Written by: Anthony Hall
The test is racist. I know the word racist is a strong, but I plan to show in this paper why it is an appropriate description of college admission tests; far too many people worship these tests without fully understanding their history. By the end of this paper, you will understand why these tests are racist.
On June 18, Princeton University released the following statement:
“We understand the many hurdles students, families, counselors, and school administrators will have to overcome in the months ahead due to changes within school communities and the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19. With the disruption to coursework this spring and the lack of access to the ACT and SAT, Princeton has made a few changes to the 2020-21 application cycle to ease the process of applying.
Princeton will pause on its standardized testing required as part of its holistic review process for the 2020-21 application cycle. Students who sit for a standardized test and wish to submit their score will still have the option to do so. However, this year, applications without test scores will be rendered complete because of the change to policy. Students who do not submit test scores will not be at a disadvantage. As with previous years, the University does not require subject tests.”
The Ivy League, which is the name of the athletic conference these prestigious schools are a part of, maintains that student-athletes should complete standardized testing. In response, Princeton stated the following: “Recruited athletes will still need to adhere to the Ivy League policy and submit standardized testing, though the Office of Admission will be flexible in its review for those who simply cannot gain access.”
Dr. Carl Brigham, the psychologist who invented the SAT, also pioneered the Advanced Placement program. It is unfortunate that the man most responsible for saddling two million American teens annually with No. 2 pencils and first-degree testing jitters was a Pilgrim-pedigreed, eugenics-blinded bigot. Brigham eventually repented. However, before he regretted, he wrote that African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and cultural spectrum.
Historians have long raised concerns about Brigham’s racist attitudes and the SAT’s continued legacy of disparate outcomes for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Ninety years ago, on June 23, 1926, eight thousand American high school students simultaneously pondered which of six words were “most closely related” and which numbers “come next” in a specific sequence. This first SAT was on a 200-to-800-point scale, with 500 reflecting the median score. Aimed to test innate ability, not knowledge acquired, the Scholastic Aptitude Test culminated two decades of experiments assessing intelligence that also produced the IQ test.
More important, these standardized tests became scientifically-validated admissions tickets into America’s meritocracy for the very immigrants and minorities Brigham hoped his tests would exclude. Brigham’s Ph.D. dissertation, written in 1916, “Variable Factors in the Binet Tests,” analyzed the work of the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who developed intelligence tests as diagnostic tools to detect learning disabilities. The Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman relied on Binet’s work to produce today’s standard IQ test, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Tests.
During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in units segregated by race and test scores. The tests were scientific, yet they remained deeply biased, according to researchers and media reports. In 1917, Terman and a group of colleagues were recruited by the American Psychological Association to help the Army develop group intelligence tests and a group intelligence scale. Army testing during World War I ignited the most rapid expansion of the school testing movement.
By 1918, there were more than 100 standardized tests, developed by different researchers to measure achievement in the principal elementary and secondary school subjects. More than 8,000 students, 40 percent of them female, took the first SAT in 1926. The original test lasted 90 minutes and consisted of 315 questions focused on vocabulary and basic math.
“Unlike the college boards, the SAT is designed primarily to assess aptitude for learning rather than mastery of subjects already learned,” according to Erik Jacobsen, a New Jersey writer, and math-physics teacher based at Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J. “For some college officials, an aptitude test is appealing since at this time (1926) intelligence and ethnic origin were thought to be connected, and therefore the results of such a test could be used to limit the admissions of particularly undesirable ethnicities” (Rosales, n.d.). Again, these tests do not measure how much a student knows; on the contrary, people use this test to create a connection between a student’s ethnic origin and intelligence. Or, at least they did in the past. They do not use test to separate groups of people anymore, right?
Even the test-maker admits that high school grades better predict first-year college grades than ACT scores; in fact, adding the ACT to the high school record does not significantly improve predictions. One study at Chicago State University confirmed this trend. For the vast majority of the University’s graduates who scored in the middle range of the test as high school students, the ACT explained only 3.6% of the cumulative college GPA differences. The exam over-predicted the class’s performance graduating in 1992, which had the highest average ACT score among the courses in the research study yet the most unsatisfactory academic performance over four years at the University.
The ACT regularly underestimates females’ abilities, who earn higher grades than males in college, despite lower ACT scores. Recognizing the problem, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely admits females with lower math scores because they find the women still perform as well as men.
The College Board has claimed for decades that the SAT’s strength is that it predicts the grades students will earn in the first year of college. But what if, in many cases, it doesn’t? A study released in 2016 suggests that hundreds of thousands of students a year may have SAT scores that predict they will receive either better or worse grades than they are likely to earn. While the SAT may predict accurately for many others, the scholars who have produced the study say it raises questions about the fairness and reliability of the SAT, which remains a vital part of the admissions process at many colleges and universities.
“This is a pattern. This is many, many students and isn’t isolated,” said Herman Aguinis, the lead author of the study and the John F. Mee Chair of Management and a professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University at Bloomington. What is more interesting is that the College Board does not dispute the findings. The College Board states that even though they do not disagree with the results that nothing in the report undercuts their work. The College Board recognized that “student performance in college — and the extent to which SAT scores, high school grades and other student characteristics can predict that performance — reflects each unique campus environment and admission process as well as a host of individual student choices made after enrollment. As a result, the College Board provides colleges with a free service called the Admitted Class Evaluation Service (ACES) that identifies the best combination of measures that will predict a student’s performance at a specific institution” (Jaschik, 2016).
To be clear: The College Board admits that their standardized test is not a holistic view of a student. So why place so much emphasis on a test that weeds out people based on their ethnic origin, consistently misjudges how well women do in school, and is a poor indicator of how thousands of other Black and Hispanic students do in school? It is time to let this test go. There isn’t any substantive debate at this point. The SAT and the ACT are deeply flawed. We should not subject our students to these unfair and racist tests.
There is good news: The pandemic may be accelerating the test-optional trend. The University of California college system, which enrolls some 280,000 college students each year, has used this moment to announce that it plans to phase out the SAT and ACT permanently. As usual, California is leading the way towards change; now we need the rest of the states to follow.
Inside Higher Ed. (2016, January 26). New research suggests that SAT under- or overpredicts first-year. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/26/new-research-suggests-sat-under-or-overpredicts-first-year-grades-hundreds-thousands
Perry, A. M. (2019, July 15). Students need more than an SAT adversity score, they need a boost in wealth. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2019/05/17/students-need-more-than-an-sat-adversity-score-they-need-a-boost-in-wealth/
The ACT: Biased, Inaccurate, and Misused | FairTest. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fairtest.org/act-biased-inaccurate-and-misused