To Death With the SAT

What does the SAT stand for? The Scholastic Aptitude Test was my first guess. Wrong. Perhaps the Scholastic Achievement Test? Also wrong. In fact, the SAT stands for absolutely nothing—it’s a fake acronym. The College Board has dropped the original meaning of SAT due to controversies over the utility of the test and whether it is truly measuring aptitude.

The SAT has been a staple of the college admissions process for more than a century now, but there has never been a stronger need for full-fledged reform, if not total abandonment. College Board, the “not-for-profit” that runs the SAT, has created a test that perpetuates inequality in the college admissions process due to its steep costs and preparatory nature. 

Of course, the SAT is intended to be a college entrance exam, adding another numerical element to one’s college application. At its core, the test has a virtuous goal: to help college admissions officers accurately predict the future success of students during their first year of college. There’s little consistency between high school GPA scores—a 4.0 at one high school may mean something very different at another. In theory, the SAT is a boon to admissions officers because it helps them compare students and their applications on a mass, universalized scale.

Unfortunately, there is a strong disconnect between theory and practice. The college admissions process—particularly at elite institutions like the 5Cs—inherently disadvantages students of lower socioeconomic classes. Affirmative action policies deserve praise for helping to mediate some of these effects, but wealthy students still have an immense advantage in the applications process.

Standardized testing, and the SAT in particular, disadvantages less affluent test-takers overall. “The SAT is most closely correlated with family income, not freshman year grades,” Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco said during his lecture at Pomona College on Sept. 12. The New York Times has reported that an increase of $20,000 in family income corresponds to a 12 point increase in each of the three sections of the SAT. 

Wealthy students have the means and knowledge necessary to game the SAT. The test is coachable: Getting a tutor well-versed in the intricacies of the SAT can improve students’ scores significantly. The National Association of College Admission Counseling attempted to quantify the effects of SAT prep courses in 2009, and found that on average, they increase SAT scores by 30 points. In the cutthroat admissions process for elite colleges, 30 points can mean all the difference between acceptance and denial. 

But SAT test prep does not come cheap. Perusing the websites of the brand-name SAT counseling companies, I found that the SAT Ultimate 30-hour Small Group Course offered by The Princeton Review costs $1,600 in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Here in Claremont, the same course would cost an additional $100. Moreover, the price for SAT prep is much higher at boutique firms. Hernandez College Counseling, well known for its prestige and elitism in the field of college counseling, costs a staggering $6,500 for 25 hours of SAT counseling.

The exorbitant cost of taking the SAT amplifies the inequality it produces. An individual test starts at $51 and can rise up to $78.50. The College Board charges $11.25 every time it simply sends an email or letter to a college with your SAT scores. Granted, the College Board does waive its fees for students with a family income lower than $43,568 (assuming a family of four), but they do little to subsidize the costs for those with incomes above this level. 

The high costs associated with the SAT can mean that only well-off students have the means to retake the test in order to better their scores. Test-takers statistically do better on the SAT the second time around, and the College Board advertises that “[o]n average, juniors repeating the SAT as seniors improved their combined critical reading, mathematics, and writing scores by approximately 40 points.”

Lower-income students have a hurdle to climb when it comes to the SAT. Income inequality plagues modern America—the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer—and college admissions can play an important role in diminishing the income gap, but only if affirmative action is used in tandem with other strategies to attract students from lower socioeconomic classes. Colleges must wean themselves off the SAT as a component of the admissions process, as Pitzer College and other institutions have already done. The College Board claims that the test is produced so that “students from all backgrounds have an equal chance to succeed,” but in the America we live in, nothing could be further from the truth.