SAT Causing Trouble Since 1984

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The SAT has gone through many evolutions since it first began in 1926 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. But the most recent and drastic change occurred in 2005 we began to see schools starting move away from the SAT again for the first time since the first initial spike in 1984. Many high level universities saw the SAT as unable to accurately portray a student’s academic ability. Because of this the College Board decided to implement new additions and edits to the test structure. The SAT no longer saw quantitative comparison and analogy as necessary predictors and added reading comprehension, an increase in math concepts, and an essay question. These changes, made to improve the SAT, still may not have increased the test ability to portray academic ability. Since these changes, schools like Trinity College have decided to no longer look at SAT scores. Since Bates went test optional in 1984 have the reasons why colleges, like Trinity College, no longer require the test remained the same or changed over the past thirty years? Why have they stayed constant or stayed the same?

Over the past thirty years, the reasons colleges have shifted away from the SAT and and other tests have stayed constant. The issues surrounding racial scoring gaps and the test’s inability to accurately predict academic success are still prevalent today. Universities feel that they still need to require the SAT because they believe it sets their schools to a higher academic standard. This first initial spike, after Bates kick started the test optional movement,  in college rejections of the SAT occurred in 1994 when over 100 universities decided to go test optional. 1 Test optional schools continued to grow for the next decade when now even elite colleges are beginning to put less weight on the SAT. Racial scoring gaps within the test have become extremely prevalent in the media as well as how colleges are analyzing scores of their incoming students. The SAT has gone through so many restructuring that universities are beginning to question whether or not the test is a good predictor of how well their incoming class will do academically for the next four years.

Racial inequality issues within the test have been one of the most influential issues surround the SAT even when Bates first decided to go test optional. In the 1980s there was much debate about how the SAT represented and did not represent different parts of the American community. A study conducted by The Staff of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in 1987 they found, “in examining these test items, it becomes apparent that parts of the SAT will be easier for students who are familiar with the activities of upper-middle class Americans”. 2 An example of these tests were inserted into the study

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Lots of lower class and minority students could have issues with these types of questions because they may not have been that type of life style. Many schools in the late 80s began to have issues with racial inequalities and how students began to view their own academic success and potential because of the test. Michael Behnke Director of Admissions at M.I.T says that his school worries “about people defining their worth and potential in terms of the scores. This is especially troubling because of race and gender difference in scores’”. 4 Another big issue surrounding inequality within the test at this point was test preparation. There were not as many available test aids for all types of students as there is today. So unequal preparation was something many admission officers were concerned with as well as, “that the advantages that coaching offers to richer applicants makes it more difficult for institutions to assess the comparative qualifications of students of differing economic status”. 5 This point ties right into the racial scoring gap within the test “It’s just not fair to minority, blue-collared and rural students” that they did not have equal opportunity to succeed on the SAT and show colleges that they were also acceptable candidates for their school. 6

In 1984 Bate’s had issues surrounding racial inequality and scoring gaps within the SAT that are still in the minds of admissions officers today. There is clear research showing this gap between minority and white student test scores and as colleges begin to get more and more diverse tests with this issue will no longer be a good indicator of academic success. There continues to be a large debate over the value of the SAT because of this scoring gap, “black colleges and universities are among the institutions most likely to have dropped the SAT/ACT requirement”. 7 The inequality in the scores is influenced by many factors such as socioeconomic advantages, test preparation, and how the test is designed all together. Even though “blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites from comparable backgrounds to utilize test preparation”’ there is still a gap of almost “200 points” between black and white test takers. 8 For colleges that emphasize on their SAT averages of their student body 200 points carries a lot of weight when accepting a student. Because many of the top universities like Harvard and Yale continue to put a high value on SAT scores it makes it increasingly harder for “black students, who are otherwise highly qualified, to win admission to the nation’s highest-ranked colleges and universities”. 9 Starting in the 2000s there were over 800 high ranking colleges that became test optional or stopped looking at the test all together but there still seems to be a reputation that low SAT scores predict less success in college. Even in today’s version of the SAT there are many issues surrounding the bias wording of test questions similar to the wording in the 1980s. An example of one of these questions:

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The right answer is (C) but “an inner-city black student who has never seen a boat, much less heard of a regatta” may not find this question so easy to answer. 11 These racial inequality issues were prevalent in 1980 and are still prevalent today.

Issues surrounding the test’s ability to predict success began to arise in the 1980s. As universities began to go test optional in the late 80s and early 90s they began to see that their applicant pool for incoming students did not show any less able minded students. The current SAT was not showing them the abilities that these students would need in the years to come in college. College’s also saw, “that if a student, after completing a national examination, feels that the test scores are too low as many of them do he or she is inclined to apply down”. 12 When Bate’s went test optional they immediately saw a rise in applicants to their college as well as seeing, “the percentage of students not submitting testing rose to the mid-to-high 30% range”. 13 Not only did this increase and diversify up universities application pool many universities like Bowdoin College, Johns Hopkins, and Union College saw the SAT as giving them unimportant information about the student. They saw the SAT as showing which students can pay for the most study preparation and which students spent their time memorizing how to take one specific test. These colleges and many more saw the SAT as ‘’unfair, measure irrelevant knowledge, and provide redundant information”. 14 When Bowdoin first decided to go test optional one extreme difference they saw within their applicant pool were students that were “highly motivated” as well as did “more interesting extracurricular activities”. 15 The SAT even in the 1980s was unable to show schools that students would be prepared for the rigorous course load of college. Instead they found that it showed them a limited group of students that had the resources and ability to do well on the test.

Today the SAT still does not test students on abilities they will need once they get to college as well as being unable to predict success. Within the SAT there are four sections reading, math, language, and the essay. During the restructuring in 2005 additions like the essay were implemented within the test. Because of how this section is structured it “requires students to answer an essay question without doing research and without adequate time to prepare or edit their response”. 16 Along with issues within the test, there has been an increase in the number of students opting out of taking the SAT because of strenuous amount of time it now takes to complete, it takes them up to four or more hours. And if you have accommodations for extra time the test can take up to six hours. This makes it difficult for students to retake the exam multiple times to produce the best score possible. Because of this length and amount of questions on the SAT many SAT tutors have tips and trick on how to get through questions faster without needing to complete the entire exercise. Within the reading comprehension section many students resort to reading only the questions and determining based off of  keywords they see both in the text and in thee question how to answer it correctly. “By chance alone, one would expect students to get 20% of the questions right, since all the questions are five-choice multiple-choice items. For most passages, students were able to answer between 26% and 38% correctly, but for one passage students were able to answer 59% of the items right — about what would be expected if students had actually read the passage first”. 17 This show the extent to which the SAT has continued, even with changes, to fail to predict academic success in college and accurately show students knowledge.

Top colleges are still reluctant to let go of the SAT because of the past reputation of a better education high test scores brought to colleges. Since the 1980s the SAT has slowly been rejected by many colleges but it still remains an important part of admission within the top Ivy League schools in the US that set the standard for the rest of the lower ranking elite colleges. Even despite endless research showing the inability of the SAT to show academic success and the racial and gender inequalities within the test these top colleges continue to hold onto the SAT. Lots of elite colleges that still have the SAT, “are waiting for one of the highest-ranked universities to make a move”. 18 Until that happens the SAT will remain a big part of high education. These Ivy League colleges hold onto the SAT to show their elite status as an academic institution when in reality it shows their inability to progress as a college. Many smaller universities are reluctant to let go of the SAT because they have a “fear of being viewed as academically weak”. 19 Lots of the these elite schools feel pressure from other institutions like when Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine went test optional there were many positive reactions but, “the only strongly negative reaction came from the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, the agency that certifies business schools. Harvard was pressured by this group to continue to require the exam”. 20 Lots of outside institutions still view the SAT as showing high academic standing for schools. There an extreme amount of research showing the SAT as irrelevant and unfair but these schools still cling to it which causes smaller schools to see the benefit in it as well. They “require the test scores to maintain an aura of selectivity”. 21

Since 1984 when Bates went test optional the reasons surround this shift have stayed constant and so have the schools that refuse to go test optional. The racial scoring gaps has stayed prevalent or even grown since it was first addressed as an issue in the late 80s and the problems surrounding what the test is actually measured have remained in the minds of admissions officers. Even with the extent of research conducted on the SAT and all of the problems surrounding it schools like Ivy Leagues have stuck to using the SAT as a measurement of future academic success. Why? The SAT and other tests have a long reputation of showing elite students that should attend elite higher education. Because of these school’s need to show “an aura of selectivity” and elite standing, schools are stuck with the SAT. As long as schools like the Ivy Leagues stick to using the SAT smaller schools in need of some form of measurement of academic ability will continue to use the SAT. It is a cycle that can only be broken by colleges themselves.


  1. “The Growing List of Colleges That Have Rejected the Use of the SAT.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 50 (2005): 45-46. Accessed February 4, 2016.
  2. Amy Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions Alternatives That Work,” The Staff of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, November 1987,[Page 11],
  3. Allina, Amy. “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions Alternatives That Work.” The Staff of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, November 1987.
  4. Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions,” [Page 6].
  5. Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions,” [Page 10].
  6. Edward B. Fiske, “Some Colleges Question Usefulness of SAT’s,” New York Times, October 9, 1984.
  7. “The Growing List of Colleges That Have Rejected the Use of the SAT.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 50 (2005): 45-46. Accessed February 4, 2016.
  8.  Sigal Alon, “Racial Differences in Test Preparation Strategies: A Commentary on Shadow Education, American Style: Test Preparation, the SAT and College Enrollment,” Oxford University Press 89, no. 2 (November 2010): [Page 463],
  9. “Will the Nation’s Leading Colleges Sound the Death Knell for the SAT?,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 53 (2006): [Page #], accessed February 4, 2016,
  10. “How Changes in the SAT Will Affect College-Bound Blacks,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, [Page 12], accessed July 2002,
  11. “How Changes in the SAT Will Affect College-Bound Blacks,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, [Page 12], accessed July 2002,
  12. Ernest Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1986), [Page 34].
  13. William C. Hiss and Kate M. Doria, “Defining Promise: Twenty Five Years of Optional Testing at Bates College,” Bates College, last modified 2009,
  14. Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions,” [Page 1].
  15. Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions,” [Page 18].
  16. “Will the Nation’s Leading,” [Page 15].
  17. Bracey W. Gerald, “‘Reading’ Test Questions,” Phi Delta Kappan, [Page 1],
  18. The Growing List of Colleges,” [Page 46].
  19. The Growing List of Colleges,” [Page 46].
  20. Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions,” [Page 4].
  21. Allina, “Beyond Standardized Testing: Admissions,” [Page 1].

One thought on “SAT Causing Trouble Since 1984”

  1. Stefania, this essay raises thoughtful questions about how the reasons that colleges offer for going SAT optional have changed or remained the same since the Bates decision in 1984, and why. The thesis advances a bold argument that emphasizes continuity, but a stronger essay would have provided a clearer paragraph, as this one bounces a bit from racial gaps, to predictability, to academic standards, back to race, and predictability again.

    The body of the essay contains striking evidence on social class bias in SAT test questions from the 1980s. You argue that the “racial inequality issues” from that period “are still prevalent today,” and for support you offer an undated test question (which your footnotes tell us appeared in a 2002 journal article). This did not persuade me to accept your argument. While I agree that college admissions officers remain concerned about racial and social class differences in SAT results over time, is it possible that critics today more likely to point to inequalities due to under-resourced schools and for-pay test prep, rather than discriminatory test questions? By contrast, your evidence on concerns over predictability and perceptions of academic standards were more persuasive.

    Two small but important points to improve your writing:
    1) When making claims about the past, write in the past tense, and tell us when people spoke or wrote their words. For example, see the sentence beginning with “Michael Behnke…”

    2) Carefully re-read your essay before submitting it (or ask others for help) to catch and fix several incomplete sentences, since there were several, such as this one: A study conducted by The Staff of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in 1987 they found, “in examining these test items, it becomes apparent that parts of the SAT will be easier for students who are familiar with the activities of upper-middle class Americans”.

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