignore that factors like race, income and primary languages play a vital role in exam success. If college admissions continue to be so heavily based on these scores, the exams must be modified to expand access to higher education for all.
Is there a way to measure intelligence according to diverse, wide and rich bases of understanding and experience? If not, are we going to continue administering tests to benefit those already benefitting from the system? Moving forward, it is important to consider what exactly is being measured through these tests. It is not effective or egalitarian to measure students’ strengths and weaknesses via universal standards that are based on the language, backgrounds and experiences of a white society.
Avery Ellfeldt ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Denver, Colo. Her major is undeclared.