Opinion: The SATs Are Inherently Inequitable

Rich kids don’t need to pay millions to get into college. They are already virtually guaranteed a spot.

The recent charging of 33 parents people with bribing college officials, athletic coaches, and exam proctors to get their children into top colleges and universities across the United States has brought with it a discussion of the legal lengths to which many well-off families will go to get their children into top colleges. It should also be sparking a discussion on how standardized testing is and always will be inherently inequitable.

The fact that dozens of parents are willing to commit felony fraud to guarantee their children’s spot at Stanford or USC is absurd. But far more concerning to the overall ethics of college admissions are the many insidious ways that wealth virtually guarantees children a spot at universities anyways.

A college degree is one of the most effective ways to increase socioeconomic status. However, the path to college is much more difficult for students born into lower socioeconomic status families. Many factors that colleges assess in the admissions process, such as AP and honors classes, as well as sports, music, and other extracurriculars, are more available at private schools and public schools in wealthier districts. Wealthier high school students, who generally do not need to work after school, have more time to devote to these activities. Wealthier parents also can afford tutors and test prep courses, which help to boost their children’s grades and standardized test scores, respectively.

Since the introduction of the SAT in 1926, there have been myriad problems with the way the exam supports social stratification. Although the Educational Testing Service asserted in 1980 that the test "resulted in a substantial increase in opportunities for educational advancement of low-income students,” the reality has been quite different — beginning with the founder himself.  Carl Campbell Brigham was a psychologist heavily involved in the eugenics movement, viewing black and Jewish people as biologically separate from and inferior to other Americans. The SAT was not specifically designed to keep minorities out of colleges primarily because Brigham and others did not consider them to be significant competitors with white candidates.

As a high school student in the fairly upper middle class, suburban town of Davis, California, I saw the inequalities of the SAT personally. Many of the students I went to school with benefitted from expensive SAT and ACT preparatory classes paid for by their parents. Although I did not take such a course myself, I was still unfairly advantaged, and my SAT scores reflected this. My parents are academics, and as a result I grew up using the kind of vocabulary that is useful to know on the SAT. I had the free time to read a lot as a child, which aided not only my reading comprehension but also, again, my vocabulary skills. Whether they intentionally buy into the test prep industry or not, high school students from privileged backgrounds are always going to score higher on standardized tests.

As David Owen wrote in a 1986 paper in the Journal of Education,“Tests like the SAT convert the tainted advantages of birth and wealth into the neutral currency of ‘merit,’ enabling the fortunate to believe they have earned what they have merely been given.” Unfortunately, this still holds true today.