United States / Education

Socioeconomic Inequity and the SAT: A Brief History

In March 2016, College Board will pioneer a new version of the SAT, supposedly designed to better predict high school students’ future college success. Although the SAT has been a fixture in the American college admissions process for nearly a century, it has long been plagued by accusations of unfairness on racial and socioeconomic grounds.

Ironically, the original purpose of the SAT was to lessen the socioeconomic disparities in college admissions. In 1899, a prestigious group of colleges and universities—including Princeton and Columbia—founded the College Entrance Examination Board (now known simply as College Board) in order to create a standardized college admissions system based on academic merit rather than nepotism and family connections.

In 1926, the Board began issuing the “Scholastic Aptitude Tests” more commonly known as the SAT. (The word “aptitude” was later changed to “assessment” after concerns arose regarding its connotation in eugenics). By the 1960s, these tests had become a mainstay in the American college admissions process. As the number of Americans applying to college increased dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, the SAT became an increasingly pragmatic tool for colleges and universities in dealing with the influx of applications.

Credit: Allan Foster

Credit: Allan Foster

But the rise of the SAT also brought backlash. Critics quickly pointed out that high-income students consistently scored better than their low-income peers, and white and Asian students scored better than their black and Latino peers, even when accounting for income differences.

On the issue of economic inequality, several theories emerged. College Board and its supporters argued that economic disparities in academic achievement existed—and continue to exist—outside the realm of the SAT. Better schooling meant high-income students were simply better prepared for the SAT, and since the SAT measured college readiness, for college.

Critics of the SAT, however, pointed to the test-prep industry as the cause of economic disparities in SAT results. The business of test-prep books and SAT coaching classes can be traced to as early as 1938, but grew dramatically in the 1970s. Although College Board has repeatedly insisted that SAT performance is based on general knowledge and intelligence, not test-prep businesses, the Federal Trade Commission ruled in 1979 that test-prep businesses were not fraudulent, meaning they did actually produce results.

Photo by Newton Free Library

Photo by Newton Free Library

Proponents of the new SAT argue that the new version of the test will make these prep classes less useful. The version that will be administered from  March 2016 onward places less emphasis on vocabulary and makes the essay section optional, therefore cutting down two areas in which students who took SAT prep classes typically had an advantage.

To address the issue of differences in SAT preparedness, College Board has also partnered with the nonprofit Khan Academy to expand the range of SAT study materials available to students for free.

These changes are good, but they may not be enough to overcome the economic imbalances associated with the SAT. One of the main selling points for many test-prep services is that test-taking is a skill separate from intelligence. The redesigned SAT is still four hours long, making it different from any other test that the average high school student takes. If “SAT-taking” is actually a separate skill that test-prep services can teach, then students whose families can pay for these services will continue to score better.

Another economic issue that remains with the SAT is that of cost. The test itself has a price of $43, and students face additional fees if they want to send their scores to colleges or see which questions they answered incorrectly. While fee waivers are technically available for low-income students, such waivers are not necessarily easy to obtain, and the price likely discourages many low-income students from taking the test.

Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds can often afford to take the SAT multiple times until they achieve a high enough score. Kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds rarely have this luxury.

Just as the economic inequities in the SAT may be difficult to fix, combating the racial biases is no easy task.

Accusations of racism in the SAT date back to the very roots of the test. The SAT’s original creator, Carl C. Brigham, was a prominent eugenicist. When outlining possible reasons for declining scores on an Army test he had created and administered, Brigham once wrote “each succeeding five year period of immigration since 1902 has given us an increasingly inferior selection of individuals.” Given Brigham’s biases, it seems unsurprising that he would create a test skewed against nonwhite students.

It is important to remember, however, that the SAT has undergone plenty of revisions since Brigham’s initial test in 1926. Most recently, in 2005, the SAT removed all analogy questions after critics suggested they were too grounded in cultural norms.

Nonetheless, the racial biases in SAT scores have persisted. Some have argued that the racial disparity in scores is merely a consequence of the economic disparity—black and Latino students are more likely to come from low-income families and attend underfunded schools, and therefore be less prepared for the SAT.

Others have claimed that cultural biases in the test persist through the passages chosen for reading selection and the phrasing of questions. A 2010 study published in the Harvard Educational Review argued that the word choice in certain questions was more familiar to white students than their peers of color; therefore, white students were more likely to answer these questions correctly.

If these cultural biases are real, then one change to the SAT—the reduced testing of vocabulary words—might help narrow this gap, but the issue will likely persist through reading passages.

A third theory on the root of racial biases further complicates the issue. Some psychologists have suggested that negative stereotypes associated with race lead students of color to perform worse on tests despite having the same intelligence as white students.

According to these researchers, the history of racial bias in the SAT matters because the racial disparities in scores will perpetuate themselves even if the test has evolved. As long as society dictates that students of color are not “supposed” to perform as well on the SAT as their white peers, their scores (on the whole) will lag behind those of white students.

This concept is disturbing for many in the education community, because it suggests that the SAT—or any other standardized test, even one designed by the most brilliant minds and with the best intentions—cannot avoid racial biases.

While such an outlook might seem bleak, understanding that such biases exist is a starting point for addressing issues of structural racism in American higher education. For instance, acknowledging that the SAT is racially biased against black and Latino students makes a compelling argument for the continuation of race-based affirmative action.

It is also important remember that inherent racism in the SAT does not mean that changes to the test are futile. While certain colleges, mostly small liberal arts schools, are devaluing the role of the SAT in the admissions process, the test isn’t going away. In fact, the number of high school students who took the SAT during the 2014-2015 school year was the highest ever.

Ultimately, the SAT remains an imperfect tool in the college admissions process. But if the new SAT is less biased on race and class than it used to be, then that should be considered a positive outcome.