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Hajin Cho / Gavel Media

The Racist History of the SAT

COVID disproportionately affects people of color through infection rates, housing loss, and access to healthcare. However, the pause on standardized testing, namely the SAT, has led to more equity. Because of this, more colleges and universities, such as the ten University of California schools, no longer even consider these scores with the goal of “broaden(ing) access to campuses for students across the state.”

While this change was only recently put in place, abolitionists such as Bettina L. Love have been fighting to end standardized testing for decades. The rationale behind abolitionists' view on this subject is that standardized tests are “instruments of racism and a biased system,” due to research demonstrating that minority students encounter bias from standardized testing. Strong evidence for bias is found by the Educational Testing Service, an agency that pre-tests questions in the un-scored section of the SAT for possible use. The service labels some questions “Black questions,” meaning Black students are more likely to answer these questions correctly, and others as “white questions,” or questions more white students are likely to answer correctly. Admissions test expert Jay Rosner finds that a “Black question” on a pre-test has never made it onto a real SAT. Instead, only “white questions” are used. 

The story of the racism of the SAT begins with its creation. Developed as an aptitude test in 1926, the SAT was appealing to many college administrations, as during this period, ethnic origin and intelligence were thought to be related. Writer and teacher Erik Jacobsen expands on this idea, stating that the results of these tests were utilized to “limit the admissions of particularly undesirable ethnicities.” 

Eugenicists, including SAT creator Carl Brigham, were concerned about the wave of non-white immigrants entering the United States. These eugenicists along with the Anglo-Saxon Protestant leaders of the nation deemed the SAT a good way to “sort” the new arrivals, utilizing the test to distinguish between those who lack intelligence and therefore do not belong in schools and those who possess intellect. Later, Brigham released his A Study of American Intelligence in which he stated that testing revealed the intellectual superiority of “the Nordic race group.” 

Studies prove the racism behind standardized tests. For example, the classic “apples and oranges” comparison question may be unfamiliar to immigrant students who are not yet proficient in American language use and culture. One study finds that Black and Hispanic students consistently obtain lower scores on the math section of the SAT. Specifically, the average score for Black students in this section is 454 and for Hispanic students is 478, while for white students is 547. Additionally, the race gap in scores persists in the reading and writing sections. With more colleges returning to requiring standardized test scores for applicants, admissions perpetuate the overall systematic racism in our education system.

While many advocate that standardized tests benefit low-income students, the rich tend to take advantage of the loopholes created by standardized testing. For starters, stating that the SAT is not classist invalidates the entire Varsity Blues scandal, in which wealthy parents bribed school officials to get extra time on college admission exams and paid for others to take the exam for their children. This scandal, along with SAT tutoring classes being primarily available in high-income communities, reveals the privilege behind succeeding on the SAT. 

With a blueprint of excluding those from disadvantaged and minority groups, it would be difficult for the SAT to evolve to create an even playing field for all college applicants. Ironically, the College Board describes the goal behind the SAT as aiming to create a “fair opportunity to demonstrate your college readiness and to prevent anyone from gaining an unfair advantage.” However, this promise has not been delivered upon, from the SATs founding until now. Due to the staple of a broken system that punishes those who lack the essential boosts to succeed, a new system of measuring merit is necessary to truly prevent any “unfair advantage.” 

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