Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

The Racist History of the SAT

Through the evolution of the college admissions process, the role of standardized testing as an index of merit has continued to present a hurdle for many students seeking admission to college. While the SAT is widely accepted as an objective factor used to quantify a student’s college readiness, many people argue that it perpetuates the myth of American meritocracy. 

By benefiting wealthy students with access to individualized tutoring services and extensive test prep resources, the standardized testing system gives students from low-income backgrounds a significant systematic disadvantage. This reinforces the socioeconomic disparities in today’s educational system.

For that reason, many universities have turned to de-emphasize the importance of the SAT in favor of a more “holistic” review process, and many schools have become test optional—completely abandoning the standardized test as a requirement altogether.

In order to better understand the inherent injustice of reducing a student’s potential to a single number, it is critical to examine the history of standardized testing as a tool in enforcing racial segregation in academic environments.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision ruled laws establishing racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Many institutions of higher education which were established on the political grounds of white supremacy, such as the University of Texas at Austin, resisted this mandated integration. 

Founded in 1883, during a period of post-Civil War racial tension, the university’s origin exhibits a complex history of racial injustice. Not only did many of its founding members hail from Confederate ranks, but UT Austin accepted donations from families of generational slave owners.

Confederate Army Officer George Littlefield established the “Littlefield Fund for Southern History” on the condition that the University would promote the history of the Confederacy—a period stained with the unjust enslavement of Black men and women. This dependence on donations from wealthy, white benefactors pressured administrators to systematically prevent Black students from gaining admission.

Until the 1950s, UT Austin, as many other educational establishments, practiced an open-admissions policy. However, the sustainability of this system was brought into question with the establishment of the GI Bill in 1944. This law granted veterans stipends covering the expenses of college or trade school, and was therefore paired with a boom of postwar student applicants. 

As Nicholas Lehmann, dean emeritus of the faculty of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, points out in his book, The Big Test, many universities have implemented standardized testing in an effort to transform themselves into elite research institutions.

The University of Texas, on the other hand, adopted this system after recognizing its potential as a tool to exclude Black people from entering the school. By branding this new selective admissions process as objective and efficient, the SAT served as an inconspicuous way for the university to maintain Jim Crow-era segregation.

The secrecy of this approach, in slowing down the admittance of Black students, is further revealed by confidential archived documentation between college officials. Shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, H.Y. McCown, the UT admissions dean, wrote a note to University President Logan Wilson urging him to “take a new look” at their admission policy in order “to exclude as many Negro undergraduates as possible.”  

While racial injustice will forever be ingrained in the history of UT Austin, over the past few years officials have worked to reconcile the school’s racist past through the removal of Confederate statues and the implementation of an affirmative action policy. 

Leonard Moore, vice president of diversity and community engagement at UT Austin, said in a statement, “The university’s past history of discriminating against African Americans drives us to be leaders today in serving all qualified students.” 

Despite efforts to diversify its campus, demographic statistics show that Black students make up only 5% of the population at the University of Texas. That being said, the lack of racial representation continues to be a prominent issue facing academic institutions of higher education around the country.

The bias, privilege, and fraud perpetuated by the college admissions process
—and ingrained in the history of higher education as a whole—has led to intense criticism of the College Board, the nonprofit behind the SAT exam. In an effort to mitigate the influence of socioeconomic advantages in the college admissions process, the testing foundation announced the premiere of the so-called “Adversity Score” earlier this year. 

The concept behind this number, allotted to students out of a 100-point scale, was to help colleges evaluate applicants in the context of 15 factors, including family income and neighborhood crime rate. Due to immediate backlash, the concept was quickly retrieved, but a similar series of metrics (renamed “Landscape” following the scandal) will remain available to colleges in 2020.

Endeavors to equalize the system of college admissions bring into question whether a truly objective college admissions process is feasible, given our country’s deep-seated history of systematic racism.

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