Has the SAT changed enough to be worth using in college admissions?

Picture of someone taking a standardized test like the SAT
Creative Commons/Courtesy

Every UC Berkeley student remembers where they were when everything changed. I am no exception. I was in the lobby of a Costa Rican hotel, my family huddled around a coffee table that happened to be in the vicinity of the approximately 20 square feet of internet service available to us for miles on end, when I opened up the fateful link in an email with the subject line: “An Update to your UC Berkeley Application.” As the digital confetti started falling from the top of my computer screen, I sat there in denial. My dad put his hand over his mouth; my mom fought back tears. That was March 30, 2017. That was a cool day.

I bring this up not to say that there was anything exceptional or unique about my moment — literally hundreds of thousands of UC Berkeley students, past and present, will be more than happy to ramble on about their similar acceptance moments — but to say that, despite the emotional gravity of that day, March 30, 2017 was not the most significant or meaningful 24 hours of my college process. I was not in a Costa Rican hotel, resisting the indomitable will of our hotel’s hopelessly outdated Wi-Fi system, when everything changed.

It was nearly two years earlier — May 2, 2015 — when, in reality, everything shifted for me, during the hours of 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in a mundane, fluorescently lit, poorly air-conditioned Spanish classroom at a local high school. I likely won’t remember a single meaningful detail of it for the rest of my life, but during that four-hour stretch, I completed a task which would prove more valuable, more momentous, to my collegiate pursuit than any other equivalent time period of my entire life.

I took the SAT.

Nearly three years after I walked into a foreign language classroom, sharpened No. 2 pencils in hand, and took a standardized test, I understand that the SAT is probably the reason I got into UC Berkeley. That is also probably exactly the reason why it, along with similar standardized tests used in admissions decisions such as the ACT, needs to be eliminated.

Because, though I was not fully aware of it at the time, the SAT was a setup. Through no genuine effort of my own, the odds I would do well on the test, before I even sat down in my chair, were higher than for most of my peers. Largely because of two factors I have not worked for a second in my life to achieve — race and the socioeconomic status of my family — I was predisposed to succeed on a test that almost every university (UC Berkeley included) values at least in part of the college admissions process. In the crapshoot that is college admissions, I sent my application in with loaded dice. Thousands of equally deserving and more deserving candidates never got a seat at the table.

The most fair system of admissions, which, in turn, would lead to the most well-rounded and successful student body, is not being implemented by UC Berkeley, and all of us are standing idly by. It is time for everybody to have an equitable shot at having their Berkeley acceptance moment. It is time to abolish the high-stakes standardized test.

Like most modern systems that perpetuate inequality, today’s standardized testing masks its fundamental biases and discrimination behind its stated goal of “promoting excellence and equity in education.”

Such prejudice wasn’t always covered up so tidily.

In 1924, a man named Carl Campbell Brigham invented the first form of the SAT, a test that was designed to help elite Ivy League colleges identify top high school talent. Just a year earlier, Brigham had published a book called “A Study of American Intelligence,” a piece that outlined his previous work as a social scientist for the U.S. Army.

That book reveals an ugly history of Brigham’s previous work for the military, detailing his belief in social Darwinism and race eugenics. From a 2015 Daily Beast article: “Between the highest types, Nordics like himself and his peers, Brigham wrote, and ‘the Negro’ at the low end of the spectrum, ‘but closer to the Negro than to the Nordic, we find the Alpine and Mediterranean types,’ with Jews particularly flawed and threatening.” Brigham used this logic to craft his intelligence tests, first for the Army and eventually for college admissions officers.

That was nearly a century ago. In many ways, so much has changed — the College Board could never get away with expressing Brigham’s blatantly racist sentiment today. When values like Brigham’s, though, are the foundation of an institution, it is very hard to completely escape that legacy. The SAT looks nothing like it did in 1924, but the test is still designed to benefit the same people it was built for 94 years ago.

Take, for example, this graph from the Brookings Institution, which demonstrates race gaps on the math section of the SAT:

Brookings Institute SAT race gaps

Do you see why it’s difficult to assert that the modern-day SAT represents a clean break from Brigham’s vision for his all-encompassing standardized test? The test essentially systematically filters its results by race — as exemplified by the chart above displaying SAT math section scores, white and Asian students are far more likely to succeed on the test than their Latino and Black peers.

How to explain this gap? Race is a social construct, so there is not, despite Brigham’s bigoted claims (many of which are still echoed today in both subtle and overt ways), some inherent genetic racial factor driving different students to their respective test scores. Nor is it the similarly questionable rhetoric of a “lack of motivation” within generally poorer communities of color that leads to the gap — in fact, the opposite is true. Per the Huffington Post, “Eighty-four percent of low-income students indicated that they wanted to get at least a four-year degree after graduating high school … compared to 80 percent of all students who indicated the same.”

Instead, racial gaps in standardized testing performance are the result of centuries of the systematic oppression, disenfranchisement and nefarious policymaking that minorities in America have faced since the country’s settlement. Such a history has led to today’s environment — one in which Black and Latino Americans are disproportionately prone to poverty, and, as a result, a poorer educational system.

Beyond the inability of low-income families to afford increasingly expensive specialized tutoring, that lack of basic school funding leads to fewer opportunities for quality educational growth — the exact growth necessary for success on high-stakes standardized tests. Combined with the many historical examples of inherent biases on the test that come at the expense of low-income and minority students, SAT and ACT results skew toward favoring white, higher-income students.

Perhaps the most striking piece of evidence pointing toward this inequity comes when test scores are broken down by parental income. Here is is a link to a 2014 distribution of SAT scores by income:

SAT scores by affluence of family

Scores, thus, are tied are to parental income; even at increments as small as $20,000, scores increase proportionally. My SAT score, likely the brightest spot of my college application, was not the result of simple hard work. Everybody seriously applying to UC Berkeley works hard. No — the reason I got into UC Berkeley is probably the result of how much money my mom and dad make. How can anyone, much less a UC Berkeley admissions officer, take that fact, and that chart, and not be outraged?

This is the reality of the SAT, regardless of what any College Board or admissions officer says. It more resembles the great divider than the great equalizer it advertises itself as.

The ACT — which is now more popular than the SAT — is plagued by the same institutional problem. A graph from the aforementioned Huffington Post article shows that this alternative is not the solution to this problem:

chart ACT benchmarks

In fairness, there are signs these institutions are beginning to at least acknowledge the problem on their hands. To much fanfare, the College Board unveiled a revamped SAT in 2015, proclaiming a more equitable exam. It is too soon to judge whether the new test has achieved that goal, but early reports are skeptical. Some even say it will make the problem worse.

That makes UC Berkeley’s continued reliance on the SAT and ACT problematic. As a public institution, the campus has a responsibility to provide an equal opportunity for a top-tier education to all California residents. As The Daily Californian’s Alex Jiménez demonstrated in this very space a few weeks ago, UC Berkeley is failing to live up to that obligation.

Just 2.9 percent of freshmen enrolled in fall 2017 are African American, despite the total Black population in California representing 6.5 percent of the state. 13.6 percent of the UC Berkeley undergraduate population are what the university describes as “Mexican-American, Chicano, Latino and Other Hispanic” students — a far cry from the 38.9 percent of all Californians who identify as Latino.

Considering the aforementioned statistics breaking down test performance by demographics, UC Berkeley’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing is reinforcing, not breaking down, its representation issue.

There is the issue, of course, of how simply removing SAT and ACT scores from application decisions would work from a logistical standpoint. This year, 108,000 prospective students applied to UC Berkeley. Managing the sheer volume of those applications, even with the increased efficiency inherent in assigning a test score number to every applicant, is a logistical challenge. It is also the easy way out.

Shifting to a test-optional school in the short term and a SAT/ACT free school in the long term is a reasonable way for UC Berkeley to transition into a new era of admissions equity. As the world’s leading public institution of higher learning, the UC Berkeley has a real chance to set a precedent of inclusivity and equality for the rest of the nation.

Private schools such as Wesleyan University and Wake Forest University (and more than 1,000 others) have instituted test-optional admissions policies in recent years; it’s early, but tentative results suggest that this single, simple change has the potential for profound improvements in diversity across college campuses.

De-emphasizing test scores and investing resources into studying applicant essays, transcripts and an increased focus on teacher recommendations is the first step toward more equitable admissions decisions. This option is on the table; nothing but logistical and budgeting issues are stopping UC Berkeley from implementing such a policy.

UC Berkeley now has a choice: constructively alter the way in which its admissions process inherently filters out some of its most qualified candidates or continue utilizing a tool that perpetuates the systematic, deep-rooted inequality that the institution should be alleviating. It is a choice between difficult work to better our community or continued bureaucratic laziness that harms it. Ultimately, it is a choice between getting ahead of history or ending up on the wrong side of it.

From this point forward, any admitted UC Berkeley class chosen with the SAT or ACT as a factor is a direct acknowledgement by administration that it does not care about “creat(ing) a critical mass of talented students … that will fully represent California’s excellence and diversity.”

As long as these high-stakes standardized tests are still considered in admissions portfolios, that claim, pulled directly from an officially UC Berkeley website called diversity.berkeley.edu, is a bold-faced lie. As a public institution, the campus is failing on its promise to provide equitable opportunities for its applicants.

Students of all backgrounds deserve equal opportunities to have the acceptance moment I almost entirely lucked into having by virtue of the privileged environment I was born into.

No longer considering the SAT and ACT in admissions decisions would not solve the great admissions crisis that countless larger endemic societal problems continue to uphold. And even in a complete meritocracy free from these inequities, universities will still have to turn down qualified candidates simply by virtue of limited admission slots. But when a cog, no matter how insignificant, perpetuating a system of inequality can be so clearly removed, it is a moral catastrophe to leave it intact.

The SAT was a stepping stone for me in my journey to this campus. For many low-income Black and Latino students, though, it more closely resembles a roadblock. In its supposed quest to make its admissions process a truly equitable one, UC Berkeley needs to examine the facts. The SAT and ACT add unnecessary stress to the already packed lives of high school students while serving to actively prevent many qualified and brilliant students of color from gaining admission to the campus.

Ditch high-stakes standardized testing and continue working on solutions to make sure every student who works hard enough has an equal shot at a top-tier, publicly funded education — an equal shot at that confetti pouring down from the top of a laptop, the sign of a life changed forever.

Contact Nicky Shapiro at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @notnickyshapiro.

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  • AltAzn

    The funny thing is that you combine the race and income graphs you would find that poor Asian-Americans actually score higher than richer students from other ethnic groups. So this pretty much destroys the SAT is a measure of income argument.

    And the group that would be most hurt by the elimination of these tests would be Asian-Americans so that shows the real motivation behind this movement, anti-Asian racism.

    • StanFromSomewhere

      “The funny thing is that you combine the race and income graphs you would find that poor Asian-Americans actually score higher than richer students from other ethnic groups. ”

      It’s a well-known fact that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the low-income first-generation Asian students in the Koreatown/Mid-Wilshire areas kick butt on tests and do far better than the children of wealthy black folks living farther out on the West Side. Funny how cultural attitudes towards education get conveniently overlooked by those desperate to peddle their agenda.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    Well, sure–one conclusion you could come to from the data you reference is that the SAT is inherently biased toward rich white people.

    You might also conclude that rich white people happen to be better prepared for the SAT because they typically live in areas with better schools, and have the option of going to a private school if their local public district is below par.

    In any case, junking standardized tests seems like a silly thing to do. Perhaps the solution is to work harder at making sure all public-school students have access to good schools and instruction, and admitting that not everybody needs to go to college. I’ve certainly seen plenty of people of all races and economic backgrounds that had no business being in a college classroom. We certainly could use a robust network of trade schools, though.

  • StanFromSomewhere

    “The test essentially systematically filters its results by race — as exemplified by the chart above displaying SAT math section scores, white and Asian students are far more likely to succeed on the test than their Latino and Black peers.” – Correction, it filters by ABILITY, and refutes the nonsense peddled by those who think the solution is to push unqualified students into positions where they are way above their heads and doomed to fail.

  • Dre

    Standardized tests are an equalizer. Everyone plays by the same rules and faces identical judgement on their abilities to handle the same intellectual challenges. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but the aforementioned groups which struggle with the SAT do so because, on average, they just dont have the aptitude or dedication to succeed. Test scores are also highly correlated to IQ and academic performance. Any school that stops using the SAT or ACT in admissions will become a joke, fast. No serious student will want to waste their time at a school with arbitrary standards surrounded by classmates who were accepted based on how they look and what they believe rather than their abilities to critically reason, absorb information, and articulate their ideas

    • lspanker

      Standardized tests are an equalizer. Everyone plays by the same rules and faces identical judgement on their abilities to handle the same intellectual challenges.

      Which is EXACTLY why the fruit-loop lefties are working overtime to eliminate them. If they had their way, these foaming SJWs would appoint themselves the divine arbiters of who gets into college and who does not, NOT based on demonstrable performance or ability, but by whatever Politically Correct formula that is in vogue at the moment…

    • Anon

      This would only be true if these were closed exams that you could not prep for as in prior to 1978. After that date all the questions have been released, exams are readily available on line, and people can prep for them. Any test you can see ahead of time and prep for is not valid. Prior to that date kids did not prep and had absolutely no idea what was going to be on the test. It only further favors rich whites and Asians who just prep for the test and may not be natively smart. It is no longer an achievement or aptitude test. There needs to be an aptitude test that is concealed and not released.

      • StanFromSomewhere

        ” It only further favors rich whites and Asians who just prep for the test and may not be natively smart.”

        if that’s so, what prevents others from prepping for the tests, other than sheer laziness?

        In addition, don’t pull the “rich white” BS on us, given that even in those primarily black communities with upper-income black folks (Shaker Heights OH, Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles), those kids still perform worse than lower-income whites and Asians from neighboring communities.

        • rick131

          I don’t think it is as much an issue of race as the test is no longer valid when you have all the questions and answers ahead of time and can prep. Just like an IQ test. If you have all the questions and answers ahead of time, it is no longer a valid marker of aptitude. People could study and get a “high” IQ. This is the bigger issue. Agree with after 1978 when questions and answers and the test format was released (that is an equalizer) scores are no longer valid.

          • Sheri Urban

            But if you “prepare” in order to increase your verbal score, you can only do so by increasing your knowledge and vocabulary. That’s not a trick, but actual improvement of the individual. Such improvement is available to ANY motivated person.

  • general major

    “Instead, racial gaps in standardized testing performance are the result of centuries of the systematic oppression, disenfranchisement and nefarious policymaking that minorities in America have faced since the country’s settlement.”

    But the author’s own data indicate high performance by Asians, so it must be a cultural factor, not historical oppression and disenfranchisement.

    • That Guy

      Exactly, many of the Chinese student’s families were illiterate rice farmers until the cultural revolution. Studying has been shown to help test scores.

      • StanFromSomewhere

        “Studying has been shown to help test scores.” – Somehow the writers of this drivel never got the message.

    • Sheri Urban

      Who was more oppressed than Chinese workers who built the rail lines and were denied citizenship for decades despite their contributions? Did it affect their SAT scores? Not one bit. Author = Fail.

  • psychout

    I believe Nicky is mixing equitable opportunities for Berkeley students with equitable opportunities for applicants to Berkeley.

    He correctly points out that there are racial gaps on the math section of the SAT (as there are on the verbal section). He is also right that students from higher income families perform better on the test than do students from lower income families (although I would quibble with his conclusion that his score on the test is a result of how much money his parents make).

    But it is not the responsibility of Berkeley (or any of the UC campuses) to, as he writes, “provide an equal opportunity for a top-tier education to all California residents.” Berkeley and the other UC campuses are limited to providing an opportunity for top-tier students.

    Highly selective universities like Berkeley have no mystical sorting hats to divine who should be admitted and who denied. They rely mainly on objective tools, one of which is the SAT.