SAT Con: An Unfair Assessment

IV Formers at Lawrenceville, even if they have no familiarity with the college process, trust in the College Counseling Office to navigate them through the process.

IV Formers at Lawrenceville, even if they have no familiarity with the college process, trust in the College Counseling Office to navigate them through the process. Every IV Former is assigned a college counselor in the Winter Term, and his or her college counselor makes a plan for standardized tests, college visits, and applications. Standardized tests play an important role in the college admissions process and are typically used by colleges to determine academic ability. In particular, Standardized Aptitude Test (SAT) scores directly correlate to the selectivity of the colleges one is accepted to. SAT scores are even more crucial for some students because high scores can lead to merit scholarships worth thousands of dollars. Although the SAT was created to level the playing field for all college applicants, over recent years, it has become more indicative of access to resources rather than academic ability. Therefore, the nature of the SAT inherently disadvantages lower income students who do not have the resources to pay for outside tutors and classes.

Taking the SAT can be burdensome for students from families facing financial challenges. The 2020 SAT costs $49.50, but with the addition of the essay, registration fees, and question and answer service, the exam’s price nears $100. Students that meet indicators of financial hardship can obtain fee waivers that cover a maximum of two SATs and six Subject Tests, but this is not sufficient for every student. Students may require taking the test three or four times to reach a target score. Students from families unburdened by the cost of the exam have the means by which to take the test multiple times and therefore score better. Many colleges also superscore the exam, meaning that they take the highest score from each section to form the highest combined score. With a limited number of opportunities to take an exam, financially-challenged students subsequently may have a lower SAT score. However, most importantly, and regardless of whether or not the difference in testing opportunities affects score, there is also a difference in principle. For a standardized aptitude test that serves as a gateway to higher education—the hallmark of socioeconomic mobility—income should not determine how many tests one can take. Beyond the ability to pay for the test, financial ability also determines the level of preparation a student might have for the test. The SAT covers high school subjects such as reading comprehension, grammar, geometry, and algebra; however, understanding the test format and how to approach the test is key to getting a high score. Numerous companies such as the Princeton Review and Kaplan offer individualized tutoring sessions that run for thousands of dollars. Students who cannot afford the fees only have the option of using test prep books and if lucky, a free tutoring program that’s often with limited capacity.

While there are inevitably students who will score exceptionally on the test, overcoming their own socioeconomic background and therefore proving their merit, studies have shown that the majority of the time a student’s background will influence their score. For example, in a 2013 paper titled from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California , Researchers found that wealthy students earn higher SAT scores compared to their low-income peers and that the difference in SAT scores between high- and low-income students was twice as large among black students compared to white students. Numerous other studies have corroborated similar results when comparing scores based on race or income.

The SAT cannot be entirely blamed for inequity as the test only reflects the broader inequalities across race and class that exist in American society. Yet, by having the current state of standardized testing as a requirement for some college applications, it contributes even more to an already unequal system. The SAT is only adding an additional burden to low income students’ ability to succeed in a college application process that is already stacked against them.

Overall, it is clear that socioeconomic status generally correlates with success on the SAT and other standardized tests. Therefore, the current SAT cannot truly be viewed as a reliable factor for admissions because students are disadvantaged by financial factors beyond their control, all over the world. As a result, hundreds of colleges, including University of Chicago, Wake Forest University, and Brandeis University, have attempted to remedy the statistics by making standardized tests optional for applicants. However, this strategy does not get at the root of the problem. Since the College Board portrays itself as a not-for-profit organization, the SAT should either be offered free of charge to a broader range of students or it should offer access to a broader range of preparation opportunities. While this will not level out the unequal playing field, it will at the very least provide a better opportunity for all high school students to perform to the best of their ability.


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