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

Picture of someone taking a standardized test like the SAT
Alberto G/Flickr/Creative Commons

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 I was not in a Costa Rican hotel, resisting the indomitable will of our hotel’s hopelessly outdated Wi-Fi system, when everything changed.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.