Pro SAT: A Symptom of the System

As spring rolls around, juniors will begin the arduous process of standardized testing, and for many, the foremost concern is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT.

As spring rolls around, juniors will begin the arduous process of standardized testing, and for many, the foremost concern is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT. Amid growing concerns about the reliability and the necessity of the exam, it is worth exploring the test’s’ value and limitations. Of course, the SAT is hardly a perfectly reliable measure of academic capability. While your results primarily rely on your ability to understand content in math and English, an understanding of the “personality” of the test itself—familiarity with the different question types one might encounter in the reading section or how many of each type of problem you might see on the math section, for example—can boost a students’ score significantly. It is also a written test, and thus cannot measure personality, motivation, or creativity, all of which are important factors in an individuals’ future success. Additionally, in relying on a test we run the risk of trying to encapsulate a student’s academic ability or potential in a single number, which is hardly fair to the student who maintains a 4.0 and excellent extracurriculars but simply isn’t a strong test taker.

However, just because a system has flaws doesn’t mean it ought to be done away with entirely, no matter how appealing the notion of freedom from standardized tests seems to be to us juniors. Standardized testing must exist for one primary reason: to provide a basis for comparison on a national scale. Grading systems throughout the nation are highly inconsistent—an A in a particular course at one school could easily be a B- at another— and so SAT scores provide a national benchmark that neutralizes the risk of grade inflation. A standardized metric is the only way to compare aptitude across an extremely wide pool of candidates, meaning that colleges will always need a form of testing to prove competency. Additionally, all things considered, the SAT is a relatively reliable predictor of college success, with the most recent validity study conducted “utilizing data from more than 150,000 students at more than 100 colleges and universities” to demonstrate that “the combined use of SAT and high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than high school GPA alone.” The exam in its new form also avoids the “fact-retention-and-regurgitation” structure that many Advanced Placement (AP) tests demand of students. Rather, it asks that students apply concepts in a way that is expected of a college student, encouraging active tasks like reading comprehension, editing, understanding charts and graphs, and logic-heavy math questions. While not perfect, the SAT is a fairly reliable exam in itself.

By far the largest criticism of the test, however, is the issue of equity. We have to remember that standardized testing, upon being implemented, was itself an equalizing measure. Prior to the existence of an examination that could judge all applicants by the same metric, more often than not, it was familial and personal connections that got one into an academic institution. This was hardly fair, particularly to minorities and immigrants, and so an objective piece of admissions criteria actually began to level the playing field through a more merit-based system; you can’t argue with a number. Today, however, with the rise of the test prep industry, a socioeconomic advantage is very much present in the ways students prepare for the exam. As Lawrentians, the majority of us have access to private tutoring and resources like textbooks or online courses. For example, I know that if I so much as mention an upcoming standardized test, the appropriate workbook will be sitting on my desk within a week. The exam prep industry is currently valued at over $275 billion, with relatively selective tutors promising an average improvement of 200 points. Contrast this with a student who doesn’t have access to all these resources, and we find that something doesn’t quite add up.

If the College Board wants to promote a truly fair test, it needs to engage questions of equality of opportunity for students. Fortunately, there has been movement in this direction through measures like posting old exams—which, as anyone who is not trying to sell you test prep services will tell you, are the best study tools—on the College Board webpage. Looking forward, there should also be more effort to make study resources like the new Khan Academy prep course readily available on the internet. In fact, this is true of educational resources of any form; accessibility in education is the best way to avoid a socioeconomic opportunity gap. Perhaps these initiatives are enough to compete with more individualized and expensive measures, as the most recent studies show that the exorbitant amount of money going into tutoring may not pay off as much as it seems to; a 2010 study led by Ohio State’s Claudia Buchmann and based on the National Education Longitudinal Study found that a private test prep course adds only 30 points to your score on average, and the use of a private tutor adds 37. Additionally, it’s important to recognize that inequity will always exist in society to some extent—that is, an individual's success will always be influenced by his or her class and education, and this inequity will then naturally be reflected in standardized testing. While it isn’t the College Board’s responsibility to somehow solve a persistent social issue, it should account for how this could potentially affect a students’ score. Hence, SAT Landscape—a program recently adopted to contextualize a students’ score relative to the opportunities they have been afforded—is used to help those reviewing the scores (ie. college admissions officers) understand how inequity might factor into a students’ results and thus making the test more fair by accounting for this factor.

Finally, the SAT is very much not the sole piece of admissions criteria a college looks for. A holistic admissions process in practically all well-known colleges guarantees that corrective factors will be applied in the consideration of applicants who didn’t have access to the same opportunities as others. Ultimately, the SAT is accurate and necessary enough to gauge the academic standing of a school in relation to the rest of the nation and should thus remain in place, but it certainly isn’t a comprehensive indicator of a students’ potential—something that complex can’t be expressed in a four-digit number.