Standardized Testing: Failproof or Failure?
The American college admissions process is meant to be the epitome of meritocracy; students with the best achievements, displayed abilities, and overall merit get selected to attend selective schools. In other words, regardless of who they are, the students who prove themselves to be “worthy” of admission by having high grades, good test scores, and well-written essays get rewarded and placed into a place of prestige. Of the many ways that students “prove their worth”, test scores are supposed to be the most objective, and therefore the most meritocratic in nature. Every student gets the same test, the same instructions, the same time, and the same grading criteria. However, what may seem perfect on paper can be failing in real life.
Over the years, the flaws of the standardized testing process have come to light over and over again. News stories of nation-wide cheating scandals, a major discrepancy in test scores between different demographics, and unequal opportunities and resources all show that tests like the SAT and ACT are not as effective and objective as they claim to be. So, this begs the question: is standardized testing a failed way of measuring a students’ competency and achievements?
In order to figure out what is happening at the core of the standardized testing industry, we must first look at how it began. The idea of using standardized testing in the college admissions process began with the turn of the century. The first large-scale college admissions standardized test was offered in 1901 by the College Board — yes, the very same College Board that offers the SAT and ACT now. Soon, the idea caught on, and prestigious universities such as Cornell and Columbia started to use their own versions of intelligence tests to test their applicants. The College Board was not done perfecting their own test, though. According to Michael Nettles, an expert in the field of education, the SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, was first introduced by the College Board in 1926 with the intent “to address the challenge of measuring achievement without presupposing prescribed forms of instruction”. In other words, the goal of the SAT was to determine which students were the most academically gifted, regardless of their background.
Apparently, though, the creators of the SAT did not truly mean regardless of background. Carl Brigham, the main creator of the test, published a report in 1923 that said, “this future blended American will be less intelligent than the present native born American, for the general results of the admixture of higher and lower orders of intelligence must inevitably be a mean between the two… for we are incorporating the negro into our racial stock”. Though Brigham later revoked his claims that black Americans lower the average intelligence level of the American population, it was a belief that he held when he created the SAT, meaning that the exam’s creation is rooted in racial biases and the belief that black students are simply not as smart as their white counterparts. And now, 100 years later, the question arises — is it time to rid ourselves of the SAT, and redo the standardized testing process altogether?
The best way to answer this is to look at the supposedly objective measurement of merit that the SAT and ACT, the two most common college admission standardized tests, produce: the test scores. If tests the SAT and ACT truly output a number based on the students’ merit and abilities, then the average test scores should be consistent for all demographics, as a person’s ability and knowledge are not affected by their race, ethnicity, income, or parents’ education level. However, according to the official SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report: 2019, the average scores of white and Asian test takers are 200–300 points higher than their peers of other races and ethnicities. Additionally, students who use fee waivers, and therefore come from a lower economic background, have an average test score almost 100 points less than students who do not. Why do race and economic status affect the results of a test that is supposed to be objective about the test takers’ backgrounds?
The first thing to understand before answering these questions is what can clearly be shown to affect test scores. Though in-depth studies on standardized test preparation and score distribution are not common, there are a few that exist, and can help shed some light on what is causing some groups of students to score so much higher. Two studies in particular have been invaluable in determining one of the factors of increasing test scores: test preparation courses. In a study by three research scientists in association with the ACT, it was determined that “On average, those who participated in test preparation prior to taking the ACT a second time had an ACT Composite score 0.71 scale score points above those who did not.” The ACT is on a 36-point scale, meaning that 0.71 points on the ACT is equivalent to 2% of the total score. In other words, it is equal to a 32 point increase on the SAT, a scale more commonly understood and a bit easier to remember. Additionally, the report states that “working with a private tutor or consultant has a statistically significant impact on ACT retest scores.” The effect of test prep on SAT retest scores is similar, with an independent study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling stating that “test preparation efforts yield a positive but small effect on standardized admission test scores… research suggests that average gains are more in the neighborhood of 30 points”. Since it has been shown that test preparation has a positive effect on standardized test scores, why do all students not take advantage of this?
The truth is, test preparation is not available to all test takers. According to an article by USA Today, SAT and ACT prep classes taught by instructors can cost up to $1,000, and the private tutors or consultants that the ACT study mentioned can cost from $50 to $100 per hour. Not all students can afford to invest upwards of $1,000 on test preparation, meaning that those who can have an unfair advantage; they have access to a helpful resource that others may not. And while some test preparation, like online practice problems, are free, there is another price students have to pay for test preparation. The study by the NACAC states that “all test preparation involves two costs: monetary cost and opportunity cost,” meaning that a student who has to work a job to afford things their parents’ income cannot cover or babysit their siblings after school because their family cannot afford childcare may have less opportunity to prepare than a student who does not. This means that students from a lower economic background are less likely to be able to partake in test preparation, leaving them at a disadvantage.
There is another factor that affects a test taker’s score. The SAT is well known for the fact that it superscores; it takes a student’s highest math score and highest reading score and uses that as their final composite score, regardless of whether those math and reading scores were from the same test. This means that a student can take the SAT over and over again, then take their best scores from all those tests and send them in their college application. Also, even without superscoring, a student can take the test over and over until they get a score they are happy with. In other words, the ability to retake the exam as many times as you want is an advantage to students. In fact, the College Board itself recommends taking the SAT multiple times, stating “We recommend that they take it at least twice.” Surely this advantage is something at all students can take advantage of, right? Unfortunately, this is not true.
In addition to the time commitment described previously, there is a real problem preventing many students from taking the SAT over and over again. The truth is, the SAT is not cheap, costing at least $58 per test. If a student wants to take the exam three times, or even just twice, the cost adds up. While the SAT does offer fee waivers for students from families below 185% of the poverty line, it can only be used twice, and as mentioned above, the College Board recommends taking the SAT at least twice. Meaning that taking the SAT twice, which is all that is covered by fee waivers, is the minimum recommended by the actual company that runs the SAT. So, students who cannot afford to take the SAT more than once or twice are denied an advantage that students who can afford it have.
There is another factor that often prevents students from more disadvantaged backgrounds from taking the SAT multiple times. In order to take the SAT or ACT, students need to find a testing center nearby to take it. However, according to a paper by Geroge Bulman, a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “Half of public high school students attend a campus that does not host a testing center and therefore must register to take the exam at another school in the area.” While this may not be a problem for students who have access to transportation, a testing center being 5 miles away may be the reason a student without a car or access to public transportation cannot take the exam. Since the SAT and ACT exams are both offered on Saturday, the students who do not have access to transportation are typically students from a lower economic background, as either their parents need to work on the weekends and cannot drive them, or their family cannot afford, and therefore does not have access to, a vehicle. Interestingly enough, American high schools without testing centers have a higher population of black, Hispanic, and low-income students compared to high schools with testing centers. This means that the students who may have a harder time accessing transportation to an exam are more likely to end up in a situation where they need transportation. This is yet another hurdle that may prevent completely qualified and high-achieving students from taking standardized exams meant to prove their qualifications and abilities.
Access to test preparation and the ability to retake the SAT are only two factors that affect a student’s test scores, and they may not even be the most influential. If anything can affect a student’s ability to do well on a test that judges what a student has learned in school, it is the actual education that they have received. Unfortunately, looking at the United States public and private education systems as a whole is too complicated for the scope of this commentary. However, what is important to know is that, according to the American Psychological Association, “The school systems in low-[Socioeconomic Status] communities are often underresourced, negatively affecting students’ academic progress and outcomes”. This means that students with a lower economic background do not have access to the same level of education that students with a higher economic background have, putting them at a great disadvantage on the SAT and ACT, as well as any other standardized test that tests academic achievement and understanding.
Since test takers from a lower socioeconomic status have less access to the resources and advantages than their wealthier peers, they have a clear disadvantage on the SAT. This point is emphasized by the 100 point gap between the students who used fee waivers on the SAT and those who do not, and this number is not even representative of the students who are in a lower economic class but are not eligible for the fee waiver or the students who are eligible but did not use the fee waiver. Economic status can also explain the gap in the scores between different races and ethnicities, as according to the US Census Bureau, white and Asian households have a median income higher than the average median for all races, while Hispanic and black households have a median income that falls below the average.
We can now see clearly that a student’s standardized test scores are affected by more than just their ability to understand higher-level topics and their overall academic abilities. This seemingly objective approach to testing is negatively impacting test takers from a lower socioeconomic background, and therefore puts a large portion of black and Hispanic students at a disadvantage. Yet, the SAT and ACT are treated as though they are objective measurements of a student’s merit, and that outside factors such as race, ethnicity, and wealth have no impact on test scores. To answer the question posed at the very beginning, standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT are a failed way of measuring a students’ competency and achievements, as there are too many outside factors that influence a test taker’s score that are not taken into account. But, does that mean that standardized testing is not meritocratic?
From what has been discussed above, the answer to this is a simple no. Meritocracy is a system built around the idea that people should be rewarded based on effort, talent, and achievement, rather than on things like economic status, race, ethnicity, or social class. However, by using standardized tests as a way to determine who to offer admission to college, students who are from a higher economic background are more likely to be “rewarded” with an acceptance. In other words, these students are being rewarded for the fact that the economic class they were born into allows them to do better on standardized tests. This is directly contradicting the values college admissions, and meritocracy as a whole, are supposed to uphold. Therefore, standardized testing not only fails at giving all students an opportunity to excel, but it also fails at upholding the very simple values it was built upon.