Why the SAT is Problematic

Sarah Frank
Published on
April 3, 2023

Standardized testing has long been used to mirror and reinforce inequalities. In fact, many sources say that the beginnings of standardized testing can be traced back to World War One, in which famous eugenicist Carl Brigham created an aptitude test meant to divide soldiers. Not only were soldiers divided by test scores: they were also divided by race. He believed some people were just better than others. Brigham then helped develop the SAT to combat increasing student body diversity as well as limit the immigration of people of color to the US. Essentially, it was created as a divisive aptitude test.

While the SAT has certainly changed over time, it still reinforces inequities when it is required. Many students simply don’t have the resources to do well on it and some don’t even have the money to take it at all. This is not to say SATs should be removed entirely: in fact, sometimes it actually can help naturally-high-scoring lower-income students to provide a quantitative metric of their success that can’t be deduced to easier grading at “easier” high schools. However, it is more common that students struggle to prepare for the tests and that preparation comes with a price tag. Tutoring, practice books, prep sessions—they all usually cost money. So does the test itself. Even transportation to weekend testing can be a barrier. This is why Simple Studies was created in the first place: because education inequities are way too common in America. Schools should have test-optional policies: standardized testing should be an option for those who are able to successfully take it and should not be required for those who cannot.

Some argue that without the SAT being required, there is no objective way to appraise applications. But when has there ever been a fully objective appraisal of applications? Applicants are judged both quantitatively and qualitatively and the latter can never be fully objective. Moreover, grades, GPA, and other exam scores are still ways to quantify success. Other people argue that the students admitted without test scores might not be as intellectually equipped for a rigorous university.  To the argument about possible underperformance, I think two responses are necessary: the first is to note that intellect comes in different forms beyond textbook writing and math. Someone might be incredibly skilled with history or science or even poetry—skills and knowledge not reflected in SAT scores. Second: if a student is truly not intellectually equipped for a rigorous university, it will be reflected in their grades and exam scores when they are applying. Standardized testing is not (or at least, should not be) the holy grail of intellectual assessment. And it is certainly not the only way.

According to “Race, Poverty and SAT Scores,” a study done in collaboration between University of Pennsylvania and University of Southern California, wealthy students generally earn higher SAT scores than their non-wealthy counterparts. The Washington Post quantified this, citing that for the 2400-point SAT, “students from families earning more than $200,000 a year average a combined score of 1,714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1,326.” According to the Washington Post: “students from families earning more than $200,000a year average a combined score of 1714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1326.” That’s almost a 400point difference because of wealth. Even more, if race is factored into the equation, the difference in wealthy student SAT scores and poorer student SAT scores was twice as large for black students when compared to white students. All the inequities here are undeniable.

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