SATs oppress the very people they were meant to help

Elton Wong

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT as it is known now, was first implemented in hopes that it would improve access to higher education among the bright underprivileged.

The man responsible for this implementation of the test was James Conant, then the president of Harvard University.

At that time in the 1920s, only rich New England boys who had gone to prep school went to Harvard.

Conant hoped that by administering a standardized test to students all over the country, the most promising could be identified and granted access to not only top educational institutions but the American elite itself.

This history of the SAT is discussed in a soon-to-be-published book by Nicholas Lemann titled “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.”

It is interesting to observe the way in which the role of the SAT has changed over the past 80 years. Unfortunately, it seems that Conant’s noble intentions have not exactly been fulfilled.

Part of the blame must certainly rest on the test itself.

It appears obvious that a test of verbal reasoning and mathematical ability would depend to a large extent on the schools which a person attended.

Conant however, believed somehow that a person’s score on the SAT would be independent of the quality of his or her education.

This is one of the deceptions of the SAT and other standardized tests: It purports itself to be fair while actually discriminating against the students who receive poor educations.

When one compares modern inner-city schools with the exclusive private prep schools attended by the rich, how can standardized tests fail to reflect this discrepancy?

When rich parents can buy thousands of dollars in SAT tutoring for their children, how can we say that the SAT is based on merit?

This would not matter so much if colleges did not place so high a value on these scores.

One of the most extreme examples of this policy is to be found right here at Iowa State, in the National Merit Scholarship program.

When I was accepted as a freshman two years ago, there were 100 full-ride scholarships awarded by ISU to National Merit Scholar freshmen.

This award is basically given to high school seniors in the 0.5 percentile in PSAT scores.

This policy may have provided good publicity for ISU, but it was also arbitrary to the point of silliness.

What is the real difference between the top 0.5 percentile and the 0.5 percentile directly below it? Or for that matter, the 0.5 percentile below that?

The 21 National Merit Scholars from my class at Ames High were not necessarily the most hard-working, dedicated students at the school.

They were simply the best test-takers on that particular day.

One member of my graduating class, Steven Gartz, scored a 217 on the PSAT, one point under the 218 that would have granted him a free college education.

“I didn’t even know about the PSAT until the night before,” Gartz said.

James Gephart, an ISU Junior in biochemistry from Illinois, was a National Merit Scholar, but was denied a full-ride scholarship because one of his documents identifying ISU as his first college choice was lost in the mail.

“It seems pretty unfair that such a large award could be based on something so arbitrary,” says Gephart, who has recently begun selling his plasma.

Perhaps more disturbing is that the trend towards standardized testing is by no means limited to college entrance.

Many politicians have been calling for standardized exams to play a greater role in elementary education as a way to evaluate not just students but school districts as well.

This push to quantify something as nebulous and multi-faceted as learning is simple-minded and unhealthy.

It is a lazy alternative to a more involved approach to evaluating and understanding schools and students.

What is more, this emphasis on standardized testing contributes to a larger trend.

Instead of being treated as an end in itself, knowledge becomes a commodity, something even schoolchildren must obtain at an early age if they are to access the greater commodity of higher education and ultimately high socio-economic status.

Back in 1923, James Conant thought that the members of his new egalitarian elite, chosen by test performance, would “ferociously devote themselves to public service and democratic values.”

Apparently though, he failed to grasp the arbitrary nature of standardized testing, just as he failed to predict the infiltration of crass capitalism and politics into education.

Then again, Conant’s mistake could be of a more forgivable sort. Perhaps he simply put too much faith in those who would carry out his vision.

Elton Wong is a junior in biology from Ames.