I’m Pretending You Asked, Issue 1

To SAT, or not to SAT

When you think about highlights from your high school career, you probably imagine Prom, the Blue Out Game, taking the ACT… What? Personally, the whole SAT/ACT part of my high school career has been my least favorite. Especially this year, when actually getting a concrete date to take the test is such a nightmare. I was supposed to take the test in June, but because of this wonderful little curse called COVID-19 I won’t be taking it until late October. But, since so many colleges and universities are thinking about dropping the SAT/ACT requirement on their applications, I thought I would spend some time learning about it. 

First, let’s start with a little history. The SAT was first created in 1926 by a man named Carl Brigham. Carl Brigham was a psychologist obsessed with finding the reason behind intelligence, and why some people were smarter than others. To get the answers he was looking for, Brigham created an assessment that would test a person’s intelligence. He required people to write down their ethnicity on the test so that, when everyone had taken it, he could use it in his conclusions. Brigham found that Anglo-Saxon people of English descent scored the highest and concluded this must mean they are the smartest. Recent immigrants from Poland, Italy, and anyone of African descent scored the lowest, making them, in Brigham’s eyes, the least intelligent.

 One of the largest flaws in this test was the fact that Brigham chose to ignore the fact that many of the people with low scores on the test not only spoke English as a second language and lacked any formal education, but some of the test takers were completely illiterate. Brigham used his newfound information to write a book called A Study of American Intelligence,” which concluded not only that whites were the smartest race, but that people of African descent were a danger to the human race because of their lack of intelligence and that they should not be able to “taint” humanity any further. Carl Brigham was a racist and a eugenicist by anyone’s standards. 

People doubted Brigham’s claims right from the start, so he created another test to try and prove his obscene claims. He called it the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT for short. He claimed that it should be used to properly evaluate students applying to colleges and universities, making sure they were at the ‘proper intelligence level’. 

The SAT didn’t really pick up steam until the end of WWII with the introduction of the GI Bill. The GI Bill gave many Americans the chance to go to college for the first time, meaning that now colleges and universities had 2.2 million more applications to sort through than normal. How could they properly sort through all of these applicants? You guessed it––make everyone applying to college take the SAT. The problem with making everyone take the SAT regardless of their prior schooling was that only people with access to a decent education could get a good score and therefore get into college. People who could afford a good education tended to be upper class and upper-middle-class white people. Their children were then more likely to be accepted into a good college. This perpetuated the systems already in place in our country that allowed those that could afford to educate their children privileges that the middle class and below would rarely see. 

In 1959, a group based in Iowa created the ACT and claimed that it was more accurate at showing knowledge than the SAT, but anyone who’s taken both knows that it’s more or less the same test. More subject matter in one, however, the same basic format and style. (Basically, the ACT has a ‘science’ section instead of a second math portion.) 

If the history of the test seems so bad, why keep it? Well, the main reason is so schools can easily sort through applicants. As a preliminary first technique, you can just sort all students into neat little piles –  top 10% of test-takers in one pile, and everyone else in another. While the entire decision is not based on the test score, it’s used as a way of judging a student next to all the other students, no matter the school. 

Here’s an example: Take a random student from Latin, Lab, and Parker. All three students have taken pretty much the same classes, gotten decent grades, and (for better or for worse) all stick out to colleges because of the names of their schools. How can a college tell the difference? Well, they all had to take either the SAT or the ACT! Now colleges can line those three students up and judge them based on some common standards. 

Students from low-income households are more likely to receive scholarships or financial aid from colleges if they score well on these tests. The college board claims that if they didn’t submit their scores, they wouldn’t stand out from the rest of the applicants and then might never get the financial help they need to attend a school. For that matter, take any student who got a higher than average score. Should they not get to show off their hard work and distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowds? 

Here’s another example that may make you think more deeply: Parker is a school where a majority of the families can afford their children academic tutoring for the SAT and ACT. When a family cannot afford this, Parker works very hard to make sure all of their students receive some level of assistance so that tutoring is possible by providing financial assistance for test-prep companies like Academic Approach. It’s been proven that with tutoring, scores improve. So, what does this say for a family that cannot afford this privilege? Does this sound like a fair system or one that tilts the scales towards those with money? Those few points gained in the tutoring process often make all the difference in the eyes of a college. 

There’s an awful message here that the more you have, the greater your score will be, and the greater the chance of getting into a good college. Studies already show that families with parents that went to college are more likely to have children who attend college. While this may be advantageous for those who can afford the resources that help lead to better test scores, it is only these students that benefit. 

So hear me out. If you’re still paying attention, I hope you now know why colleges use standardized testing to help organize a large group of applicants but now understand the system of oppression that these tests support. We have to decide whether we support the SAT/ACT as a sort of necessary evil, or if we want to try and dismantle the system. But if we dismantle the system, what comes next? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.