The SAT’s (Many) Problems

Scholars and admissions personnel have long suspected that the SAT test might be a little culturally biased. In 1987 research psychologist Roy Freedle first argued that the test puts black students at a disadvantage. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the test (and once employed Freedle) dismissed his claims. Well now there’s a little more proof that Freedle might have been right. According to a piece by Jay Matthews in the Washington Post:

Now, in the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review, the two scholars… have published a paper saying Freedle was right about a flaw in the SAT, even in its current form. They say “the SAT, a high-stakes test with significant consequences for the educational opportunities available to young people in the United States, favors one ethnic group over another.”

“The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results,” said Maria Veronica Santelices, now at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago, and Mark Wilson of UC Berkeley.

Their core findings suggest that disadvantaged black students do better on hard questions, which contain large words with unambiguous meanings. Students can learn these words in practicing for the SAT. Black students do worse, however, on easy questions, which are mostly made up of simple words. “Simpler words tended to have more meanings, and in some cases different meanings in white middle class neighborhoods than they had in underprivileged minority neighborhoods,” according to Matthews.

Freedle’s answer to this problem was adding another component to the SAT that featured only the hard questions.

The trouble with this is that it isn’t actually the SAT scoring that hurts black students so much as it is poor education that hurts black students. Adjusting the score wouldn’t fix that problem.

It may all just be irrelevant, however. While the Scholastic Aptitude Test was originally designed to eliminate bias and predict the grades of all potential applicants, regardless of background, high school students and their parents have long understood that the SAT is just an IQ test that doesn’t really predict much of anything.

Read the Santelices and Wilson paper here.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer