Why Is the SAT Back (Again)? | Crooked Media
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June 08, 2024
What A Day
Why Is the SAT Back (Again)?

In This Episode

Until recently, many people—and colleges—rejected the SAT as a racist and classist metric that perpetuated social divides. But now it’s being championed as a tool for closing some of those same gaps! This week on How We Got Here: why does public opinion on the SAT keep flip-flopping? Who does the test privilege? And is it really the best metric we’ve got for college admissions? With Erin on maternity leave, “What A Day” all-star Priyanka Aribindi joins Max to assess the racist roots of the SAT, how it’s evolved since, and how its history reflects attitudes towards access to higher education.

 

SOURCES:

Major Changes Adopted in SAT College Exam – Los Angeles Times

The Misguided War on the SAT – The New York Times

Colleges Dropped the SAT and ACT. Here’s Why Many High Schools Didn’t. – WSJ

The SATs are: a) dying; b) already dead; c) alive and well; d) here forever – Vox

Secrets of the SAT : Michael Chandler, Cam Bay Productions., WGBH Educational Foundation., PBS Video. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Interviews – Henry Chauncey | Secrets Of The Sat | FRONTLINE | PBS

Why US Colleges Are Reviving Standardized Tests – Bloomberg

Standardized Test Scores and Academic Performance at Ivy-Plus Colleges

The Rainbow Project: Enhancing the SAT through assessments of analytical, practical, and creative skills

​​The Test | Anya Kamenetz

The Big Test | Macmillan

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Max Fisher: So, Priyanka, I’m confused about something that I see young people doing a lot lately. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Look, I am not working late because I’m a singer, but I get why they all can’t stop saying it. 

 

Max Fisher: No, I don’t mean singing along to Sabrina Carpenter. I mean, everyone is taking the SAT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Well, I mean, that makes sense. For a lot of us, that was a requirement to get into college. 

 

Max Fisher: But that’s my point. Like, I thought we all decided in 2020 that we were moving away from the SAT in college admissions. A bunch of schools dropped it as a requirement, but now it’s back. 

 

[clip of unnamed NBC news anchor] Yale University tonight is the latest school reversing course, now requiring standardized test scores for college admissions after hundreds of schools shifted to test optional in recent years. 

 

Max Fisher: That was NBC news a few months ago. And now here we are in what will probably be a record breaking year in SAT test taking. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s in, it’s out. It’s in again, very ’90s of the SAT. [music break]

 

Max Fisher: I’m Max Fisher. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And I’m Priyanka Aribindi filling in for Erin Ryan. 

 

Max Fisher: Erin is on maternity leave and will be back in a couple of months. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And this is How We Got Here. A series where we explore a big question behind the week’s headlines and tell a story that answers that question. 

 

Max Fisher: This week, we’re talking about the return of the S.A.T.. It’s a story that is about so much more than just this little test. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Big test, Max, I don’t know if you remember taking it back in the day. I think I’ve tried to block out as much of that experience as possible, but it’s three hours long and two million students take it a year. It’s actually currently on a computer, which is a big change for those of us who took it a while ago. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, fair. So more than just this big test. Uh. It’s a story about the changing place of higher education in society, about how we think about race and class, about how or whether you can separate out individual performance from structural conditions. And it’s all centered, or at least it was until recently on those little Scantron bubble sheets. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. And the prevailing opinion here has really been all over the place. Just a few years ago, the SAT seemed like it was on its way out, with many people and colleges rejecting it as a racist and classist metric that perpetuated social divides. But now it seems to be back, and is being championed by some as a tool for closing some of those very same gaps. 

 

Max Fisher: And also, listeners might have déja vu. This is not the first time we have been through this exact cycle. In fact, we’ve whiplashed back and forth between those two views of the SAT ever since it was first developed a century ago. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it’s not hard to see why the SAT was actually first designed by a racist proponent of eugenics who believed in the innate superiority of Nordic and Alpine peoples. 

 

Max Fisher: Yikes. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, not looking so good from the start there, but it was popularized by a reformer who saw the test as a way to break down the race and class barriers in American life. 

 

Max Fisher: So our question this week, why can’t we decide whether the SAT is a tool for perpetuating or for closing social divides? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And the story we want to tell is the history of both the SAT and of the changing attitudes towards the test. 

 

Max Fisher: So let’s start at the start. Carl Brigham, the inventor of the SAT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. Carl Brigham started as a psychologist in the US Army during World War one. And he was obsessed with two things. The first was IQ tests and the second was eugenics. 

 

Max Fisher: Sounds like Stephen Miller’s Tinder profile. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly. In his work for the Army, Brigham designed an IQ test that was meant to guide promotions, but he believed that intelligence tests should be used for everything. So after the war, when he went to work at Princeton, he adapted the Army IQ test into a college admissions test. 

 

Max Fisher: The Scholastic Aptitude test, or S.A.T.. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: His goal was to help colleges identify the most intelligent students like he’d done for the Army. But as a hardcore racist, he also believed that one’s intelligence was determined by their race. And so what do you know? He designed questions that consistently produced higher scores for the northern European descendants, whom he believed should be in charge, and lower scores for people of color and first and second generation immigrants. 

 

Max Fisher: So when people say that the SAT has explicitly racist origins, they’re right. That’s true. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Definitely. But it wasn’t very popular at first. The first SAT was administered in 1926, and only about 8000 high school students bothered to show up. 

 

Max Fisher: We should say college admissions worked very differently back then. Universities were not really selective in the way they are now, in part because only a very tiny proportion of Americans sought a college education. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Of course, this was nearly 100 years ago. Going to college at that point wasn’t seen as something that you did to get ahead or to get a good job. It was more of a social pedigree thing for members of the elite. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. You got in because your boarding school headmaster called up the head of admissions at Cornell and put you on the freshmen rolls, so you didn’t need an SAT score. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: But all of this changed after World War Two. For a bunch of reasons, Americans went from seeing college as a fancy little stop off for members of the elite, to seeing higher education as means by which anyone from any background might secure a better future for themselves. Very big American dream kind of vibes. 

 

Max Fisher: The economy was changing such that a growing share of middle class jobs required college level education, and lots of veterans coming home were thanks to the GI Bill seeking out a college degree they might not have been able to afford otherwise. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: All of which drove up demand among both students and colleges for some sort of way for schools to sort out who to admit. 

 

Max Fisher: Enter the previously obscure SAT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Exactly, though this also came with a big change in how the test worked and what it was supposed to do. 

 

Max Fisher: So no more Carl Brigham and S.A.T. eugenics? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Correct. In 1947, both the SAT and the organization that oversaw the test got taken over by a guy named Henry Chauncey, who had very, very different aims for the test. Chauncey was kind of a utopian. He wanted to abolish racial and class hierarchies, starting with higher education. 

 

Max Fisher: So kind of the opposite of Carl Brigham’s original vision for the SAT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. Here’s Henry Chauncey talking to PBS frontline back in 1999, before he died, about why he thought a test like the SAT would re-engineer college admissions to select students based on merit, not their social or racial background. 

 

[clip of Henry Chauncey] I think I was interested in the full development of each individual, and one could learn about individuals from tests. That is still something I believe in, that you try and find out what the interest and capabilities are of individuals, and you want to bring about the full development of each one. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: One important distinction here. Henry Chauncey didn’t agree that the SAT measured innate intelligence. Rather, he saw it as predicting a student’s ability to do well in college. An idea that we’ll hear echoed as we get closer to present day. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh I see. So he saw the SAT is testing your ability to learn and apply things you might use in college. More like an entrance exam than an IQ test. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Totally. But his biggest goal for the SAT was to convince colleges that adopting the test would end the old elite’s monopoly on access to higher education. 

 

Max Fisher: So instead of getting into college because you had the right connections or went to the right boarding school, you’d get into college, at least in theory based on merit. Which meant all the rewards of a college education like higher wages and more powerful positions in society, would also be distributed on merit. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. A very noble goal. He saw this as a first step towards creating a new meritocracy, free of discrimination based on race, class, or gender. 

 

Max Fisher: That is a lovely idea, but it seems a little naive. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Max Fisher: Like he was assuming that the test score will perfectly capture someone’s innate ability, free of any interference from racism or classism or sexism. But all of those forces are still going to affect someone’s score if they’ve spent the first 18 years of their lives in, just to use one example, a school system that provides more resources to white students than to students of color. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Precisely. And that’s not just something we know now with the benefit of hindsight. Remember Carl Brigham, the eugenicist who invented the SAT? Even he had come around saying that the SAT shouldn’t be seen as measuring innate ability. In the 1930s, he’d denounced eugenics and warned that a person’s SAT score was, in a lot of ways, just measuring the conditions that they’d grown up in. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, eugenicist to critic of structural racism? I did not see that pivot coming for Carl. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: No, certainly not. But to be fair, Chauncey knew about these weaknesses and thought that they could be counteracted by having colleges factor in a student’s background when they considered SAT scores. Kind of like this college admissions process that everyone talks about today. But it’s all just to say that this tension has always been there between the SAT overcoming social divides versus reinforcing them. 

 

Max Fisher: So this gets to something that comes up over and over in this story. For as long as the test has been around, it has consistently produced lower scores on average for students of color and students who come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. And the question has always been, is this because the test itself is biased, or does the disparity in scores simply reflect structural inequalities in our education system? 

 

Max Fisher: SAT proponents like Henry Chauncey weren’t denying that this was happening. His organization, the one that oversaw the S.A.T., even got recruited as part of the Civil Rights Act to use standardized testing to measure racial disparities in public schools. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: In other words, it wasn’t controversial. Even among proponents of the SAT, that standardized test scores are skewed by things like structural racism. It was widely known and accepted. They saw this as a way to expose that schools were failing students of color, rather than to punish those students. 

 

Max Fisher: Still, though, it’s not good, that the racial and class divides that exist out in the world are reflected in SAT results. It makes the test kind of a bad measure of innate ability, which is what it’s supposed to be, or at least what many people believe it does. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, this is the fundamental tension of the SAT. How do you measure a student’s ability within a system that structurally privileges white, male, and wealthy students without letting those inequities influence the results? 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, it’s a hard thing to solve for the few Scantron sheets. And meanwhile, the number of students applying to go to college every year was exploding. Colleges needed some way to compare students. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Henry Chauncey got his biggest coup for SAT adoption in 1968, when the entire University of California system began requiring it. That sealed the SAT as a pretty much universal requirement. We’ll hear more later about the UC system. It is a pretty big part of the story. 

 

Max Fisher: The backlash against standardized testing. It started around the same time, too. Here’s one example. In 1963, a young Black man applied for a job at a Motorola TV factory. Motorola gave him an IQ test, told him he didn’t score highly enough, and denied him the job. The man complained to his state’s Fair Employment Commission, which ruled that the IQ test was racially biased and ordered Motorola to hire him. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So even though that wasn’t the SAT, it fed into a sense that standardized tests more broadly were a vehicle for legalized discrimination. 

 

Max Fisher: It also spurred a backlash to the backlash. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, all of a sudden, standardized tests went from something that conservatives opposed because they might lift people of color out of segregation to something that they supported as a tool to maintain segregation. 

 

Max Fisher: For the next decade or two after the Civil Rights Act. The SAT came up over and over again in fights over things like discrimination, desegregation, and affirmative action. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: There’s a really important Supreme Court case for understanding where the battle lines got drawn over the SAT. It’s called DeFunis v. Odegaard From 1974. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh I learned about this one. Marco DeFunis applied to go to the University of Washington Law School. He wasn’t admitted and he sued, arguing that he had been illegally discriminated against by affirmative action on the grounds that he had higher test scores than some minority students who were admitted. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it wasn’t really a case about testing. It was a case about affirmative action. But like the Motorola case, it helped create a sense that standardized testing was at odds with racial justice. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, this was a fight over whether colleges should or should not play a role in redressing structural racism in America by increasing the number of students of color they admitted. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: But this became a testing issue because it turned in part on whether, as law student DeFunis argued, colleges should decide admission based purely on test scores or, as the university argued, colleges have a duty to broaden admissions among minorities. Partly because they saw student diversity as its own reward, and partly in recognition of the fact that applicants from minority groups face structural barriers that impact things like their standardized test scores. 

 

Max Fisher: The writer Nicholas Lemanm calls these fights that have popped up over and over around the S.A.T. debate over, quote, “the structure of opportunity,” as in, who in this country should have access to a college degree. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Which ever since the 1960s has been the single best way to advance socially and financially in America. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. Who should have that opportunity? And what are we trying to achieve as a society in determining how and where these opportunities get parceled out? [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: We talked a lot about race, but we should talk about the other big issue driving the backlash to the S.A.T. 

 

Max Fisher: Class? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yup, class. And not just because the test reflects back structural inequities on class, just like it does with race. There’s a whole other way that the SAT gives a leg up to students with more financial resources. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, I know this one. It’s test prep, right? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Ding ding ding. It is hard to have a conversation about standardized testing today without bringing this up. Pretty much as soon as the SAT became a thing, so did private companies that started selling booklets and courses on the promise of giving you higher scores. 

 

Max Fisher: Which is bad, because it means that students with more resources can buy their way to a higher score. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Basically. By 1978, the SAT prep industry had gotten so big that the Federal Trade Commission even opened an inquiry into the test prep programs. But the industry just kept growing. 

 

Max Fisher: There’s a fundamental force at play here. Every year that passes, a college degree has only gotten more important for securing a middle class life in America. If this means that more people apply to go to college every year, and that every enrollment slot at a selective university becomes more competitive. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Which means that more class conscious parents are spending more and more money to help their kids get a higher SAT score, in hopes of a better shot at that all important admission slot. 

 

Max Fisher: And with every dollar that gets poured into SAT prep, the more that the test becomes a measurement of wealth and privilege rather than aptitude. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, and just as an FYI for everybody who still thinks that S.A.T. stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test, that was actually changed back in the ’90s. First it was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test, and then they decided to drop the words all together, simply calling it the SAT. 

 

Max Fisher: Here’s another clip from that 1999 frontline special. This is John Katzman. He’s the founder and then president of the Princeton Review, which, along with Kaplan, is one of the two dominant SAT prep companies that do hundreds of millions of dollars a year in business. Listen to how he talks about the SAT. 

 

[clip of John Katzman] This is a test where everybody’s saying, look, we’re just being an incredibly fair society here. Everybody takes this test and the better kids go to the better schools. And it’s just both [pause in audio], you know, the better kids hire me. [laugh] What is this telling you about your son? Like is it telling you he’s stupid, that he got it wrong? Is it telling you he shouldn’t go to college where he should? What is it telling you? And I would claim it tells you almost nothing. 

 

Max Fisher: And here from that same special is a guy named Bob Schaeffer, who heads an advocacy group called Fair Test that opposes standardized testing in education. 

 

[clip of Bob Schaeffer] How do you know that that the scores that you’re seeing, whether they’re the result of some kid walking in and taking the test cold on a Saturday morning, and the results of some other kid who’s been tutored for $700 at the Princeton Review or Kaplan, or $1,500 for some tutor who comes to your house and drills you on the test. Those scores don’t mean the same thing. That has nothing to do with math, has nothing to do with aptitude, and it most certainly has nothing to do with merit unless you define merit as being coached. 

 

Max Fisher: Wow. He’s really mad. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, and I mean, it feels really telling, that the head of an SAT prep company and the head of an anti SAT group both speak very similarly about this test. 

 

Max Fisher: This criticism has dogged the SATs since its inception because if the tests can be gamed by expensive prep classes, then the SAT is both exacerbating class divides and less useful as a measure of aptitude. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So just to clarify here, when we say gaming the test, we don’t mean studying to become more knowledgeable and therefore do better on it. The SAT people want you to do that because they say that that’s what they’re trying to measure. 

 

Max Fisher: No, we mean that test prep companies like Princeton Review claim that there are certain patterns in how the SAT is written, and if you learn those patterns, then you can get a higher score without actually being a smarter or more knowledgeable student. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. But fears about coaching are a little bit of a way to dodge the harder question, which is whether we want an SAT that rewards students for studying more for it. 

 

Max Fisher: Because studying more is in some ways a luxury afforded to students from more privileged backgrounds. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Exactly. The SAT says that it’s predicting a student’s ability to do well in college, and if you grew up in a stable, financially comfortable home and you attend an affluent, well-funded school, you probably will do better in college. 

 

Max Fisher: But that’s another way of saying that the SAT selects for being financially privileged, which, given the wealth breakdowns in this country, is itself a way of saying that the SAT selects for being white or Asian. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Which is a pretty far cry from Henry Chauncey’s dream of using this test to smash the old hierarchies and turn our society into a meritocracy. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, you can see why people soured on the SAT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Definitely. By the ’80s, you actually saw the first little moves away from the SAT. Bates College stopped requiring it for applicants in 1984, citing concerns that it wasn’t an effective predictor of a student’s performance in college. A few other schools went SAT optional at that point, or at least considered it. 

 

Max Fisher: I thought this was pretty striking. In 1989, a federal judge ruled that the New York State College system could no longer use the SAT to award scholarships. The judge’s reasoning was that the SAT produces consistently lower test scores for women and therefore is discriminatory. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Even Henry Chauncey soured on the SAT. In 1999, he told an interviewer, quote, “I and others in the field of testing have tried very hard not to have people put as much emphasis as they do. They have a place, but they aren’t everything. I guess I’m a bit unhappy with the uses to which some colleges or some institutions use this.” 

 

Max Fisher: And that’s Mr. SAT himself. Anyway, we should talk about some of the gambits that the College Board has tried to rehabilitate the SAT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Great use of the SAT vocab there Max. Love it. In the 2000s, the College Board funded the development of something they called the Rainbow Project. It was intended to measure other skills in a more racially and ethnically inclusive way. 

 

Max Fisher: I mean, it sounds good in theory. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Totally, but in theory. One of the ostensibly inclusive tests though, was asking students to come up with captions to New Yorker cartoons. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeesh. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So you could see why the College Board ended up scrapping it. 

 

Max Fisher: And then there was the adversity score. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. In the late 2010s, the College Board considered wrapping adversity metrics into a student’s SAT score. Things like local crime and poverty rates, the quality of local schools, even the student’s family structure. 

 

Max Fisher: You will not be shocked to hear that this led to a lot of backlash from people who said it was invasion of privacy, and that it stigmatized the people it was meant to help. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, not shocking at all. They rolled it back pretty quickly. But the point is that they all knew that they had a problem on their hands. 

 

Max Fisher: Which got way, way worse with the college admissions scandal in 2019. 

 

[clip of Andrew Lelling] We’re here today to announce charges in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice. A conspiracy that involved first cheating on college entrance exams, meaning the S.A.T. and the ACT. And second, securing admission to elite colleges by bribing coaches at those schools to accept certain students under false pretenses. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That was U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling announcing charges against 50 people involved in the scam, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. 

 

Max Fisher: C-list actresses getting caught bribing an SAT administrator isn’t proof that the test is biased, but it certainly didn’t help perceptions that it was tilted in favor of the rich. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Okay, as a viewer of both Full House and Desperate Housewives, I’m going to take issue with that classification. But you’re definitely right about the response. When the pandemic hit a year later and SAT testing went on pause. It felt to a lot of SAT critics like an opportunity to get rid of the test for good. 

 

Max Fisher: Which is exactly what a lot of colleges did. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And it actually started a little bit before the pandemic. Between 2000 and 2018, around 200 colleges dropped the SAT requirement, making it optional for admissions. In the years since the pandemic, that went from being the exception to the norm. 

 

Max Fisher: I found this statistic in a Bloomberg article. According to Common Application. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That is the nonprofit that standardizes college applications and lets you apply to most colleges with a single form. Truly a life saver back in my day. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. According to Common Application, in 2019, 55% of colleges that they worked with required an SAT score. But as of the most recent school year, 2023, only 5% required it. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Wow. Okay, so for most schools, students can still submit their SAT scores if they want to. It just wasn’t a requirement anymore. With one very big exception. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh is this the University of California system again?

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. A group of students and advocacy groups had sued the UC system over standardized admissions testing, calling it discriminatory on the basis of race, wealth, and disability. In 2021, a judge agreed with them, barring the schools from considering the SAT or ACT at all. You see, administrators had actually already voted to stop using the tests by 2025. So this just moved up the deadline by a bit. 

 

Max Fisher: All of which is to say that as of like a year ago, it really seemed like the SAT was on its way out for good. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it really did. 

 

Max Fisher: And yet it’s back. It’s the Ross and Rachel of standardized tests. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly, against all the odds here. We have a list of schools that have recently brought back their SAT requirement. You’ve probably seen them in headlines in the past few months. They include Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Caltech, MIT, Georgetown, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

 

Max Fisher: Wow. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: A lot of big schools and a lot of very well-known institutions, not only in the country, but all around the world. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, so what changed? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So one explanation that you hear a lot is that whatever pressure schools may have felt from the racial justice activism around Black Lives Matter in 2020, they maybe just don’t feel as much anymore. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh sort of the higher ed equivalent of big companies hiring DEI teams in 2020 and then quietly firing them all in 2022. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, basically. But I don’t know that it’s just that. I was reading recently about a study that looked at the relationship between a student’s SAT scores and how they end up doing in college. And the results echoed back to some of the earlier intentions for this test. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, interesting. Okay, so what’d they find? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So they found a strong and consistent correlation between how a student does on the SAT and then how good their grades are as a college freshman. Whereas the relationship between a student’s high school GPA and their grades in college was actually much, much weaker. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, so if you’re a college admissions officer and you want to know how well an applicant will do at your school, the student’s SAT scores are a better guide than their GPA by a lot. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, that is what the study suggests. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. But again, couldn’t that just mean the SAT is measuring a student’s level of privilege? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So according to these findings, not entirely. What they found is that the relationship between SAT scores and college performance is just as strong, regardless of a student’s background. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh. Huh?

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Our producer, Emma Illick-Frank, talked to one of the study’s authors, an economist and Dartmouth professor named Bruce Sacerdote. Here’s Bruce explaining the results. 

 

[clip of Bruce Sacerdote] We knew for sure that SATs are predictive of grades, and explain about 25% of the R squared of the variation. That was true in ancient work that I did, and that’s true today. I guess what was surprising was how predictive it is and how it holds for all subgroups. It’s the same kind of slope in R squared, whether you split by gender or background or other demographics, income and whatnot. And so that was a little bit surprising. The hypothesis that these are particularly useful for less advantaged students was just the hypothesis. But the data really spoke quite clearly on that. 

 

Max Fisher: So in other words, when you compare across students from similar backgrounds, whatever that background is, their SAT score will on average reliably predict how well they’ll do in college. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. It turns out that the SATs are strongly predictive of performance in college across all sorts of metrics. Here’s Bruce again. 

 

[clip of Bruce Sacerdote] We’ve just been finding over and over again that conditional on having testing, it’s highly predictive of how well people do in college and not just GPA, but also like whether they have to take a term off due to academic reasons. Um. The number of C’s that they get, the number of courses that they drop. It’s predictive of all these things. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. But to play devil’s advocate again, a longstanding criticism of the SAT has been that it consistently understates the potential of students from certain groups. In other words, students who would actually do great in college get lower SAT scores, the theory goes, because the test is biased and this locks them out of that opportunity. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, I mean, that’s something you hear all the time anecdotally from people, but the results of the study seem to contradict that a bit. Here’s Bruce again. 

 

[clip of Bruce Sacerdote] Well, it is true. There are many people who have terrible SATs and are great in college. Um. There’s no more as a percentage. There’s no more of those people who are from low income families that are from high income families. An SAT of 1500 means much the same thing in terms of predicting grades, regardless of what group you’re from. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: There have been a few studies like this in the years since a lot of schools dropped their SAT requirements, and they’ve generally found the same thing. Another found that SAT scores were highly correlated with the students odds of going on to graduate school or getting a job at a prestigious company. 

 

Max Fisher: I guess all those schools dropping their SAT requirements was kind of a big, real world experiment, and it produced a lot of data. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. And what we saw is that generally, dropping the SAT didn’t lead to a meaningful increase in diversity in college admissions. 

 

Max Fisher: Well, a point I’ve also heard is that in the last five or ten years, high school GPA has become a much less reliable metric for a student’s performance in college because grade inflation is growing so rapidly due to things like pressure from parents and competition between private schools for parent’s business. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: There’s another interesting change within high schools that’s part of this story, too. More and more high schools now are requiring their students to take the SAT as a way to track student performance from year to year, which seems pretty wild to me and also pretty expensive. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] Well, the upshot of this is it means that millions of students are taking the SAT every year, whether colleges require them or not. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, and this actually touches on another finding from that Bruce Sacerdote study that really stood out to me. When submitting the SAT became optional, a number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds held back their scores because they thought that the scores weren’t high enough, but they didn’t realize that colleges compare each student’s scores to those of their classmates, not to national averages. Had SAT scores been required, the study estimated Dartmouth alone would have admitted hundreds more students from low income backgrounds. 

 

Max Fisher: Something we should emphasize, though, is that no one is saying that the SAT is a cure for structural racism or classism. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Definitely not. It’s just interesting now to see these colleges saying that these scores, whether or not they’re the highest ones that they come across, can actually help them identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds who can go on to thrive at their schools. 

 

Max Fisher: It is still true that students from more advantaged backgrounds, on average, do better on the SAT and then also go on to do better in college. The SAT doesn’t more favorably project the academic performance of white or Asian or high income students, but it doesn’t erase the structural advantages that those groups have either. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s not quite living up to Henry Chauncey’s dream of abolishing class and racial hierarchy in American higher education. 

 

Max Fisher: Which even Henry Chauncey acknowledged. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. All of this is why you see more colleges reinstating the SAT, but also arguing for using it in context with the student’s background. So, in other words, rather than just blindly handing out admissions slots to the highest scores, considering that a high score from someone with a disadvantaged background maybe signals greater potential than a comparable score from someone with every advantage. 

 

Max Fisher: This also feels a little bit more in line with the idea that a slot at a highly selective college is going to be more valuable to someone who’s coming from a disadvantaged background than it is to someone who grew up with a lot of resources and is probably going to be fine no matter what. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. And all of this speaks to the idea that we raised at the top of the show. What is higher education for? Who should get access to the most selective schools? Is it a reward for merit and hard work? A means to narrow some of the systemic inequities in this country? 

 

Max Fisher: Those are, of course, questions that touch on a lot more than just this one college admissions test. But the test and how we use it is implicated in all of them. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And I wonder if, looking back, one reason that we all latched on to the SATs is because college admissions, deliberately or not, perpetuate or at least play into structural inequalities. It’s such an opaque process, one that so many complain is way too subjective. It almost feels random, especially as colleges get more and more selective. But the SATs are one place where it feels easier to focus in on because it’s much more tangible. It’s a numbered score, so it’s easy to measure, and we know that it has this complicated racist history and all this data around it. It’s not a bad place to focus, but it also turns out that the problems here are a lot bigger than just this one test. 

 

Max Fisher: Let’s go out with a bizarre little cultural relic of SAT anxiety. The trailer for a very bad 2004 movie called The Perfect Score. 

 

[clip of trailer for 2004 movie, The Perfect Score] If it takes 15 people eight hours to make 100 items, how many hours will it take six people working at the same rate to make half as many items? Dude, it’s like impossible. Three little letters. [banging sounds]

 

Max Fisher: How We Got Here is written and hosted by me, Max Fisher and by Erin Ryan. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s produced by Austin Fisher. Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. 

 

Max Fisher: Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show. 

 

Erin Ryan: Jordan Cantor sound engineers the show. Audio support from Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes and Vasilis Fotopoulos.

 

Max Fisher: Production support from Adriene Hill, Leo Duran, Erica Morrison, Raven Yamamoto, and Natalie Bettendorf. 

 

Erin Ryan: And a special thank you to What a Day’s talented hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family. [music break]

 

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