Life Ain’t Fair, College Edition
The SAT is a poor measure of college aptitude but it's better than most others.
Last week, MIT announced that it was bringing back the requirement for applicants to submit SAT scores. While this was seen by many as regression, it turns out, contrary to conventional wisdom, the test helped increase the admission of racial minorities and other underprivileged groups. UT-Austin clinical-psychology professor Kathryn Paige Harden explains that “The SAT Isn’t What’s Unfair.”
Critics of standardized tests have had plenty of reasons to celebrate lately. More than three-quarters of colleges are not requiring the SAT or the ACT for admission this fall, an all-time high, and more than 400 Ph.D. programs have dropped the GRE, up from a mere handful a few years ago. MIT’s announcement on Monday that it is reinstating a testing requirement for fall 2023 admissions was a major departure from these recent trends. Just as striking, amid the widespread perception of standardized testing as an engine of inequality, was MIT’s rationale: “Not having SATs/ACT scores to consider,” MIT’s dean of admissions, Stu Schmill, wrote, “tends to raise socioeconomic barriers to demonstrating readiness for our education.” Dropping the SAT, it turns out, actually hurts low-income students, rather than helping them.
MIT’s conclusion is counterintuitive because students from richer families, on average, score higher on the SAT and other standardized tests than students from poorer ones. The correlation between family background and SAT performance is from about .25 to .40—that is, meaningful but far from perfect. Still, it’s strong enough that some researchers dismiss standardized tests as nothing more than a proxy for asking, “Are you rich?” (The ACT measures roughly the same skills as the more widely used SAT, and the arguments for and against both tests are similar.)
But the income-related disparities we see in SAT scores are not evidence of an unfair test. They are evidence of an unfair society. The test measures differences in academic preparedness, including the ability to write a clear sentence, to understand a complex passage, and to solve a mathematical problem. The SAT doesn’t create inequalities in these academic skills. It reveals them. Throwing the measurement away doesn’t remedy underlying injustices in children’s academic opportunities, any more than throwing a thermometer away changes the weather.
Which, by the way, shouldn’t be surprising. The whole reason standardized tests were adopted was to provide a measurement to help cut through the variability of opportunity.
The higher scores of richer students are not due, as is commonly assumed, to richer students’ ability to “game” the SAT with expensive test prep. Despite the marketing claims of test-prep companies, gains from test prep are modest at best. Instead, richer students’ higher scores reflect a problem that is much more durable and pervasive: These students are the beneficiaries of lifelong inequalities in opportunities to learn. As developmental scientists have long documented, poverty and racism can harm children’s learning in countless ways, even to the point of affecting their brain development. In the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab at the University of Texas, my colleagues and I have found that children as young as 2 years old from low-income families differ from their better-off counterparts in their performance on standardized tests.
No one should be surprised that, at age 18, students who have enjoyed a lifetime of material, social, and cultural advantages perform better on tests of academic skills that those advantages facilitate. And these skills actually matter more for students’ performance in college than how wealthy their families are.
But rich kids do better on standardized tests. How does considering these scores help poor kids? Because they help us see beyond the advantage:
In large-scale studies of college admissions, higher socioeconomic status is not associated with better grades after controlling for SAT scores, but SAT scores remain predictive of better grades after controlling for family background.
And removing the SAT actually just puts the onus on measures where privilege matters even more:
Richer students don’t just get better SAT scores. They also tend to outperform on everything else that an admissions committee would use to select students. Personal essays? Their style and content are more strongly correlated with family income than SAT scores are. Recommendation letters? They are subject to teachers’ classist and racist biases, and even knowing how to request the letters requires significant social capital.
Yeah, but we all know that grades are a better predictor of college success than SAT scores, since they measure work ethic, organizational skills, and other valuable things.
Many critics of standardized tests urge college-admissions officers to focus on applicants’ high-school performance. But low-income students also have worse grades, on average, particularly if their parents do not have a college degree. Moreover, admissions officers commonly consider not only grades but which classes students have taken. Access to advanced coursework is highly stratified: Less than half of American high schools, for instance, offer calculus. And parents know firsthand that their children’s sports teams, volunteer positions, study-abroad trips, and summer internships require substantial investments of time and money. In a society characterized by pervasive inequalities in opportunities to learn, looking for a measure of a student’s “merit” that is somehow unencumbered by unearned advantages is a fool’s errand.
Dropping any admissions requirement is necessarily a decision to weigh other factors more heavily. If other student characteristics, such as essays, recommendations, and coursework, are more strongly correlated with family income than test scores are, then dropping test scores actually tilts the playing field even more in favor of richer students. This was the situation that MIT found itself in after it suspended its SAT requirement in 2020. And other schools that dropped standardized tests during the pandemic will soon find themselves in the same straits.
Yup. No matter how you slice it, rich kids have a head start. There’s just no getting around that unless we’re going to have a pure lottery system for admission to prestigious schools. Which, incidentally, is probably the best solution once the pool is culled down to very high achievers.
But, of course, MIT is unique. It’s not only an extremely competitive private school but it’s also one that unusually prizes mathematical competency. Maybe it doesn’t tell us much about the value of standardized testing for more “normal” schools.
[S]tudies of other types of undergraduate institutions and other educational stages have also found that standardized testing improves the representation of low-income students, because testing replaces more flawed indicators of student readiness. A K-12 school district in Florida that made standardized testing universal among its second-grade students saw a substantial jump in the number of low-income and Black students in its gifted-and-talented program. Before the switch to universal testing, admission to the gifted-and-talented program depended strongly on teacher referrals—subjective assessments that, like recommendation letters for college applicants, may be informed by educators’ biases.
It’s like there’s institutionalized racism at work.
Similarly, when the state of Michigan required every high-school student to take the ACT or the SAT, it saw an increase in the number of low-income students attending four-year colleges. These studies suggest that the best policy might actually be to facilitate more high-school students taking the SAT, not abandon it entirely. Standardized testing, inequitable as it might be, is more equitable than any other criterion.
Which makes sense when you think about it. White and Asian kids are more likely to be in a home environment that values educational achievement, both for cultural reasons and because their parents are more likely to have gone to college. So, in addition to all the other advantages Harden noted, they’re likely putting in more effort to get good grades and otherwise excel in a scholastic environment. Testing helps identify under-utilized talent.
There are real barriers to the fair use of standardized testing that educators and policy makers should address. Currently, just signing up for the SAT or the GRE is prohibitively expensive for many students, as are college-application fees, and many students might not even consider taking the test. Free, accessible, universal testing (and access to test prep) would help dismantle these barriers.
That seems reasonable enough.
Ultimately, though, Americans must recognize that improving admissions policies at elite four-year colleges is woefully insufficient to address the larger problem of social inequality. An exclusive focus on who “deserves” to win the admissions competition neglects important questions about the stakes of the competition: What do we owe, as a society, to those students who fail to win the academic rat race, or indeed have no interest in competing in the first place?
After all, fewer than half of American high schoolers enroll in four-year colleges. In recent years, life has gotten worse, in nearly every possible way, for people without a college degree in the U.S. They make less money, report more pain and worse health, and die younger than they did in previous generations. Participation in higher education has become a bottleneck in American society. Standardized testing can make passage through that bottleneck fairer, but we must also consider how to make the bottleneck wider, and provide people with more pluralistic opportunities to build a good life—regardless of whether they get into MIT.
Now, I maintain my skepticism that universal college makes much sense. Large swaths of people simply don’t have the aptitudes to do well in college and turning it into 13th through 16th grade waters down whatever utility it has. Beyond that, while we’re using a college degree as a stand-in for skillsets that are useful in the workplace, most jobs simply don’t utilize that education. We need to destigmatize the trades and other productive alternatives to college.
Regardless, Harden’s larger point is surely right: we should use the tools available to us to cut through the privileges that children of more affluent families have to identify potential and expand options available to those who didn’t start on first base.