I recently read an article in The Washington Post about the impending changes coming to the SAT. I highly recommend the article to anyone interested in our higher education system. It’s an interesting glimpse into the imperfect systems that decide who goes on into college, and it only scratches the surface. As a high school senior, I cheered when I read it. For the last year, I’ve been surrounded by students with vocabulary study cards, and upper-middle class SAT study course advertisements. My school’s newspaper, for instance, is partially funded by advertisements, and the most prominent one is for a tutoring company that promises happy students and high scores (the two are obviously correlated, *eyeroll*). For the last year, I would have never-ending, circular conversations with my peers about our scores, enter another class, and begin the comparisons again. And then I really began to think about the SAT and what it was measuring. There’s a movement among some colleges and students that “SAT scores don’t matter”. It’s similar to the “true beauty comes in all sizes” movement among plus-sized (this means average) women. And it has truth to it.
The number one red flag against the SAT empire is the indisputable fact that SAT scores are tied to family income, and in all the wrong directions. The top income tier gets an average of three hundred points higher than the lowest*. Why? Because they can afford it. Remember the tutoring company that advertises in my school newspaper? Wealthy people can afford it, and it makes a huge difference. I was tutored by a private gentleman for the SAT (yes, I fed into it, shoot me please), and got a 130 points higher than my initial score. It makes a difference. There are tricks and methods to taking the test that, once you know them, significantly impact your score.
Speaking of these tricks and methods, they just plain shouldn’t exist. If you can learn strategies to beat a college aptitude test, it’s not really measuring college aptitude is it? I had to answer questions about vocabulary words that are never used in the real world, the only reason I could answer those questions correctly was because I have a reasonable knowledge greek and latin roots. The math section is an entirely different breed of the algebra and geometry we study in high school. The essay is 25 minutes, and graded on how well it follows structure rules, not for its content or thoughtfulness (and honestly how thoughtful can you be in a 25 minute essay?). Scorers don’t fact check, they judge essays by how well they follow the five paragraph structure, and whether each paragraph contains a fact, a quote, and kissed ass. The test should instead measure the knowledge you’ve obtained in high school, because that reflects not only what the student has learned, but how much they want to learn.
Which leads us to the main problem with college entrance exams in general. An arbitrary score on a multiple choice test tells a college nothing about that student’s character. It tells us they can jump through hoops (or pay a tutor to do so for them). It tells us they can memorize essay rules, and that they are good test-takers. It can even tell us their income level. But it can’t tell us about their ingenuity and creativity. It cannot gauge their future success beyond the position in society they’ve been born into. I don’t say this because I’m sore about a bad score on the test. I got a 2200, but it says nothing about my motivation and pragmatism, two of the traits I think a college would want to see in me. Letters of recommendation can. College essays can. But an arbitrary score does not, and needs to see a lot of revision to ever do so.