The Real Problem With The SAT Is That We Emphasize It Too Much


I recently received a text message from my friend proclaiming, with several exclamation points, that her son had achieved a 2110 on his practice SAT!!!!! That score will put him in the 98th percentile — equivalent to over 1400 on the old 1600 scale. My friend and her husband, both college-educated, revolved their lives around nurturing and enriching their kids’ lives – living in a good public school district, supporting their schoolwork, supervising their homework, volunteering in their school and extra-curricular activities, from orchestra to Boy Scouts, and …choosing to spend $3,000 on Kaplan SAT prep. They want the best for their son. They’ve saved for college, they’ve spent strategically on school-related expenses, and it’s paying off, especially in his SAT scores. So what’s the problem?

One problem is such performance is so unequally distributed. The richest students, many of whom can also afford additional test preparation, score the highest on this standardized test. To try to make success on the test more equitable and the content more relevant to what students learn in school and need for careers, the College Board announced last month it would be revamping of the SAT. Among the changes are the elimination of the required essay and obscure esoteric vocabulary (“SAT words”), a return to the 1600 scale, free online prep through Khan Academy and fee waivers for income-eligible students to send scores to four colleges. In essence, the changes should reduce the advantage my friend’s son gets for having affluent parents who can afford, among other resources, Kaplan prep classes.

While arguments abound about whether the changes are good or bad or will or won’t level the playing field, I disagree with the prominent focus on the SAT altogether. As detailed in The Power of Privilege, the strongest predictor of SAT score — by far — is family socioeconomic status (SES). And the strongest predictor of college performance is rigor of high school curriculum, not SAT scores. This is especially true for underrepresented minorities, for whom the SAT is a poor predictor of college success and whose high school contexts often poorly prepare them for and (deliberately or not) reinforce low expectations for achievement on standardized college-entrance exams tests, as my own research shows.

So why do colleges continue to use the SAT despite the fact that it is such a problematic yardstick with which to measure merit? The answer: It’s easy, and it’s easily manipulated into admissions formulas used by colleges to fashion an incoming class reflecting their preferred income, geographic, racial, and athletic mix. The more we think about the SAT, the less we think about fluid and opaque admissions practices at work at a range of institutions – from less selective state to highly selective private universities. The truth is, SAT scores have been stretched, bent, and conveniently applied throughout our history to achieve the will of post-secondary institutions to select the students they prefer, especially elite colleges.

When the SAT began being administered in 1926, it originally leveled the playing field briefly for Jewish students who faced discriminatory admissions practices and quotas to limit their enrollments into Ivy League colleges. A backlash quickly followed, as elite colleges implemented a return to more subjective tactics to exclude Jews and downgrade the weighting of the SAT score in their admissions priorities. Then, activism in the 1960s and the push for affirmative action led to a de-prioritizing of the test to raise the proportions of African-Americans in our nation’s elite institutions. Yet those proportions remain tiny since the SAT rapidly regained prominence in admissions practices after these short-lived efforts, and exclusive high schools still dominate their admissions pools. Today, students of East Asian descent score higher than whites on the SAT, and now many colleges are discriminating against Asians to reduce the proportion of Asians in their admissions pools. It’s a pervasive enough problem that some Asians leave their racial/ethnic identity blank, or put “white” if they don’t have Asian surnames.

Of course, the SAT can facilitate upward mobility, and my partner and I are proof. For us, our high SAT scores served as a lever, heightening our chances for post-secondary access despite our less-than-affluent, non-college-educated parents who couldn’t provide the same level of support and resources my friend’s son and many other students receive. Our high test scores catapulted us into good universities and was in part why I qualified for a full scholarship. Today, I’m a professor and he is an attorney.

However, we are more an exception than the norm, as the SAT is so highly correlated with family income. And the SAT has been used repeatedly to deliberately manipulate racial and ethnic enrollments. So, whether one agrees with the planned changes to the SAT or not, I see the renewed focus on the test as just further legitimizing an education testing industry that profits from what is largely a stratification and selection tool. The changes, and the debate surrounding them, reinscribe the test’s legitimacy.

Why, then, do we continue to view this anxiety-producing, highly inequitable test as a legitimate proxy for who deserves admission? We should be focusing more attention, resources, and energy on expanding opportunities for high quality rigorous high school coursework to increase the likelihood of college success for more students. It is the time and effort invested in such coursework that prepares students for college success – not the time and money they spend preparing for the SAT.

Regina Deil-Amen is an associate professor at the University of Arizona, co-author of the book, After Admission: From College Access to College Success, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project

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