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What is the SAT Measuring, After All?

SAT score v. family wealth

The SAT is the bane of many a high school student’s existence. It’s a pretty dehumanizing thing, after all, to have your self-worth and academic potential reduced to a four-digit number on a blue-and-white piece of paper, to feel as if your future is writ in the numeric representation of your critical reading skills. This sort of standardized testing has been a defining part of the American education system for decades. Exams like the SAT, ACT and AP – that terrible trinity of multiple-choice – purport to assist colleges and universities sort through massive pools of qualified applicants. But especially in recent years, students with financial resources and institutional savvy navigate this process with the assistance of test preparation courses and tutors that charge upwards of $100 an hour and often guarantee score increases of hundreds of points.

As a result, a pressing and controversial question emerges: is the standardized test-sorting process fair and transparent, or do the advantages bestowed by the test preparation industry so skew results that the accuracy and fairness of this sorting is undermined? In other words, is today’s SAT in fact a Scholastic Aptitude Test, or is it just a measure of family wealth? Studies would suggest the latter. A direct correlation has been repeatedly shown between household income and student test performance.

It’s especially ironic that this is the case because the SAT was developed in the 1920s as a great academic equalizer. In that era, elite American universities were dominated by wealthy white Christian men whose fathers had attended those same schools. Harvard adopted the SAT as an entrance exam and the rest of America’s universities followed suit, helping to produce the first generations of Jewish-American, Asian-American, and even African-American Ivy League academics. Today, there are over 7,000 SAT test centers in 170 countries. Millions of students fill in those fateful bubbles every year, and the majority of high-performers are students of privilege.

Does the SAT have any use at all, then, as an academic assessment? Again, the answer is highly debatable. The SAT has been shown to be a poor predictor of college and professional success. The world economy is changing, and very different skill sets are becoming valuable. In the long run, developing creativity, flexibility, and entrepreneurial ability through hands-on experience will probably do more for a student than reviewing vocabulary flashcards. Massive online open courses, which are usually cheap or even free, are changing the very definition of higher education. The SAT is out of its league. And even if it weren’t, is the premise of only accepting the highest-performing students to the best, most supportive universities at all logical? Sure, these students should be rewarded in some way for their effort and talent, but imagine if the best hospitals only admitted the healthiest patients. That would be disastrous.

We need a new means of determining student potential that takes into account the realities of economic inequality and innovations in our education system. As it is, the brightest futures are being sold to the highest bidders – and that does not bode well at all for our country or the world.

Opinions piece by Noa Gur-Arie, MoCo Student staff writer

Chart from “Race, Poverty, and SAT Scores: Modeling the Influence of Family Income on Black and White High School Students’ SAT Performance,” by Ezekiel Dixon-Roman, Howard Everson, and John McArdle

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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