The Persistent Prejudice of the SAT
By: Samantha Bernstein-Naples
Since its creation in 1926, controversy has surrounded the legitimacy, effectiveness, and fairness of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which has proven time and time again to heavily favor White and Asian-American students. Although the stock that colleges place on the SAT in the admissions process has declined over the years, this one test still heavily influences hopeful Seniors’ eligibility for the top universities. The desire for a level playing field and a chance to assess students across the United States with an equal measuring tool has contributed to the prominence of standardized testing in the college admissions process, however, complications arise when underlying biases are brought to light, calling the concept of the “level playing field” supposedly provided by this method of testing, into question. This article will explore the extent to which racial prejudices undermine the credibility of the SAT by focusing on the origins of the exam as well as the discrepancies between the educational resources available to Black and White students in order to acquire a better understanding of the effectiveness of the SAT as a primary criterion for college admissions.
To understand the function of the SAT in today’s world, one first must understand the roots of the test itself. Leading up to the establishment of the SAT, standardized tests were being used as a mechanism to separate the supposedly intellectually superior and more capable whites, from their allegedly underachieving, underqualified, Black counterparts. John Rosales, a senior editor, and writer for the National Association of Education reveals that “During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in units segregated by race and by test scores'' (Rosales, 2018). Standardized tests were created with the explicit purpose of keeping Black and White Americans separated, through the flawed science of assessments designed by White Americans, to advantage White Americans. The creation of the SAT, first administered by the College Board in 1926, was led by Carl Brigham of Princeton University, who just three years before the test’s debut justified the implementation of such standardized tests as further means by which to prove the intellectual superiority of “the Nordic race group” (American Intelligence, 1923). Bruce Hammond, the deputy director of the Kunming No. 1 High School International Center highlights that systemic racism persists when “people convince themselves that what was racist long ago is no problem today” (Hamond, 2020). This mentality is what allows universities to turn their head away when faced with the biases deeply embedded within exams such as the SAT. At a time when the U.S was being flooded with immigrants, xenophobia and white supremacy permeated the creation of standardized testing, as a means by which to “distinguish [White Anglo-Saxons]...from the feeble-minded” (Hammond, 2020). Gill Troy, a Professor of History at McGill University, corroborates the view that the SAT is inherently racist, noting that the test was created at a time when “scientists became obsessed with deviations and handicaps, both physical and intellectual” resulting in “social scientists, misapplying Charles Darwin’s evolving evolutionary science, and eugenics’ pseudo-science, worried about maintaining white purity” (Troy, 2016). A test created by people determined to prove their superiority and to establish a mechanism to ensure that they maintain power, status, and control is not an origin story that can be ignored, nor repaired by refreshes or new versions of the SAT. Sticking bandages on gaping wounds effectively conceals but fails to heal the injustices buried deep within the standardized testing system. The racial bias of the SAT manifests in the form of the questions that are asked, designed to more readily trigger the understanding of White students. Leslie Yalof Garfield of Pace University School of Law confirms that “the test is biased because the questions on the SAT require knowledge of ‘white upper-middle class social norms’” (The Cost of Good Intentions, 2006). Furthermore, the premise of the SAT itself, to act as an aptitude test, suggests that it functions to assess inborn ability which becomes severely problematic when the White and wealthy students outperform their fellow classmates, many with the assistance of costly SAT courses and paid tutors that others cannot afford, perpetuating the harmful but widespread idea during the twentieth century that whites are inherently more intelligent than those of other ethnic groups. Hammond underscores that “The College Board officially raised the white flag on SAT-as-an-intelligence-test in 1993” (Hammond, 2020) when the problematic nature of declaring the test a measure of innate intelligence became evident, as a gaping disparity existed between the performance of White and Black students on such tests. Christopher Jenks, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, highlights that during the 1990s “The average black student [was scor[ing]...below 70 to 80 percent of the White students of the same age” (Jencks, Phillips, 1998).
This staggering statistic exemplifies the persistent prejudice of standardized tests, through the form of culturally biased questions and favoring those who can afford costly tutors and review courses, from their creation in the early twentieth century, through the twenty-first century.
The ramifications of the heavily biased origins of standardized testing are experienced by minority students to this day. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit policy organization located in Washington D.C, reveals that “[b]etween 1996 and 2015, the average gap between the mean black score and the mean white score has been .92 standard deviations'” (Reeves, 2017, in terms of scores received on the math section of the SAT. The persistent achievement gap between White and Black students has exhibited no signs of diminishing, let alone vanishing, illustrating the fruitless nature of the attempts made by the College Board in recent years to close the scoring gap while continuing to stand by an exam that is inherently racist. This is further exemplified by the mean scores themselves, calculated based on data provided by the College Board in 2015: “[t]he mean score on the math section of the SAT for all test-takers…[was] 511 out of 800, [and] the average scores for blacks (428) and Latinos (457)...[were] significantly below those of whites (534) and Asians (598)” (Reeves, 2017). Standardized testing has proven to continue to favor White and Asian students, for whom the SAT was specifically designed to advantage, while Black and Latino students are faced with the unjust challenge of having to succeed on a test that was originally designed by White-supremacists determined to prove their inferiority.
However, the driving factors behind the achievement gap between Black and White students is driven by more than just the racist beginnings of the SAT. Black students face an overwhelming disadvantage when it comes to the preparation that they receive for the exam, both through the education that they are provided with and the resources that they have access to. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “[i]n 2005, 47 percent of white SAT test takers had taken trigonometry in high school compared to 35 percent of black test takers. Some 28 percent of white test takers had taken calculus in high school. Only 14 percent of black students had taken calculus…[t]hirty-two percent of white SAT test takers had taken honors courses in mathematics compared to 19 percent of black SAT test takers.” The discrepancies between the access that Black and White students have to higher-level math courses contributes to the disparity between the scores that they receive on the SAT. No amount of self-studying can adequately prepare someone to compete with students who have received year-long preparation courses taught by education professionals. These inequities extend themselves to the English courses that are accessible to Black and White students: “some 87 percent of white test takers…[have] completed coursework in American literature compared to 75 percent of black test takers. For whites, 67 percent had taken high school courses in composition compared to 50 percent of blacks. Some 70 percent of whites and 59 percent of blacks had completed coursework in grammar. A full 40 percent of all white test takers had completed honors courses in English compared to 29 percent of black test takers” (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education). The opportunity that the majority of Black students lack to master and comprehend the same range and depth of material as White students contributes to the inevitable nature of the achievement gap. White students are able to outperform their Black counterparts, not because they are of higher natural intelligence, are more prepared for college, or have a greater aptitude for learning, but instead because they have a far more vast supply of resources available to them. The SAT capitalizes on the inequities in our education system and perpetuates systemic racism. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education confirms that “Public schools in many neighborhoods with large black populations are underfunded, inadequately staffed, and ill equipped to provide the same quality of secondary education that is offered in predominantly White suburban school districts.” For a material representation of these funding inconsistencies, look no farther than your own backyard: “in Hartford, where the overwhelming majority of students come from low-income families and are Black or Hispanic, the policy center finds the district would need to spend an additional $7,780 per student-a 47% boost-to keep up with the state spending and performance averages” (Thomas, 2020). Black and Hispanic individuals are presented with a steep uphill battle when forced to compete with students on standardized tests that are coming from school districts such as West Hartford, which have a predominantly White population and receive adequate financial support. From discrepancies in funding to inconsistencies in course rigor and variety, Black students face an impossible battle when it comes to the SAT.
The devastating impact of the Black-White achievement gap manifests in the form of widening the disparity between White and Black students in colleges and universities, thus further limiting the opportunities available to Black students after high school. The National Education Association corroborates that “[a]ccording to Fair Test research, on average, students of color score lower on college admissions tests, thus many capable youth are denied entrance or access to so-called “merit” scholarships, contributing to the huge racial gap in college enrollments and completion” (Rosales, 2018). A more equal society void of all racial prejudices is unattainable when the college admissions process for the nation’s youth is rooted in testing plagued by racial bias. Black Americans will never be allotted an opportunity equal to White Americans to achieve at high levels, enter lucrative fields of work, and help to change our nation for the better, if the mechanism by which these accomplishments are reached, higher-education, is contingent on an exam that has proven for almost a century to disadvantage African Americans. In order to achieve a more just and equitable society, the Scholastic Aptitude Test must be discarded as a prejudiced and ineffective exam, in order to eliminate the mechanism by which hard working Black Americans are restricted from continuing their education and entering the workforce armed with all of the learning and experience necessary to prosper.
(1) Brookings Institute