The Old Prejudices and the New: The Saga of the SAT

The Old Prejudices and the New: The Saga of the SAT
The Old Prejudices and the New: The Saga of the SAT

The College Board is scared of the equity movement. Scared people make bad decisions. Creating a so-called adversity score of a college entrance test is one of the worst possible decisions. In its misbegotten attempt to create an equal world, the board only succeeds in making the process of college admission even more impenetrable.

The College Board (CB) is best known through its products – especially the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The SAT was created in 1926 to help the military classify recruits. It soon proved useful in another market.

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The Purpose of the SAT

Until about 1910, most students in the nation’s best universities were the children of the national and regional elites, usually rigorously trained in Northeastern “prep schools.” Successful students in the farming regions of the country – which was pretty much everything else – went to state-supported colleges, many of which were agricultural schools. As more people moved to cities, high school educations became more popular. Academic standards improved. Soon, the best students at Kalamazoo Central and Albuquerque High Schools aspired to Harvard and Yale, Radcliffe and Wellesley.

That situation presented a dilemma. How could the best colleges determine which students were prepared for the rigors of their university program and education?

The answer was the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT became the gatekeeper, limiting the number of those who could attain the academic, professional, and social advantages of an education at the nation’s best schools.

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When the egalitarianism of the sixties erupted, the elite Ivy League was no longer universally admired and even scorned.

The College Board also received its share of criticism. Some decried its secretive nature. Detractors argued that the College Board was a monopoly. Others spotlighted questions that implied bias in favor of the wealthy – one that asked for the uses of the word “regatta” became legendary.

The College Board sensed an existential threat. It suddenly disclaimed exclusivity. Many remained unconvinced. After all, exclusion was the purpose of the SAT. Now, the CB embraced inclusivity as a way to appear to be fair, transparent, and unbiased.

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Creating New Biases

Their first steps were reasonable as they tried to remove the perceived cultural biases. The testers invited scrutiny by those representing the supposedly excluded groups. They periodically released exams to the public. They trained teachers.

However, the radical goal of ensuring equality and ethnic diversity on Ivy League campuses remained unmet. The College Board then created new biases that favored the disadvantaged. When “affirmative action” programs were instituted, the CB cooperated. It helped put together courses to prepare students for the exams. Such “prep courses” did not teach content, but tried to give the students “strategies” to parley their existing knowledge into a higher score. The CB set up an “Access and Diversity Collaborative” to “provide robust information and tools to higher education institutions as they develop and implement policies and practices in support of educational access and diversity.”

The critics only multiplied, leading to the College Board’s most recent controversial decision to calculate an “adversity score.”

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Scoring Students’ Lives

The College Board does not use the term adversity score. It prefers the term “Environmental Context,” organized on a “Dashboard.” The score is not accessible to students but to those making college entrance decisions. According to the CB, “By having more data like the kinds of things presented in the Dashboard, it allowed us to rely less on stereotypes, assumptions, or incomplete data and more on hard facts and statistics.”

The score reflects the schools from which students graduate. This calculation includes the average SAT scores of other students from each school. The number of “Advanced Placement Courses” at the school is considered. Another criterion is the number of students that qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

The College Board keeps the exact formula secret. Presumably, students from schools with a lower SAT average score, fewer AP courses, and higher numbers of free-and-reduced-lunch students will receive a higher score.

Other factors have to do with each student’s home life. The College Board includes “typical family income, family structure, educational attainment, housing stability, and crime.” The more chaotic a student’s life away from school appears, the higher their adversity score will be.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, the College Board’s chief executive, David Coleman joined the chorus of the CB’s detractors. “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”

Two Choruses of Dismay

Instantly, the adversity score attracted scorn from traditionalists. According to Market Watch, some see it as a way of avoiding the effects of current lawsuits that accuse Harvard and the University of North Carolina of using racial profiling to admit more minority students.

The usually-conservative National Review carried an editorial by Roger Clegg which amplifies Market Watch’s doubts. “I suspect a large part of what’s going on here is addressing the problem of more and more schools dropping the SAT requirement, because of the problems its consideration poses for achieving ‘diversity.’ By providing this index, the College Board encourages schools to keep using the test by giving them another tool that can lead to more politically correct numbers. So the main motive may be neither black nor white but green.”

In Barron’s, Nicholas B. Dirks argues that the adversity score defeats the SAT’s primary goal. “[T]he SAT is not supposed to be about where, or how, you grew up, not about which school you went to, or even about how hard you applied yourself to your studies. In postwar American life, the SAT has been seen as the single and most reliable means for college and university admission offices to identify and access genuine “merit.”

Nor are the leftists pleased.

Daily Beast columnist David C. Bloomfield speculates that the real winners will be children from wealthy families who live near less affluent areas. “Gentrifiers, for example, are favored if they are in a low-income neighborhood… but ignores their gaming the system through expensive SAT tutoring.” He also sees another danger. “[T]he Index will encourage uniform grouping of admitted and rejected students based on the single score…. We have seen this movie before: Big data, marketed by the College Board as a salvation, will become a technocratic tyranny.” Still worse, the score “signifies the College Board’s acquiescence to color-blind public policies, a particularly retrograde notion that institutionalizes anti-affirmative action views.”

Faith Sandler is the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, an organization that locates funds for less affluent college students. She shared her concerns with the financial site Out Perform Daily. “I don’t believe in any score of any human being unavailable to that human being,” Sandler said, likening it to a credit score that the applicant can never see…. The fact that universities would be receiving data collected by a third party, assembled by a third party that results in a score — that’s used in a decision as important as admissions without that individual having access to that score — is crazy.”

Unwise Attempts to Reach Impossible Goals

Despite all of the intellectualizing, both conservatives and liberals make similar mistakes. Equality, as understood by both groups, is an illusion. The College Board’s attempts to force that illusion into reality will do far more harm than good.

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The “enlightened” world promotes equality, but God and society keep creating obvious inequalities. God creates those with both high intellect and low, some are interested in things academic and more are not, some are male, and some are female. Within society, there are rich and poor families. Some students live in urban areas, and others are rural. Some children have intelligent parents, and others don’t. Some households are ordered, and others are chaotic.

The philosophy of the College Board (and the whole John-Dewey-inspired world of progressive education) ignores these inequalities when possible and makes adjustments when they are unavoidable. The quest of those who follow this philosophy is to create uniformity and identical outcomes for all. They will fail, as their other attempts to attain these ends have failed – because they seek an impossible unattainable, goal.