How findings of inherent racial, gender, and economic bias could lead to the standardized test’s ultimate downfall.
By: Jazyln Moock
Highschool juniors and seniors can never forget that infamous Saturday morning at 8 am: the SAT. After months of procrastination and the overwhelming stress of college admissions season, the SAT can be a worst nightmare, or at least a moderate headache for the 2.2 million students who take the standardized test each year in the United States.
Although, with colleges across the nation deciding to switch to an SAT/ACT optional policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic, students have been able to wish the random passages about the eating habits of prairie dogs and ancient rock formations goodbye. However, is it possible that the pause for the next fall semester could persuade colleges to drop SAT testing requirements indefinitely?
While standardized tests have been perceived as an essential component of the competitive college application process for decades, the limitations of the 2020 SAT could be the turning point for universities to finally put the tests’ fairness and effectiveness into question.
Long before the effects of the coronavirus, students and education leaders have doubted the fairness of the exams, claiming that they have inherent bias against students of color and low-income families. The University of California, one of the largest university systems in the U.S., was even sued for their use of the SAT in the application process, on the basis that the dependence on these tests violates the state’s anti-discrimination statute.
In 2018, the college board released data that revealed increasing score gaps between racial and ethnic groups, with white and asian students consistently averaging over 100 points more than any other minority groups. While the creators of the SAT have argued that the difference in scores between white and minority students can be attributed to the inequities of American society and not to the test itself, research from the Harvard Educational Review has shown otherwise. The study argues that the average test score for students of color trails behind those of white students not just because of economic disadvantages, but because certain questions within the test have resulted in contradicting scores by race for students of equal educational background and skill set. For example, in the language sections of the SAT, some questions might be easier for white students to answer, not due to education or aptitude, but because they contain familiar cultural expressions that are commonly used in the dominant, white society. This discovery means that, whether the college board realized or not, the questions were written with a racial bias favoring white students, and therefore, reinforced the intergenerational black-white achievement gap.
When concerning economic bias, the evidence that students living in a wealthier household have the upper hand in standardized testing, is undeniable. In 2015, the college board released that students whose family income is below $20,000 had an average reading score of 433, but the average for those with an income above $200,000 was 570. Discrepancies in scores between socioeconomic levels can result from the amount of money spent on SAT preparation classes, which helps improve scores as stated by the college board . However, most test prep options that have shown to guarantee student success are not always an option for lower income families. For instance, Princeton Review charges as much as $2,600 for 10 hours of one-on-one private SAT tutoring sessions. The price of the test in general can be an obstacle, along with limited amounts of time to study due to living situations or strenuous work schedules for those students with more financial and at-home responsibilities.
Another ingrained bias in the foundation of standardized testing, which has often been forgotten in regards to education, is gender bias. Though one would assume gender equality would close the achievement gap between males and females, for over the past four decades, female students have consistently received lower test scores in math than male students on the SAT, according to the American Enterprise Institute. While this data may seem to imply some sort of math deficiency in women, one study by the University of Missouri actually found that girls overwhelmingly outperform their male counterparts in math classes. The reason for this consistent underperforming in standardized tests by females, despite their high achievement in schools, could be explained by the phenomenon of stereotype threat. Since society has reinforced the stereotype that boys are better at math, anxiety and self-doubt can negatively influence the performance of girls during the SAT. This could be a substantial theory since the same phenomenon has been proven to contribute to racial achievement gaps. A more controversial explanation is that the short length of the SAT gives males an advantage because of the differences in spatial abilities between genders. This could explain why females succeed more in math classes where learning material is spread out over long periods of time.
In May, after students, public school districts, and civil rights advocacy groups set out to prove the unjust, inequitable nature of the SAT and hold the University of California accountable for its reliance on standardized testing, the school’s Board of Regents unanimously voted to phase out the test requirements for in-state students over the next five years. The results of the 2020 lawsuit, with multiple University of California leaders explicitly admitting that the tests are “racist and serve as a proxy for privilege,” could be a good indication of the SAT and ACT’s inevitable downfall in the coming years. This test-less future is especially promising since, even after the huge win at U.C., some civil rights coalitions have been relentless and not stopped at simply one lawsuit. The Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law group, for instance, has launched a new campaign to eliminate exam requirements indefinitely at 30 other major universities. “We are excited by the momentum and consider this a sort of first push amid a longer process to get rid of the consideration of the tests and make sure that colleges are also adopting complementary policies that support marginalized and underrepresented groups,” said a counselor from the Lawyers’ Committee’s Educational Opportunities Project.
The circumstances of COVID-19 in regards to college applications have made the appeal of anti-SAT groups more enticing, as universities have been essentially forced into a test-optional pilot program for the next year of applications. However, going test-optional could be a win-win for colleges and prove to be more effective than ever before. When students have the choice whether or not to submit SAT scores, schools will receive not only more applications, but more diverse applicants as well. Even before the pandemic, the desire to eliminate the test requirements was rapidly growing. From September 2018 to September 2019, nearly 50 accredited colleges and universities announced that they were dropping the admissions requirement for SAT/ACT scores. The total number of accredited schools to do so before COVID-19 was 1,050 — about 40 percent of the total, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
Though, regardless of the benefits for the universities themselves, they will most likely have no choice but to go test-optional due to the considerable legal issues that surround a test which undoubtedly impedes on the success of minority and economically disadvantaged students.