A Defense of the SAT: Dreaded But Decisive

Once a month, on a Saturday morning, tens of thousands of bleary-eyed students arrive at high schools around the country, armed with number two pencils and a calculator. For about four hours, they answer questions about math, vocabulary and reading comprehension and furiously scribble out an essay on topics like “Can people have too much enthusiasm?” This scene is familiar for many Americans; each year, out of the 4.1 million high school students in the United States, about 1.6 million take the SAT. Yet only 27 percent of Americans think that the SAT should be a major factor in admissions.

That the SAT is unpopular is unsurprising. Lately, however, the test’s enemies have spread far beyond those who take it. The popular narrative today is that the SAT is unnecessary and classist, measuring nothing but one’s ability to pay for a private tutor or pricey prep class. This idea is compelling, but those who vilify the test on these grounds should look more closely at the data. The SAT is imperfect, but many of the problems credited to it are symptoms of broader issues. In fact, the SAT serves a valuable purpose, and eliminating it might only serve to restrict access to higher education.

One of the more popular complaints about the SAT is that it primarily serves as a test of wealth — a gatekeeper that gives the well-off a leg up. William Deresiewicz, in his much-talked-about article in the New Republic titled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” writes, “The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely.” Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier describes the test as being proof that “the elite dominate the entry to higher education” and points to instances of families spending tens of thousands of dollars on tutors and college consultants as evidence that wealthier test-takers have an advantage.

It is not hard to see where these allegations come from. The SAT is a big business. The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the test along with the Advanced Placement program, reported $758 million in revenue in 2011 and paid its president more than $1.4 million. The service industry dedicated to giving students an extra boost is also enormous. There are more than 11,000 test prep centers nationwide, and the test prep and tutoring industry brings in $9 billion a year. Further, the wealth correlation that critics point to is real. For students whose parents make less than $20,000 a year, the average combined score is 1326 out of 2400, while for students from families with parental income over $200,000, scores surge to 1714. On average, each $20,000 increase in family income corresponds to a 13-point increase in critical reading and writing scores and a 12-point increase in math scores. There is a similarly strong correlation between scores and parents’ educational attainment; students from more educated families tend to do better on the test. When it comes to applying to colleges, the impact of these increases in test scores are significant — in a survey of college admissions officers, many reported that even a small increase of 10 or 20 points per section would, all else being equal, “significantly improve” a student’s chance of admission.

So is the SAT really a big con? Not so fast. The first clue that something’s amiss with this narrative is the issue of test prep. Wealthy families may be shelling out for pricey tutors and courses, but this type of test-prep doesn’t seem to be doing much. Numerous studies have found that private prep only increases combined scores by 15-30 points. In fact, most students see a bigger improvement just from taking the test a second time. It is admittedly unclear how much more test prep the rich are actually using. One study found that rates were reasonably consistent across income levels, while other studies have suggested families with more than $50,000 in yearly income are almost twice as likely to use a expensive forms of prep like a private course or tutor. But the fact remains that even despite these high rates of test-prep for wealthier students, score increases attributable to test-prep are minimal at best.

Second, it is important to remember that the correlation shows that scores increase on average with income. There is still enormous variation between individual students’ scores within a given income bracket. Many low-income students do better than higher-income students. And test scores alone far from guarantee wealthy students a golden ticket to an elite college: Even in the top income bracket, the average student’s scores were well below the mean at all 100 of the schools with the highest SATs.

Furthermore, the information colleges and universities can glean from SAT scores is meaningful. The College Board describes the SAT as an “objective measurement of student’s college readiness,” and indeed, the test does do a good job of predicting a student’s freshman year college GPA. A student’s high school GPA does provide a slightly better prediction, but the best prediction comes from using both a student’s high school GPA and SAT score. Unlike raw high school GPA, the SAT allows a somewhat neutral comparison across different high schools. The SAT also shows predictive power for cumulative four-year college GPAs and college graduation rates. The prediction’s not perfect — you can’t input your SAT scores and know with total certainty what your GPA will be any more than you predict scores solely based on family income — but it’s reasonably good, especially in broad strokes. Critically, the prediction holds irrespective of socioeconomic status.

The real problem critics are pointing to when they criticize the correlation between SAT scores and income is that students from low-income backgrounds aren’t receiving sufficient educational resources and support to succeed. These students are significantly less likely to have their parents read to them daily, attend preschool, have high-quality teachers or take AP classes, and they are more likely to drop out of high school. It’s undeniable that the achievement gap between rich and poor students is wide and growing. For example, in 2012, only 51 percent of low-income students enrolled in college, compared to 81 percent of high-income students. And those low-income students that do enroll are relatively more likely to attend two-year schools, which have a completion rate of only 31 percent, instead of 4-year schools, which have a completion rate almost twice as high. This disadvantage continues for those who do enroll. Comparing college GPAs with parents’ income and education level reveals a familiar correlation. A staggering 57 percent of college students whose parents make less than $10,000 a year have a GPA below 3.0, compared with the 44 percent of students whose parents make more than $100,000. Overall, students from the top quartile of family income are more than seven times more likely to earn a bachelors degree by age 24 than those from the lowest quartile. The SAT itself isn’t an unequal barrier that’s keeping students out — it’s just demonstrating the broader gaps in education quality we face. In many ways, the SAT is actually more fair than the rest of our education system.

The current test is far from perfect. The essay section, which gives students 25 minutes to pound out a page or two on some abstract topic and usually graded in two minutes or less, is particularly flawed, and many of the major changes that will take effect next spring, including the elimination of the essay, are welcome. But as one factor in a multifaceted admissions process, the SAT serves a useful and fair role. It helps to provide admissions officers with a clearer picture of a student’s potential for success in college, and, in context, it can provide a necessary point of comparison for students from vastly different high schools. Eliminating or deemphasizing the SAT, as some colleges have done, could end up hurting the less privileged. Without the SAT as a frame of reference, it becomes that much harder to take a chance on the student from a struggling high school with no AP classes and questionable rigor over the student from a wealthy, well-known prep school with a carefully refined curriculum. A strong test score can provide a reassurance that a student is prepared and thereby help admissions offices in their efforts to identify talented low-income students.

Critics who vilify the SAT aren’t just wrong; they’re distracting from the real and critical issue. Equality of access to education is one of the largest problems the United States faces today, and it starts before children learn to read, not when it comes time to sit for college admissions tests. Even when low-income students do manage to do well in high school, they often don’t receive the support they need to translate that into broader success. If we are to extend the opportunity and rewards of higher education more equally, we must confront a broad, multifaceted issue from the ground up. But that doesn’t mean abolishing the SAT or even diminishing its use. The problem is not the gatekeepers, it’s the treacherous path to get to the gates in the first place.

Art by Haley Moen. 

This article is part of BPR’s special feature on higher education. Please click here to return to the rest of the feature.