The problem with America’s college entrance exam

The problem with America’s college entrance exam

August 15, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


These 50 cards represent every person who
took the SAT college entrance exam in 2017. In America, this score — this ranking of
students — is hugely important. Elite schools like Yale or Harvard select
the large majority of their students from this pile —
the top 1 percent of test takers. And it’s not just super elite schools. A public flagship state school, like the University
of Georgia, admits most of its students from this pile. And even a less selective school, like Wichita
State University, admits most of its students from this pile. All three of these ranges are higher than
the average score. This why people pay lots of money to train
for the test with companies like Princeton Review, Kaplan, and PrepScholar. A slightly higher score can make a big difference. That’s also why some really rich people
got caught paying lots of money to help their kids cheat on the test. “Dozens of coaches, actors, and CEOs…” “Felicity Huffman accused of paying $15,000 to have someone either take the exam for their child, or to correct their child’s answers afterward..” Your place in this ranking can have a huge
impact on what opportunities come your way. So it’s worth asking… what exactly does the SAT measure? What does this score actually say about you? To answer this question, we have to start
with this man: Carl Brigham. He was a young psychologist during World War
I who was obsessed with measuring human
intelligence. He would devise puzzles for soldiers that
supposedly measured their intelligence by testing whether they could decode symbols, draw missing parts of a picture, or even complete maze. He concluded that white people of English,
Scottish, and Dutch descent were smartest. At the very bottom were black people and recent
immigrants from Poland and Italy. He ignored the fact that some test takers
didn’t speak English. So answering a question like “How many are
60 guns and 5 guns” could be difficult. He ignored how some people were barred from
receiving an adequate education. Which meant some puzzles, like this one, could
be quite challenging. He just assumed the scores reflected the innate
intelligence of different races. And because of this, he wrote that black people
were so much less intelligent that America should worry about “racial admixture” which
would “incorporate the negro into our racial stock” — and “taint” the population. After World War I, Brigham wrote a new test
to measure the intelligence of prospective college students. He included word and number puzzles, like: Pick the three words below that are most related: Chops, liver, round, fore-quarter, rump, sirloin. Yeah, I don’t know, either. Anyway, Brigham’s exam was called the Scholastic
Aptitude Test. The SAT. The SAT wasn’t very popular at first. In 1941, just 10,000 people took the exam. That was just 1 percent of high school seniors. Most colleges just didn’t need it. They didn’t have that many applicants, partially
because less than 10 percent of people Americans went to college. So they could spend more time with each application. And many elite schools administered their
own entrance exams. Then, World War II ended. Millions of troops returned to the US. And there was a new benefit white veterans
could take advantage of: the GI Bill — which helped them pay for college. And college enrollment skyrocketed. All of a sudden, colleges had way more applications
to sort through. And they needed a tool to help them figure
out who to accept. So they started requiring the SAT, which gave
them some numerical way to rank applicants. Meanwhile, the College Board recognized that
Americans didn’t love the idea of an “intelligence test” determining their future. So they started saying their exam measured
college preparedness. And every few years, they proved it — by
saying their exam, along with high school grades, were a good predictor of how well
students do in college. They still do this. For example, here’s that analysis from this
year. It shows that high school GPA alone gets us
about halfway to predicting college GPA. But the College Board sold schools on this
next part: If we consider SAT scores along with high school GPA, this prediction can
get a bit better. And colleges bought into this rebranding,
and started asking for SAT scores. In 1941, just 10,000 students took the SAT. By 1950, 80,000 students took the exam. By 1960, 800,000 students took the SAT. By the next decade, it rose to a million.. Now, more than 2 million students take the
exam each year. And as the competition for college ramped
up, the applications got stronger. In 1982, the average high school graduate
completed Algebra or maybe Algebra 2. By 2004, the average student was closer to
Trigonometry. Also, more students had extracurriculars on
their applications. In 1992, just 19 percent of high school students
were leaders in an extracurricular activity. Just 12 years later, in 2004, that number
doubled. As the competition got stiffer, students started
applying to way more schools. In 1967, about 40 percent of students applied
to more than two schools. Now, it’s more than 80 percent of students. And a decent chunk of them apply to more than
6 schools. All of this overwhelmed admissions offices. So they started to rely even more on the SATs. In 1993, 46 percent of schools gave “considerable
importance” to SAT scores. By 2005, it was 59 percent. But looming over the increasing weight of
this number, was this other thing the SAT seemed to measure. Wealth. It’s apparent in the data. Here’s a chart of the average SAT scores by
family income. Students whose families earn less than $20,000
score around 890 — way below average. And as we move up the income brackets, students
score higher and higher. The wealthiest students — whose parents earn
more than $200,000 — score an average of 1150. Now, defenders of the SAT have often said
there’s nothing wrong with the test itself. They say this score is just reflecting the
inequality in America. And that’s not wrong. We can follow that logic up the chain. We can start with America’s highly unequal
neighborhoods. Schools in poor neighborhoods are more likely
to be under-resourced. And students from more affluent neighborhoods
and schools tend to score higher on the SAT. In turn, students with better SAT scores go
to more selective colleges. And this system is a cycle. When Stanford researcher Raj Chetty and his
colleagues tracked people born in the early-1980s, he found that these people — who went to
the most selective colleges — — had parents who earned, on average, $171,000
a year. The parents of these people, who went to selective
public colleges, earned $87,000. And those who attended community colleges
had parents who earned $67,000 a year. And through this system, that wealth was passed
on. Chetty and his colleagues found that students
who graduated from these elite colleges earned, on average, $82,500 a year by their early-30s. Those who went to a selective public college
earned half that — $41,600. And those who went to a community college
were at about $30,000. But Chetty and his colleagues found that,
if low-income student gets the opportunity to attend a more selective school, they’re able to graduate — and earn just as much money as their classmates. In 2016, the College Board redesigned the
SAT. The old test tried to trip up test-takers
— for example, asking about the meaning of obscure words like “acrimonious.” The new one tries to test what you’ve learned
in school — to try to make it less of an intelligence test. For example, it’ll show you a sentence like:
The jungle has an intense clustering of bugs. And then ask: What does “intense” most nearly mean? Emotional
Concentrated Brilliant
Determined Still, your SAT score measures how well you’ll
do in college, to a degree. It also measures where you grew up — and
what opportunities you had. But it’s also a tool that keeps this inequality
machine going. College Board president David Coleman sees
this happening. He recently wrote:
“We need a far humbler view of the SAT. They should never be more than one factor
in an admissions decision. Low scores should never be a veto on a student’s
life.” The SAT was created in the pursuit of precision. An effort to measure what we’re capable of — to predict what we can do. What we might do. What we’ve forgotten is that, often, that
can’t be untangled from where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, and what we’ve been given.