The SAT: Past, Present, and Future
Among the many advocates for social justice and equity in higher education there are those who would love nothing more than to relegate the SAT to the realm of trivia. There it would live for all time as a disturbing and cautionary anecdote of a century-long foray into academic engineering and culturally-biased test crafting. As an educator and advocate for greater access to high education for all, I am sometimes surprised that my own feelings on the topic of the SAT (and on standardized testing in general) are somewhat more neutral.
My knowledge of the SAT grows out of my experience as a test taker (many years ago), as a former undergraduate admission officer (almost as many years ago), and as a sometimes reader and evaluator of select undergraduate applications in my current position as college professor.
These experiences have shown me that the very highest score levels (750 and above on any given section or subject test), do indeed indicate a sharp mind and a keen intellect. I have also, however, witnessed the failure of such scores to necessarily predict one’s ability and/or inclination to apply that sharpness of mind in such a way that translated into academic succcess. I have also seen unquestionably brilliant students achieve only average scores on these exams, in contradiction to every other indicator of their past achievement and future potential. Exceptional performance on the subject tests are somewhat more indicative of an applicant’s potential for strong academic performance and capacity for learning.
Both the general (math/verbal) and the subject tests, however, are less reliable measures than exceptional grades in an honors- or AP-level curriculum (including high AP exam scores) at an average or above average public or private high school. Grades are, in the end, my own measure of preference for evaluating a student’s past performance and for predicting his or her future success.
From where I sit, the SAT general test means a lot less than many would like to mean.They do provide some information about students, but they are not as accurate (and thus should not be emphasized or relied upon as much) as other measures; and yet SATs — if read not individually, but in the context of school and regional groups — also serve as a useful red flag in identifying failing educational systems and outmoded high school curricula.
Indeed, this would probably be the best use of the exam, as a tool for measuring the effectiveness of various education systems and strategies. Eventually, the role of the SAT may well shift from a means of measuring the potential and worthiness of 16 and 17 year-olds to a means of evaluating the effectiveness of schools, parents, particular educational approaches, and specific curricula in producing high school graduates who are intellectually sophisticated and academically sound.
For the time being, though, the test continues in its role as a college entrance exam. I offer the following list as a rough sketch of the curious and often challenging relationship between the SAT and students of African descent:
- Number of Black students who took the SAT in 2005: 153,132
- Number of Black students who took the SAT in 2005 and scored over 700 on the verbal portion of the exam: 1, 205
- Number of Black students who took the SAT in 2005 and scored over 700 on the math portion of the exam: 1, 132
- Average combined math and verbal SAT score for Black test takers in 2005: 864
- Percentage of white 2005 test takers (SAT) with family incomes of less than $20,000 per year: 5
- Percentage of Black 2005 test takers (SAT) with family incomes of less than $20,000 per year: 20
- Likelihood, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, that income alone can explain the Black-white SAT score gap: nil
- More likely explaination for the Black-white SAT score gap, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: high school curriculum
- Percentage of Black 2005 SAT takers who had honors level coursework in English: 29
- Percentage of white 2005 SAT takers who had honors level coursework in English: 40
- Percentage of Black 2005 SAT takers who had honors level coursework in math: 19
- Percentage of white 2005 SAT takers who had honors level coursework in math: 32
Posted by Ajuan Mance