The SAT: From Reducing to Perpetuating Inequality

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The college application process changed forever after the formation of the test known as the SAT. The test began in 1926, less than a hundred years ago, and yet a record breaking 1.7 million students from the class of 2015 took the test (College Board 2015). Colleges have begun to make the SAT optional in their applications, but this is a relatively new change, and just a few years ago anyone who wanted to attend college needed to take the test. The SAT is surrounded by controversy; people say that the test favors the rich over the poor, and white students over minority students. Equality advocates also say that the SAT is not a good measure of intelligence or potential, and that consistent good grades over time do a much better job of predicting a student’s capabilities to college admission officers. The SAT comes with many alleged problems, so what was it intended to accomplish in the first place? Was it meant to offer a solution to some problem? When and why did the SAT begin, and what was its original intent, and how has its actual outcome changed over time?

The SAT was implemented by the College Board as a college admissions test before World War I, and its original goal was to reduce inequality by leveling the playing field between elite private school students and non-elite students with high aptitude. But by the 1980’s, equality advocates were raising serious concerns about the real outcomes of the SAT’s wide usage. The SAT originally gave students who could not dream of attending college the chance to do so. It became so prevalent so quickly because it offered the chance of an elite education to once neglected groups– students from schools outside of the northeast, students from rural schools, home-schooled students, students from low-achieving high schools. The SAT was thought of as an equalizer, because it could detect those with high academic ability that would otherwise go unnoticed. And in many ways, it did its job. Far more students were given the chance to go on to higher education than had been given the chance before. However, its role as an equalizer has run its course as there is evidence that the test now perpetuates inequality more than it ever negated it.

Before the SAT, there was the College Entrance Examination Board. The Board acted as a middleman between the high schools and colleges, connecting high schools to more colleges to send its students, and giving colleges a high academic standard for high schools to conform to, so that the college could be sure its incoming students were prepared to attend (Zwick 6). High school students would take exams called the College Boards, which would then be hand-graded, and sent to colleges. Some aspects of this process sound similar to the SAT–the College Boards were a uniform test given to students to assess their college readiness. The big difference, however, is that the College Board at the time required membership from schools, and most of those schools were elite private boarding and day schools in the Northeast, and Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges (Zwick 6). It was the 1933 president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, who decided to change things up. At the beginning of Conant’s presidency, “Harvard and colleges like it tended to define undergraduate merit primarily in terms of nonacademic, nonquantifiable qualities like ‘character,’ which evidently was not usually found in students who went to public high schools”(Zwick 7). Conant rejected this, and began a small program called the Harvard National Scholarships, wherein boys from outside of the Northeast who showed a high level of academic promise could be brought into Harvard with full scholarships (Zwick 7). Conant decided to use the SAT (at the time known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) as the test to find these boys with high intelligence. The program took off, and soon all Ivy League schools were looking for intelligence rather than character in their applicants. Conant and the creator of the SAT, Henry Chauncey, created the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, to administrate all post-secondary educational testing. By 1938, the SAT was used as the primary admissions test by all of the College Board schools, and in 1942, the original test was suspended, never to be used again (Zwick 8).

The test was able to rise to in popularity so quickly in part because of the Nation’s obsession with intelligence testing following the first World War. During the first war, intelligence tests were used to sort men in the military by who had “potential” to become officers or  generals from those who did not (Crouse and Trusheim 16). Henry Chauncey convinced the army and the navy to use the SAT as an intelligence test, and so demonstrated that the SAT could be used to test over 300,000 people on the same day, and be accurately scored (Zwick 8). This action brought to attention the idea that all high school students could eventually be tested in a similar way, and so be sorted based on their abilities.

Even after the SAT rose in popularity and became mainstream, it was reconfigured and modified regularly in response to outside criticisms. When the SAT was created, it was meant to test for aptitude. In the earliest version of the test, students were given 315 questions to answer in 97 minutes, and no one was expected to finish (Zwick 58). This time frame meant that students were tested on speed as well as accuracy, as the test was a race to see who could answer the most questions correctly. The questions were more like “puzzle-solving” questions with tricky wording and indirect logic (Zwick 58). The earliest modifications were lengthening the time limit, and developing new types of questions that were meant to be harder to practice, or less affectable by tutoring (Zwick 57). This early test was not based directly off of what students would learn in school, but instead meant to measure innate intellectual ability. By 1946, this type of intelligence testing had given way to testing of more critical thinking and logic, and by the 1990’s, the test was meant to be based off of the type of learning done in high schools. Beginning in 1970, developers of the SAT started considering cultural, educational, and economic equality in the formation of test questions. Advocates for the SAT said of recent changes to its format, “Many of the motivations that led to previous modifications in the SAT continue to be relevant [in preparing] to revise the test…the basic and most important challenge is always to ensure that the SAT is fair for all students and that it effectively meets the needs of college admissions offices”(Zwick 73). What caused this shift in emphasis toward a more equal test for everyone, and have these changes actually generated more equal outcomes?

The shift toward a more equal test gained traction in the late 1970’s, when critics began to research and call attention to the vastly different score outcomes between white students, students of color, poor students, and wealthy students. With social justice concerns on the rise during this time period, the SAT was an easy target. Written in the 1980’s, the book The Case Against the SAT by James Crouse and Dale Trusheim, made public research done on the racial and economic biases within the SAT. At the time, the SAT was claiming that it helped black students get into college, as the test was supposed to be “color-blind” and give students an equal opportunity to prove their abilities. Their studies showed that there was a very large gap between white students’ SAT scores and black students’ SAT scores, with the white student’s scores being the higher of the two groups. When admissions offices were comparing white student and black student scores, the gap made it very difficult for black students to be admitted at selective four-year colleges–less than one black student for every ten white students would meet qualifications(Crouse and Trusheim 121). Similarly, the SAT claimed that it increased college admission for low-income applicants. However, Crouse and Trusheim stated that the correlation between SAT score and family income was larger than the correlation between freshman grades and SAT score, an argument that calls into question the entire point of the SAT (Crouse and Trusheim 123). In both cases of black students and low-income students, Crouse and Trusheim argue that the SAT does not do the job that it claims to do, which is separating potentially successful low-income or black students from potentially unsuccessful low-income or black students; a far cry from the original intent of the SAT to create admissions equality. These disparities led to widespread criticism that began with the Nairn/Nader report called The Reign of ETS: The Corporation That Makes Up Minds, which aimed to discredit the SAT by claiming it was fraudulent, and reporting on how family income influences SAT scores and college admission. After this publication, vast amounts of criticisms came out in the form of academic journals, newspaper articles, and articles in national magazines. At the peak of this movement, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, commonly known as FairTest, was formed by civil rights leaders, teachers and students. The organization aims to “safeguard the SAT and other tests against racial bias and to extend public disclosure of test information” (Crouse and Trusheim 38). The organization is still active today.

These arguments that came to public awareness in the 1980’s are still the arguments used today, however today there is even more evidence for the claims made in the eighties. The SAT continues to sound like a credible representation of American values–that a person from any background that works hard enough can score well on the SAT and find himself or herself qualified for an elite education. However, the argument against the SAT now works to prove the exact opposite: that the SAT has the effect of perpetuating inequalities in America. Mark Garrison, a modern-day equality advocate, even goes as far to say that the SAT reinforces a sort of feudal caste system, stating in his book that “testing techniques are fixated and validated on their link to unequal social structure while employing procedural equality through standardization”(Garrison 104). He argues that the SAT, by establishing itself as an “equitable” test, has been able to survive for so long by claiming to sort out “natural” differences in intellectual abilities. These differences, however, are entirely social, and do not have any basis in natural or intellectual difference. Garrison cites a study (Schiff and Lewontin 1986) that found that individual variation is a “within-group phenomenon”, meaning that each type of social group would have its individuals with higher and lower intellectual ability, instead of some groups consisting of mostly highly intelligent individuals and some groups consisting of very small amounts of highly intelligent individuals (Garrison 105). It is surely unfair then, that even in recent SAT tests, the students with the lowest combined family incomes had the lowest average SAT scores for both the verbal and math tests, and students with the highest combined family incomes had the highest average scores for both the verbal and math tests (Zwick 212).

The SAT on some level accomplished its original goal of equalizing the college admissions playing field simply by opening up the opportunity for everyone to apply to college. However, now that anyone who wants to can and does apply, the actual outcome of the test matters much more. The idea of measuring “aptitude” is gone from the name and intent of the SAT, and yet there still remains an underlying assumption that the SAT can predict how “smart” a person is, and what opportunities lie ahead of him or her. Research has made it clear that the test is in fact a poor predictor of academic ability, and indicates more the types of resources a student has to prepare for the test, whether that means private school, tutors, or upper class parents that have the cultural capital to help their students study for the SAT in the ways that will better help them to succeed. The original intent of the SAT was to bring more equality to the college admission process. The test has evolved over the decades to more closely achieve this goal, but every improvement has been followed by new research that demonstrates ever more subtle cultural, economic and racial bias. The SAT went through a major overhaul in 2015 intended to put much of this criticism into the past, and yet the criticism persists.  Perhaps the very concept of a bias-free test for predicting academic and intellectual success is inherently unachievable.  All we know is that it has not been yet achieved in spite of nearly a hundred years of effort. I argue that the SAT had a clear job set out for it, which was bringing more equality to the college admissions process (that began with almost no equality). The test was successful in that respect, but nowadays does not do enough to offer every student an equal opportunity for a high quality education.




“Annual Results Reveal Largest and Most Diverse Group of Students Take PSAT/NMSQT®, SAT®, and AP®; Need to Improve Readiness Remains.” The College Board. The College Board, 27 Feb. 2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017


Zwick, Rebecca. Rethinking the SAT The Future of Standardized Testing in University Admissions. London: Taylor and Francis, 2013. Print.


Crouse, James, and Dale Trusheim. The Case against the SAT:. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P., 1988. Print.
Garrison, Mark J. A Measure of Failure : The Political Origins of Standardized Testing. Albany, State University of New York Press, 2009.