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college admissions
The SAT Will Always Be Unfair

Critics have charged for years that the SAT is an elitist exam—that its emphasis on advanced vocabulary and challenging math problems favors rich kids with access to good schools and fancy tutors. So in 2014, in direct response to these concerns, the College Board announced that it would overhaul the test to make it more comparable to standard high school curricula, and, supposedly, more difficult to “game” with test prep courses.

But with the first test date for the “new” SAT set for next month, the critics are back, arguing once again that the new test favors privileged students. The New York Times reports:

For thousands of college hopefuls, the stressful college admissions season is about to become even more fraught. The College Board, which makes the SAT, is rolling out a new test — its biggest redesign in a decade, and one of the most substantial ever.

Chief among the changes, experts say: longer and harder reading passages and more words in math problems. The shift is leading some educators and college admissions officers to fear that the revised test will penalize students who have not been exposed to a lot of reading, or who speak a different language at home — like immigrants and the poor.

The push to change the SAT because of fairness concerns struck us as silly, and these new complaints strike us as silly as well. Of course the SAT favors, and has always favored, wealthy who went to good schools, and of course it penalizes students who went to bad schools, or whose parents are undereducated, or who don’t speak English well. We have the terms “privileged” and “disadvantaged” for a reason: Some people are born into more fortunate circumstances than others. Tinkering with the SAT won’t change this fundamental fact of life.

Of course, a just society should take steps to level the playing field. But that means beefing up educational rigor and quality for everyone, not dumbing down a college admissions test. As one New York Times commenter said, “if the poor can’t read as well as the rich, then that’s the problem that needs to be addressed.” We’re all for a fair and effective SAT, but critics should drop the pretense that test-makers in Princeton, New Jersey, can somehow make privilege disappear.

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  • WigWag

    The SAT is a scam; it should be eliminated. It measures nothing that matters, and as more and more colleges and universities (including Bard) are coming to realize, it provides no more information about which students are likely to thrive in a college setting, and which aren’t, than the zip code that students submitted their application from.

    The College Board, which produces the test, is an integral part of a belching and bloated education bureaucracy that contributes nothing of value but drives up education costs while driving down the value that a higher education has to offer American students. It’s these same bureaucrats who gave us monstrosities like the Common Core, Title 9, ubiquitous high stakes testing, the incomprehensible approach to teaching math, the collection of student data without informed consent, kangaroo college sex courts and political correctness run amok at the elementary, secondary and higher education levels.

    What we need is not another asinine rewrite of the SAT. What we need are the heads of the College Board leadership prominently displayed on spikes in front of the Vesey Street Offices of the New York City based organization, Figuratively, that is, of course.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Why figuratively? To steal from Voltaire, it might help encourage the others….

    • qet

      The College Board simply supplies a demand. When enough schools cease asking for SAT scores, the SAT will disappear.

  • FriendlyGoat

    I’ll go with “if the poor can’t read as well as the rich, then that’s the problem that needs to be addressed”.

    I’d also go with asking why, exactly, the East and West coasts think they need to hang onto the SAT while much of the middle of the country as gone to the ACT.

    • johngbarker

      It is my impression that a robust test prep industry, which includes College Board itself, keeps the game going and markets its products to a clientele who would put arsenic in their children’s cornflakes if they believed it improve their off-springs’ chances getting into an elite college.

      • FriendlyGoat

        “Keeps the game going” is a nice turn of phrase which seems to apply to this and a number of other things.

  • Pait

    Every test will favor the better prepared, and the underprivileged find it harder to prepare.

    That said, I believe that it is easier for a hard-working, motivated student with few resources to study for a test such as the SAT then it is for them to change the schools and the society around them. So the claims that standardized tests amplify inequalities seem very suspicious to me. I could be wrong, but I think the studies should be checked more carefully before accepting the claim.

  • Beauceron

    The bottom line here isn’t that “privileged” and “underprivileged” have disparity in their test scores.

    The bottom line is that they want black and latino kids to do as well as white and Asian kids; they just don’t have the guts to come out and say that– or saying that pulls the veil from their agenda.

    A poor or middle class student of any background that goes to an even moderately decent school will have access to programs and courses that will enable them to do well on the SATs. All other things being equal, a rich kid who goes to an expensive school will always have an advantage over a poor or middle class student who goes to a public school. But that does not preclude a poor or middle class public high school student from doing well on any test. Is it more difficult? To be sure– and we should take what steps are reasonable to make it easier.

    But the complaints over SAT exams, because they are based on a fundamental dishonesty about their purpose, have moved to the usual end: it is not about opportunity, it is about results. This is the predictable course set by the foolish and indefensible focus on disparate impact, one the most poisonous concepts to ever roll out of the bowels of the American Left. The disparate impact test requires that we look not at fairness of opportunity, but only and always at the end results. And if the end results are not equal, then, of course, the process itself must not be equal. That absolves those impacted by any potential unfairness of any responsibility.
    In the end, this is not about wealth, it’s about culture. I used to date a woman who was a public high school teacher in one of the poorer public schools in NYC. She said her biggest problem was attendance– the kids wouldn’t even show up for class a large portion of the time, and phone calls to the student’s home did no good because the parents didn’t seem to care much or have the ability to make their kids go to school. The other was caring about school– most of the students were only there because they had to be and had no interest in advancing their education. No amount of playing with the SAT test is going to fix that problem.

    • GS

      Beauceron, SAT is an imperfect IQ test. IQ crystallizes by the age 6 or so. And if there is not enough grey matter between the ears, then no amount of preparation would remedy this deficiency. All the complaints are to be addressed to the Lord God.

  • Dale Fayda

    Math is math and English is English. You either know these subjects or you don’t. The SAT is actually not that difficult, from what I recall. I took it twice in high school, once with no preparation at all and did pretty well both times. With even a modicum of preparation, it shouldn’t be that much of a challenge to get decent enough scores to get into a college. Getting into an elite college, on the other hand, hinges on several other factors, with the SAT’s being just one in a long list.

  • CapitalHawk

    The SAT is a disguised IQ test. The ACT is as well, although less so since it also tests real knowledge gained through study. So, if your IQ is low, you will score poorly on these tests. No amount of re-writing the tests will change this. Couple this with the facts that people with high IQs tend to do well in life (i.e. they are “privileged”), people with low IQs don’t tend to do well in life (i.e. they are “disadvantaged”), and that IQ is in large part inherited from your parents and you’re stuck.
    In short, thus has it ever been, thus shall it always be.

    • Frank Messmann

      Yes, the SAT is still a disguised IQ test, despite attempts to weaken it — for example by eliminating the “g”-loaded analogies.

  • Anthony

    Pait and qet basically get to nub of post – “every test will favor the better prepared and College Board simply supplies a demand.” Over and above that from societal standpoint, the SAT confers merit (status) – a meritocratic doctrine rests on assumptions that have consequences (inherent in a set of institutional practices and relationships predisposed to create an ostensible elite). The SAT may be more important as identity (not so much for perceived “also ran” perhaps) than as predictor like WigWag alludes. Still. one could argue that a striving middle class may even psychologically require it ( sometimes aiding the conflating of motivations and impulses stirred by societal unfair competition).

  • qet

    From Wikipedia:

    “The SAT was a replacement for the individual tests that were used for each university. It was introduced during the Progressive Era and helped to give more students a chance to attend universities. Originally used mainly by colleges and universities in the northeastern United States, and developed by Carl Brigham, one of the psychologists who worked on the Army Alpha and Beta tests, the SAT was originally developed as a way to eliminate test bias between people from different socio-economic backgrounds.”

    The SAT was intended as an elite-compensator by Progressives. Surprise surprise, it evolved into merely another elite-discriminator. Just like every Progressive interference in anything, it not only backfired but has become The Problem (so anyone labeling himself as progressive is the last person we ought to heed when trying to solve it). Perhaps the lesson in all this is to let the universities administer their own separate tests. Then each could reduce it to whatever lowest common denominator it deemed appropriate to serve its own vision of “diversity” and “inclusion.” The Ivies’ elite-making capacity would quickly come to an end, as they would likely seek out unqualified applicants and then rig their course content and grading to ensure that they all graduated with honors. Such graduates would be received into the adult world and job market for what they actually were, and soon an Ivy diploma would be meaningless.

    Perhaps this is merely example #13,637 of why attempting to impose uniformity in anything on a nation of almost 350 million (and that doesn’t even consider all of the non-US students flooding into our universities) is a bad idea.

  • Fat_Man

    Only a random draw will produce a completely fair result. I say, lets go for it. Devil take the hindmost.

    • Boritz

      Same for medical and dental school?

      • Fat_Man

        The difference between undergraduate education and professional education is the difference between chalk and cheese. Professions have a body of knowledge that must be mastered so that the student will be able to practice them competently. Undergraduate education is mere ticket punching. The kids want to go to college so that they can spend 4years drinking and fornicating on somebody else’s dime. They won’t go to classes before 10 a.m. or on Friday. The faculty want to spend their time researching and writing about their favorite hobby horses that absolutely no one outside their coterie can understand or care about. The faculty pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn. The administration wants to collect as much money as they can with as little resistance as is possible.

  • jeburke

    I am the son of immigrants who did not finish high school and worked in blue collar jobs. I went to average public schools. I also aced my classes and the SATs and was admitted to a world-class university. My story is one that has been replicated countless times before and since. The College Board can fiddle with test questions as much as it wants to please liberal critics, but there will still be a 99th percentile and a 90th and a 50th, and if the test is dumbed down too far, colleges will simply weigh it less in admissions. Outcome? Pretty much the same because competitive colleges want and need competitive students.

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