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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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