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SAT subject tests and essay are canceled in welcome sign of exam's pending demise

Both the content of the test and the industry that surrounds it have become barriers for students from less privileged backgrounds.
Image: SAT Test To Be Revamped
SAT test prep books at a Barnes & Noble store in New York.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

When the College Board recently announced that it was eliminating the two optional SAT tests — the subject matter achievement tests and the writing test — it came as no surprise to many higher education professionals. The move seemed to acknowledge that the nonprofit behind the most widely used U.S. college entrance exam has lost millions of dollars in income and will likely need to adjust its business plans in order to stay viable.

Inherent imbalances are then greatly exacerbated by the private test prep industry. Many students rely on courses and tutors that can cost thousands of dollars.

The $1 billion testing industry depends on colleges and universities across the country insisting that applicants submit test results as a requirement for entry, but many institutions are now questioning their role in college admissions.

After the University of California system announced last year that it was no longer requiring applicants to submit scores from the SAT or ACT (a test run by the College Board’s competitor), some educators heard the death knell sound for the SAT. When the pandemic left thousands of students with no opportunity to take the exam, many more colleges set aside the testing requirement for this year. That precedent, combined with the large number of institutions that had already made the test optional, suggests the College Board is losing its captive audience.

Indeed, it’s likely the SAT has outlived its usefulness. Though premised on a noble concept — leveling the playing field for college applicants — most admissions officers believe the test is unhelpful to institutions seeking to diversify their student bodies. Both the content of the test and the industry that surrounds it have become barriers for students from less privileged backgrounds.

The College Board was founded as the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900 by 12 universities seeking to bring order to the college admissions process. It now has thousands of member institutions and takes in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, especially from its Advanced Placement operation, and has an executive team as well paid as those at for-profit corporations.

Beyond the tests themselves, the College Board makes money from selling information about the students who take the SAT to interested colleges and universities seeking to recruit them. It also owns some of the $1 billion test prep industry, which itself has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Although the College Board has insisted that the recent move to eliminate tests is designed to simplify the admissions process for students, many college officials think otherwise. Problems with test administration during the pandemic have revealed that the College Board needs to focus on improving its digital presence in order to make the test more easily available. Cutting back now frees up resources to use on pressing new developments.

Since the first SAT was created in 1926, generations of prospective college students have had to endure the test as a rite of passage to a college education. Originally conceived of as an aptitude test designed to even the playing field for ordinary people and predict college success, Harvard welcomed the test as a means of diversifying its student body, though its origins go back to people associated with the eugenics movement.

Since its introduction, many students and educators have increasingly come to view the test as a way to exclude diverse students rather than foster access. High scores on the SAT are strongly correlated with socio-economic status and tend to disadvantage Black and brown students, who score significantly lower than their white peers.

For starters, the cost of the test itself can present a major hurdle for low-income students. The College Board charges students roughly $50 for the basic SAT, and many take it several times. And test-takers also have to pay to send the results to more than four colleges, which is typical today. It also takes social capital simply to sign up for the tests and obtain information about the test format, like the need to bring No. 2 pencils and a calculator, no longer staples in student backpacks.

These inherent imbalances are then greatly exacerbated by the private test prep industry. Many students rely on courses and tutors that can cost thousands of dollars. Additional costs include transportation and free time, which students with jobs simply don’t have.

College admissions officers have used the test to compare students from schools and school systems with very different standards and expectations rather than trusting high school grades. But the data doesn’t bear out the assumption that the universal exam tells them more. Many high-scoring students don’t perform well in college, and many low-scoring ones do just fine. Colleges that have made these tests optional have not found any difference in academic achievement between students who submitted tests and those who didn’t. Research shows that grades better predict success, perhaps because they more accurately reflect a student’s motivation and work ethic.

Few people today accuse the College Board of intentional bias or favoritism, but it’s not difficult to understand how less privileged students are hindered. The College Board itself has acknowledged the differential in scores across race but blames them on inequities in educational preparation rather than test bias.

But many educators and students have argued for years that the SAT is itself biased, and its questions and tasks disadvantage students by gender and race, even by geography. The questions are associated with cultural capital, easily accessible to those from more elite backgrounds with broader life experience. For example, a passage on rugby might confuse students who don’t even know it’s a sport. Students may not read these texts accurately and successfully respond to questions about them.

Furthermore, the format of the test itself needlessly handicaps many students, particularly ones with certain types of disabilities. Holding the SAT under strict time limits is efficient, but the ability to take timed tests does not assess intelligence or ability. Perhaps most important, the SAT has an outsized influence on high school curriculum and student learning. Educators eager to see their students enter selective institutions shape their lessons to conform with parameters set by the College Board. And that means teachers are adapting their instruction to the priorities of a self-interested business.

The removal of the SAT as a gatekeeper would open higher education to a student population more varied not only by race and socio-economic level but also by interests and abilities. For many students and educators, the weakening of the power of the SAT is welcome news.