The SAT and ACT would be fairer if offered in languages other than English
It’s a two party system where both sides are corrupt — the adolescent realm of standardized testing. Those acronymic behemoths, the SAT and ACT, are familiar considering either were required for our University admission. Though students feel the stress of performance, new data suggests that the fiercest competition is between the two tests. This year broke precedent in that more students took the ACT than the SAT, raising the multiple choice question of which test universities and applicants should prefer. Ultimately, both tests are failing our students and an important fix would be for these tests to be available in non-English languages.
The College Board released Tuesday the aggregate SAT results for last year. From a demographics perspective everything was up: More people took the test than ever before, including 45 percent of exam-takers who were minority students, which is a new high. What went down were the scores: Averages in the reading and writing sections both fell. Inside Higher Ed notes that The College Board has admonished critics not to overanalyze such small decrements that occur year-to-year. The institution does not seem to realize, however, the clear correlation between increased minority test-takers and decreased overall scores.
As an abstract, universal language, mathematics is confusing for everyone. Go figure, then, that the mean SAT math score has been stable since 2006. Not so with reading and writing, which are conducted in English and have consistently fallen since 2006, when the writing section was introduced. Cross-sectional analysis sorting the scores by ethnicity reveals that it is precisely in the writing section where a gap between minority and non-minority groups is the largest. Instead of creating another dimension to allow self-expression, the addition of a writing section has only aggravated the pre-existing unfairness of making non-English speakers take an English test.
The ACT hasn’t fared much better. Since the maximum score on an ACT section is 36 — as opposed to the SAT’s 800 — numerical differences appear miniscule, but exist nonetheless. Although the SAT and ACT vary in their background measurements, such as benchmark levels that indicate “college preparedness” and recommended high school curricula, the general trends are identical. More students take the ACT, and discrepancies across ethnicities have widened while overall scores have flatlined. Because the ACT writing section is optional, it is not factored into summaries of composite test scores. But a glance at the numbers shows the chasm in writing for minorities is as marked as other scores on the test.
The SAT and ACT are currently offered only in English. That rationale would make sense if the tests were aiming to gauge our brute, Anglican vocabulary. Instead, according to the test literatures themselves, the SAT and ACT are vetting skills such as rhetoric, grammar, syntax, mechanics, the ability to make inferences and the capacity to write with coherence. Whether students can perform these second-order tasks should not be dependent on what language they happened to grow up with.
As more international students arrive at American universities and, domestically, as a more ethnically diverse class signs up for these exams, the SAT and ACT should accommodate by translating their tests. We don’t think graders would mind, especially as more of them become just computers.