Danielle Vabner

THE SAT: A NECESSARY EVIL OR JUST PLAIN UNFAIR?

Junior year of high school can be defined in a few simple words: tests, tests, and more tests. Between tests given for various classes, AP tests given in the spring, and SATs and ACTs that will likely dictate which colleges you decide to apply to your senior year depending on your score, it seems never-ending. It’s certainly draining for teenagers of only sixteen and seventeen, who have enough to balance as it is between homework, friends, family, and extracurricular activities. Why, then, are high school students expected to take a five-hour exam such as the SAT (often multiple times) and excel? The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) are often weighted rather heavily in the college admissions process, since, according to Popham, the scores of these standardized tests “. . . are used to predict the grades that high school students will earn when they get to college.” We must then ask ourselves: Is a standardized test the best way to measure what a student knows and has learned? Does a student’s scores on the SATs and/or the ACT have any bearing on how he or she will perform in college? In my opinion, it seems incredibly unfair that so much rides on one test. Standardized tests are not accurate indicators of a student’s intelligence or abilities; they also cause extreme stress for many high school students. They do not accurately prove whether or not a student is ready to attend college, as many might think. As a result, these tests should either be removed completely or should be made optional in the college admissions process.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test was created in 1926 by a group of CollegeBoard educators in order to “democratize access to college for all students” (Collegeboard.org). Essentially, the exam is designed so that students can demonstrate their critical thinking skills; if they achieve high scores (the highest possible score on each section is 800), then they have proven that they are ready to succeed in college. CollegeBoard also describes the purpose of each section of the three sections of the exam: the reading section is intended to measure students’ ability to “. . . draw inferences, synthesize information, distinguish between main and supporting ideas . . .”, the math section “. . . requires students to apply mathematical concepts, solve problems and use data literacy skills,” and the writing section “. . . requires students to communicate ideas clearly and effectively.” Over three million students all over the country take the SAT each year in an attempt to achieve the highest score possible and increase their chances of getting into the college of their choice.

The concept seems simple enough: the sole purpose of these standardized tests is to determine how much a student has learned and whether or not he or she would do well in a college environment. It seems perfectly logical that colleges would want proof that a student has strong critical thinking skills and can contribute to their school in a positive way, and that it’s difficult to measure that in any other way than a test. However, the sad truth is that for many high school students, there is an immense amount of pressure associated with these tests: “For most high school students who want to attend an elite college, the SAT is more than a test. It is one of life’s landmarks” (Murray). Many of them spend months and months preparing, knowing that their parents are more than likely expecting them to do well. Perhaps a student has dreams of attending an Ivy League school such as Harvard or Yale—if he or she does not obtain a score of at least 2300, chances are an Ivy League school will not even give their application a second look, and in many instances they may overlook a student who may be incredibly bright but may not be extremely skilled or proficient at taking tests.

For instance, I am not a good test-taker myself. I find that my mind often goes blank when I am taking a test, most likely due to pressure. Furthermore, I am not a math person; it seems as though my mind just simply does not work that way. As a result, I found the Math portion of the SAT to be extremely difficult. While I did excel in the Reading and Writing sections, my score truly took a hit due to the fact that I have trouble understanding Math. That, combined with the fact that I do not do well under pressure made taking the SATs incredibly stressful for me. My dream was to attend SUNY New Paltz—I had visited the school the previous summer, and I fell in love with the campus and the surrounding area. It was truly where I wanted to be, but I knew that my SAT score had to be within a certain range to be granted admission into the school. While I did manage to obtain a composite score that fell within the range that the school wanted, there was an incredible amount of stress associated with obtaining that score.

While SAT scores are not the only factor that colleges take into consideration, they still play a considerable role in the college admissions process. It is undeniable that the SAT (and in some cases, the American College Test, or ACT) hold far too much importance—so much so that it can determine whether or not they achieve their dream of attending college. In certain cases, the SAT or ACT is what stands in the way of success: “A test of one narrow quality, the ability to perform well in school, stands firmly athwart the path to success. Those who don’t have that ability will have much less chance than those who do to display their other talents later” (Lemann 3). Essentially, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT solely measure a student’s academic ability. A student can be extremely smart in his or her own way but not do well on the SAT or ACT simply because they don’t do well in school. There are certain kinds of intelligence that go beyond school; what about those people? Those people should be able to have a chance to attend a good college, and it would seem that these standardized tests in some cases hinder a person’s ability to go to the college they want simply because they can’t get a high enough score on the SAT or ACT. However, if the SAT or ACT were made optional, then students would have the opportunity to impress college admissions if they feel that their score is impressive. If not, they shouldn’t have to; SAT scores should simply be made optional. It should not be the basis on which colleges make their decision regarding a potential student: “No test is good enough to serve as the sole or primary basis for important educational decisions” (FairTest.org). There are external factors that could contribute to a student’s score on the SAT: for instance, if a student is having problems at home, it may not be the best circumstance to take a five-hour exam.

A few small, prestigious colleges have already begun to make reporting SAT scores optional: “. . . Middlebury and Bennington are making the SAT optional. The charge that the SAT is slanted in favor of privileged children—a ‘wealth test,’ as Harvard law professor Lani Gunier calls it—has been ubiquitous” (Murray). This seems to be a valid point—students from wealthier communities have many more resources available to them than, say, inner city students. Privileged children have the money to make use of resources such as tutors, SAT practice books, SAT practice exams, etc. while students who come from underprivileged homes/communities most likely do not receive a high enough quality education to do well on the test. The SAT is a standardized test, but the problems on it are perhaps unfairly difficult for students who have not had a quality education. This makes these tests “‘fundamentally discriminatory’” (Ruiz).

Unsurprisingly, men and women are intelligent in different areas, and this contributes to the discriminatory and unfair nature of the test. According to The New York Times article by Ruiz, statistics show that men perform better in certain areas than women: “Mr. Rosner asserts that the math portion of the test is ‘male-learning,’ citing data from 1998 and 2000 which found that men performed better than women on 97 percent of math test questions whereas women performed better than man on only .8 percent of them”. This puts young women at an unfair advantage; most of them are automatically set up to score lower than young men on the math portion of the exam. This is precisely the type of data that points to the idea that the SAT favors “. . . white, male, upper income students with the means to prepare for [the test]”. Being a young woman myself who lacks math skills, I found that portion of the exam to be both challenging and stressful. I came from a relatively wealthy school district in Connecticut, but the simple fact is that I was not prepared to excel on the math portion of the exam. This was a source of extreme stress for me, since I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform well on that part of the exam. I was afraid that this would impact my college application in a negative way. However, if the SAT had been made optional, I would not have felt so pressured to excel.

The simple fact is that standardized tests do not accurately measure students’ intelligence, and they should not determine whether or not a student is admitted into their first-choice college. While perhaps the intentions of the SAT make sense, the fact that it is weighted so heavily in the college admissions process puts many students at a great disadvantage. This is precisely why the SAT should either be made optional or should be gotten rid of altogether—students will be able to demonstrate their intelligence in ways other than through standardized tests, thus making the college admissions process fairer and giving those who scored low on the SAT more of a chance to succeed.

Works Cited

“About the SAT.” CollegeBoard.org. CollegeBoard, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.

“How Standardized Testing Damages Education.” Fairtest.org. FairTest. 20 Aug. 2007. 25 Oct. 2012. Web.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Stratus and Giroux, 1999. Print.

Murray, Charles. “Abolish the SAT.” The American. The Online Magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, July-Aug. 2007. 22 Oct. 2012. Web.

Popham, James W. “Standardized Testing Fails the Exam.” Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation. 23 Mar. 2005. 23 Oct. 2012. Web.

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