Behind the 154 multiple choice questions that make up College Board’s famed college entrance exam, the SAT, a sinister secret lies: higher scores correlate with higher income. Besides the more straightforward explanations, such as that the wealthy have greater access to specialized tutors and are more likely to have educated parents that can help them understand the test’s content, the test itself may actually be biased in the wealthy’s favor.
Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Tulane, even went as far as to claim that “these tests tend to be written and evaluated by privileged individuals who may inadvertently include class-based knowledge, not just knowledge, in the exam.” Class-based knowledge, she explains, includes “asking questions, for example, that rely on background information about golf,” a sport traditionally reserved for the wealthy.
Despite all of the SAT’s flaws, though, standardized testing serves as an important metric for determining college success—CollegeScholar reports higher scores on the SAT have a slight association with higher grades in college—and helps admissions officers narrow down a pool of thousands of similar applicants into the few hundred that will make up their incoming class.
As colleges and universities increasingly go test-optional, which means they allow students to decide whether or not they want to submit their standardized test scores, the number of applications, in turn, skyrockets. Previously unqualified students can now apply to selective universities with a test-optional policy.
For example, Harvard College saw a 42% increase in college applications last year as reported by Scholarships.com, an increase that did not come with an increase in acceptance rates. In fact, acceptance rates for the most selective schools have declined nationwide, breaking records as some of the lowest in history, while simultaneously the applicant pool ballooned to higher than ever largely due to these test-optional policies.
MIT, who went test-optional during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 admissions cycles before reinstating it this year, explained that they “consistently find that considering performance on the SAT/ACT, particularly the math section, substantially improves the predictive validity of our decisions with respect to subsequent student success at the Institute.” Though they acknowledge both tests’ flaws, they realize that until a new option arises, standardized test scores are the best way to determine which applicants are qualified for their rigorous curriculum.
No one is denying the SAT/ACT’s fundamental flaws and implicit bias against the underprivileged. However, eliminating the tests altogether will also lead to problems as seen by colleges’ record-low and ever-plummeting acceptance rates. Unless a new option arises that takes over the SAT/ACT’s functionality while simultaneously balancing the playing field between the wealthy and poor, standardized testing seems to be the best option for college admissions and should be reinstated.