Trolling the SAT

Brian Foisy

I’m 17, so I’m in the eye of the storm right now as far as the college search process goes. Some parts are cool like when college advisors shake your hand and give you free stuff. I like that. But most of it is an insidious, arduous, and painful experience. No component exemplifies the worst parts of this process more than the SAT.

The SAT is a standardized test that attempts to show high school students’ intelligence and reasoning capabilities. Most students take it their junior year of high school. It’s increasingly become something that colleges want to see on your application. U.S. News reports that around 95% of colleges either require or want to see some form of standardized test for your application. 60% of colleges also say that scores on standardized tests, like the SAT, is very important to the admission process. This all means that almost every student who applies to college takes the SAT.

The base cost for the SAT is around $50, but that price goes up to $65 if you want to take the SAT with the essay. This price seems modest but if you account for all of the other components that go into to taking the SAT that price jumps even more.

The SAT is a hard test, and it’s not a test style that many students are used to, thus many people seek out tutoring. Princeton Review, one of the nation’s top college admissions advisory programs, offers an SAT prep class at their locations across the country. That class, which totals in 18 hours, costs around $600. There are more intense classes that can run you somewhere into the thousands. Now there are some programs, like those offered by Khan Academy, that are free. But those don’t provide the same amount of rigor and personalization as some of the paid programs.

Many students need to retake the SAT multiple times, having to pay that $50 fee again. In the end, the SAT process can cost a generous sum of money.

This all amounts to a corporation, in the College Board, that takes in millions every year from people who have no other choice. The College Board is a non-profit, so their earnings are a little hazy. Some reports indicate, however, that top executives at College Board take in annual salaries in the hundreds of thousands. Their CEO, Gaston Caperton – whose name sounds like a Karate Kid villain – took in $1.3 million in 2009.

There’s a question that’s repeatedly been on my mind:  how has the SAT has become so ubiquitous?

The first SAT was handed out in 1901. It was conceived by the original College Board, made up of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges. They wanted a way to increase admission numbers and a way to measure the intelligence of those coming into their schools. As the Washington Post reports, “the [1901] test would still have been beyond the abilities of most Americans.”  This changed the demographics of the admissions pool of many colleges. By 1905, 7% of the Harvard student body was Jewish and 9% Catholic. The Harvard president didn’t like this as he felt the Jewish and Catholic students were muddying his pristine Protestant student body. They increased their selectiveness adding processes that still exist to this day.

Years later, a different Harvard president disliked the now incredibly affluent, Protestant, and white student body. He made Harvard once again embrace the SAT.

By the 1950s hundreds of schools began requiring it. By the 90s almost every school required it. The SAT kept moving forward until we reached the point we are at today, where 95% of colleges require the test.

The Washington Post again reports that “students from privileged backgrounds still perform better on [the SAT] and are more likely to be admitted to the most selective schools.” Studies show the students from more impoverished or underprivileged areas performed worse on the SAT. But, with all the financial inequity the SAT brings, many public schools give it out to students free of charge.

These public schools are, in many cases, required by law to administer the SAT. How did this happen?

College Board, with their millions in revenue, have turned around and used those funds to lobby state and national legislators to adopt the test. The College Board shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to lobbying firms. This ensures that the SAT will stay a component in schools. Today, half of all U.S. states require students to take the SAT or some other standardized test.

Many teachers are tasked with incorporating SAT practice tests or practice questions in their classes, which interrupts the curriculum and places another burden on teachers. For schools to teach this material, they need to have said material. Schools across the country pay thousands a year for SAT practice tests and practice booklets. All of that money goes back to the College Board.

All of this is horrible. Plain and simple. But, it’s a small price to pay for colleges to be able to measure the intelligence of students, right? Wrong again.

The SAT has been proven time and time again to be an incredibly poor way of measuring a student’s intelligence at all. Bates College conducted a study into the actual value of tests like the SAT and ACT. The admissions dean, William Hiss, wanted to know whether the school still needed them in applications. In an interview with PBS, he said, “trying to find a single measurement tool that will be reliable across the enormous populations of American students is simply a trip up a blind alley…we just don’t find [the tests] reliable [a]cross populations.” In hundreds of cases, students with 4.0 GPAs have scored in the bottom 25th percentile of the SAT. What the test does show, however, is your ability to take a standardized test. A skill few people need to master in their life.

This evidence is why there is a growing movement in the country to abandon the SAT as a way of measuring students’ intelligence. Some of the nation’s top colleges and universities are becoming SAT optional. It’s a wave that could continue so that twenty or thirty years down the line, another student will never be subjected to the SAT again.

If you have a response to this article or would like to suggest a topic for a future one, email me at [email protected] Your response could be featured in or inspire a future article.