The Past, Present, and Future of Standardized Testing

Right when high schoolers across the country thought that the stress and pressure from college applications had reached its peak, the outbreak of a global pandemic disrupted every aspect of normal life as we knew it, compounding the challenges they faced. 

When the coronavirus began to spread throughout the US in early March, schools everywhere started shifting to distance learning, which brought on both benefits and drawbacks for the students. Unsurprisingly, the class of 2021 took the brunt of the impact. Junior year of high school is already infamous for being the most stressful period in a teen’s life, what with the pressure of getting or maintaining prodigious grades as well as participating in the right number of quality extracurriculars in order to secure a spot in a desirable college. That constant thought is paired with scrambling and preparing for standardized tests: the SAT, ACT, and AP exams, normally one of the most critical necessities of a college application. Of course, nothing is normal anymore. 

As a result of the pandemic throwing testing dates into disarray, numerous universities modified their application requirements and went test-optional for the class of 2021. Big names on the list include Princeton, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. The University of California system took it a step further and voted to phase out the tests entirely by 2025, and is now planning on creating their own exam

“I think this is an incredible step in the right direction toward aligning our admissions policy with the broad-based values of the University,” UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez stated in a May 2020 press release. 

The Campanile (Sather Tower) at UC Berkeley. Photo by Susan Gold.

These unexpected changes in application requirements brought on by COVID-19 have revitalized decades-old conversations surrounding the credibility of standardized tests and the role they play in the admissions process. “Extremely flawed and very unfair” is how member of the UC Board Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis described the tests to the New York Times, and her opinion is quite common. 

Considering the history of standardized tests and the disparities in scores between demographics, her statement holds up. Standardized tests were essentially built on discrimination. The SAT originated in World War I when a psychologist and eugenicist named Carl Brigham developed a mental aptitude test to screen new recruits for the army. Alas, the results were used by Brigham to argue that “the decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than [that] of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro.” He believed that standardized testing would prove the racial superiority of white Americans. 

Though there have been multiple iterations of the SAT since then, the test remains racially and economically discriminatory in effect, even if that is no longer the intent, according to New York Times journalist Shawn Hubler. Last year, a report by the College Board found that 45% of white students and 55% of Asian-American students scored over 1200 on the SAT. Only 12% and 9% of Hispanic and Black students scored the same. Part of the reason for this disparity is that there is more academic pressure on Asian-Americans from parents and peers. However, it also occurs largely due to the fact that Asian-Americans tend to have access to higher quality education than other minorities, and test preparation normally works best when students have high academic preparation to begin with. Furthermore, Asian-Americans are also less likely to attend poorly resourced schools, giving many of them the advantage in standardized testing. 

But that’s not all: SAT scores also correlate with income. Students from wealthier families can pay thousands of dollars for private test coaching on top of their better-funded schools. These students naturally do better on the SAT than those from lower-income families. These discrepancies extend into admissions decisions. A report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that roughly half of institutions said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” when deciding whom to admit. 

Additionally, standardized tests have a negative effect on the mental health of students, as one would imagine. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 83% of students surveyed listed school as a source of stress, 69% of them citing “getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school” as the main reason. Since the SAT and ACT play such a huge role in college admissions, students who struggle with standardized testing or cannot afford private tutoring have heightened worries since they lack the socioeconomic privileges of others. 

A decade after inventing the SAT, Brigham had grown to regret it. Journalist Nicholas Lemann discovered an unpublished manuscript in which Brigham had written that his theories were “one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science.”  

“The tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or school,” Brigham continued. “The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant.”

 Yes, this is the same Brigham from before who invented the tests to prove that white people were intellectually superior. The SAT became a one-size-fits-all test that doesn’t take any other major external influences into account that essentially determine the student’s score. It may seem like just a fill-in-the-bubbles test on the surface, but in reality, the SAT (as well as the ACT) is a test scored on race and wealth. It does not show who a student is as a person, how creative they are, or what kind of person they ultimately will be in the college reviewing their application. These tests don’t reflect who the student is as a whole.  

Although admissions officers at universities take many factors into account to determine whether a student would be a good fit, including extracurriculars and community involvement, performance on standardized tests continues to play a significant role. Ultimately, a student’s true capabilities should not be determined by an inherently biased multiple-choice test. SAT and ACT test scores should no longer be a deciding factor in admissions decisions. High scores are impressive, but they are heavily determined by race and social class. Much of the college admissions system in this country is rooted in social inequality, and we need to place far less emphasis on exams with so many inequities that also cause so much additional stress for high schoolers. How the Class of 2021 admissions cycle runs might just be what determines the future landscape of college admissions tests. 

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