Brigham tried to warn you in 1936. PE tried to warn you in 1988. Bigham tried to warn you repeatedly since 1990.

But, unfortunately, since the marketing machine of the testing agencies got their grips into the Stanvard Universities the narrative of the SAT providing access has taken root in the American psyche and far too many have bought into the hype about what standardized testing does and doesn’t do. Specifically about what it does and doesn’t do for Black and Hispanic people as a group.

It seems that every time the SAT and ACT get serious pushback, out of the blue spontaneously there appears an article from someone claiming that the test “got them into college,” or even more hyperbolically “provided for a good future.” I’m here to combat this anecdata and to help put this false narrative to bed. I do this not because I hate the SAT or ACT (I don’t respect them enough to hate them), I do it because those claims, at best, value anecdotes and individual outcomes over data and the public good.

You find this narrative over and over and over in stories about the test “providing” opportunity. You hear it quoted from successful people who believe that their success was in some way determined, facilitated, or driven by the test itself. Here are two recent versions of the “SAT saved my life” stories; one from a professor brave enough to tell his story under a pseudonym and another from an under-represented student.

“But if not for the ACT, I might not have attended college at all.”

Rick Saunders, pseudonym of an assistant professor at Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Ala.

The problems that I have with these narratives is that they peddle a falsehood that hurts millions of students each year and prevent us from having serious discussions about the role of testing in education. These stories use argumentum ad passiones to hide from the truth and to continue to benefit the testing industrial complex and the white wealthy college educated males that have always benefited from the tests.

So let’s explore the history of this narrative.

In 1933, the SAT was sold to Harvard as an “objective” version of the Army IQ test. Harvard used the SAT (though it continued to use its internally developed test in the admissions of the rich private school kids from feeder schools) to find “public school students.” Let’s not forget that any time an institution claims to increase access for X group, that means they are reversing a policy that intentionally excluded that group and that in American race played a role in that limitation.

Black (and brown) children were kept out of every level of school for decades, thus any 1930s recruitment of public school students really means “white public school students.” So while many want to cite that the early SAT was created to increase access to Harvard, they ignore the racial subtext of these decisions and that this test was not designed to truly provide broad opportunity for Black, Hispanic, or even jewish students. It has always provided access to a curated selected group of students that might have been broader than the group previously provided access but it was never democratizing. Even as Harrrrvard adopted the SAT and touted it as a tool to increase access, they had active policies to limit Jews, Catholics and exclude Black and Hispanic peoples. As racial segregation became unacceptable, the SAT was used as the tool to ensure that Black and brown people are excluded, most notably in the example of the University of Texas‘s documented racism in adopting the SAT as a criteria of admission. So there is little historic support for the notion of standardized tests as equalizers of opportunity. Further, the claim that the SAT an objective and fair tool in the 1930s, ignores the words of the tests founders.

Quote by Carl Brigham

If history isn’t enough for you, let’s consider the data not anecdata. And since you won’t believe me and my data let’s use the testing agencies own reports. The ACT report on discrepant ACT scores and High School GPA shows that those with discrepant (significantly higher than the other measure) ACT scores are far more often white, male, wealthy and children of college educated parents. The data show that students who have higher high school GPA advantage over ACT are more likely female, Black, and/or low income.

The College Board’s data is largely the same, though the specific numbers of the discrepancies vary. One way to interpret the SAT data (using table 2) is to observe that while the SAT provided a benefit for 1,100 students from families earning less than $30,000 a year, it disadvantaged more than three times as many students in that same economic group.

College Board discrepant scores table 1
College Board Discrepant Scores table 2

We should also question how does anyone know what factor “got them in” at a particular university. As far as I know universities do not share their deliberations or rationale for decisions. So anyone claiming that the test is the sole reason for getting into a college is likely projecting their belief onto the process, guessing about admissions rationale, or confusing correlation with causation. This position discounts that even if the test was a deciding (unlikely) or contributing (more likely) factor in their admissions, GPA, curriculum, extra curriculars, and institutional priorities all played roles and likely played bigger roles. (My “friend” Jon/Joe Boeckenstedt did a nice little data viz of the discreptant score data that you can check out here.)

Let’s take a look at Anonymous professor, and the profile pieces he reveals in the article

  • Academics:
    • A student
    • labeled “too smart”
  • High School:
    • Small rural
    • Feeder
    • 75% percent FRL
  • Family
    • Middle class (lower)
    • College educated parents
  • Extra-curriculars
    • reading books in the library
    • (author doesn’t describe any others since he equates them with travel it seems)

After listing all these criteria, all of which seem to make this student more than qualified for admission to Mississippi State, the author concludes the “chain of opportunities began with the ACT.” Despite having two college graduate examples in his house for 16+ years and attending a high school where students choose between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, author concludes that “if not for the ACT, I would not have attended college at all.” As if the ACT in and of itself created the college going desire, opportunity, and preparation to go to college. The author goes on to ignore all his academic work from K to 11th grade and his HS GPA when he concludes that the ACT alone gave him access to higher education instead of the military. Looking at Mississippi States current scholarship criteria it becomes pretty clear that they award scholarships based on GPA as well as ACT scores.

Nothing in that professor’s profile suggest that the admissions or scholarship decision came down to an ACT score. The writer of that article is dangerously myopic, clueless, or disingenuous. I can understand a high school student not fully considering multiple factors, but one has to wonder about a tenure track professor. One also has to wonder what motivated him to write this article and who benefits from its publication.

Finally, to help get a picture of how scores are used, I took two highly scientific Twitter polls that seem to confirm the College Board and ACT data that suggests that the tests are doing more to exclude than to include. Overwhelmingly, those who answered my poll admitted to excluding students based on SAT.

Maybe now we can forever retire the myth of the SAT and ACT being tools to drive college access and opportunity. At best they are complementary tools that help those already considering college and already working toward college to take advantage of a few (better?) college opportunities. That alone is nothing to sneeze at but its certainly not the hype the American public has been sold.

One thought on “Don’t Believe the Hype

  1. Just saw you on Netflix, just finished reading this post. Fantastic and glad to see you are fighting the good fight. I particularly enjoyed the line about the ACT not creating the desire to go to college. I’ve tried putting together a similar article but, you did it 10x more apt than anything I could have done.

    Well done.


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