WHISNANT: SATs still unfair

The new changes in the SAT can’t fix the lack of equal opportunity in the United States

Two weeks ago, the College Board announced changes to the SAT designed to focus on what they called “deep understanding of the few things shown by current research to matter most for college readiness and success.” Notable new policies include eliminating the penalty for wrong answers, shifting the test back to a 1600 scale and making the essay optional. Just as with the changes in 2005, the SAT will seek to compete with an increasingly popular ACT test and better scrutinize the preparedness of prospective college students. These changes may very well make the SAT a better assessment than its frustrating current version, but it will not change the fact that the SAT tests for one thing better than anything else: how rich your parents are.

Boosted by an $840 million test preparation industry, upper income parents have spent the preceding decades heavily investing in making sure that their children do as well as possible on tests they see as crucial to determining their future opportunities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior; it’s only natural for parents to want the best for their kids, and it makes sense that the most affluent families would spend the most disposable income on their children’s educational attainment. The results of this spending, however, have been devastating for maintaining our conception of equal opportunity. As Chris Hayes puts it in his book “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy,” “Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.”

In practical terms, this means the average score for students with household income less than $20,000 is 1326 while children of parents making at least 10 times that achieve an average of 1714 points. For every increase in $20,000 income category, SAT scores increase an average of over 12 points per section. Unsurprisingly, the wealthiest category — household income in excess of $200,000 — shows the most dramatic jump in test scores (21 points in reading and 25 points in math). In addition to family income, increased parental education and white and Asian ethnicity correlate with higher SAT scores.

None of this is to say that the SAT is written as a discriminatory test designed to benefit the wealthy. Rather than being shaped by people with bad intentions, the SAT is increasingly reflecting the broad economic inequality that has come to characterize our society. As in our conversations about our educational system more generally, we do not account for how dramatically unequal incomes undermine equal opportunity. We can (and do) try hard to make our tests as formally fair as possible, but in a society in which the richest 400 individuals possess more wealth than the net worth of the bottom 50 percent of American households, this is all but impossible. Rather than often-discussed racial affirmative action, the greatest admissions preference goes to children who have wealthy, college-educated parents.

To begin to solve this problem, we must accept that minor changes like giving away SAT prep tools for free won’t do much to alter the fundamental dynamic at play. There are many cheap or near-free options available, but giving a child who has had restricted opportunities an SAT review book a few months before the test will do little to narrow a lifelong gap between her and her wealthier peers. President Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation have been pushing a universal pre-kindergarten plan to begin to remedy this gap at the earliest age possible. This is a sound idea, but it will do little to tame the economic inequality that is driving the issues with the SAT. The United States has spent the past 30 years dramatically expanding standardized testing, teacher accountability and a more market-like educational system, but the poverty rate has changed little in the same period, while inequality has catapulted to new heights.

The results won’t appear overnight, but if we are to conquer the educational inequities we see with the SAT, we must first seriously address the economic system that is producing these dramatically diverging results. In the meantime, the University should make SAT and ACT score submission optional for college applicants. Requiring standardized test scores is one of the key drivers of the University’s remarkable lack of socioeconomic diversity, and removing the SAT from the equation for students who are disadvantaged by its existence will go a long way to addressing this problem. Pouring more resources and effort into crafting the perfect SAT won’t solve our problems, but fighting educational inequality at its roots just might make the grade.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.


Published March 19, 2014 in Opinion





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