The SAT and social equity

Richard Greggory JohnsonHigh schools often report their students’ SAT score averages as a badge of honor—and with good reason; high scores are perceived as the mark of a good school. In fact, a recent news article about Pennsylvania’s Plum School District reported efforts by administrators to help students score higher than the national average (1500) on the SAT. The district has launched a multi-part action plan that includes analyzing test performance data, identifying ways to incorporate the SAT format into current courses, and giving students additional practice tests and study resources.
Board members say they want current freshmen and sophomores to be ready when the revamped SAT is administered in 2016. Among other things, the new test will feature fewer obscure vocabulary words and make essays optional.
But University of San Francisco associate professor Richard Greggory Johnson III, who focuses on social equity and human rights, says the same problems that have historically plagued the test will remain in the updated version, and that the exam really isn’t needed at all.

There’s been a lot of buzz about the revamped SAT. Will that make educators’ jobs easier as they prepare students for these tests?
From my vantage point, I don’t see a great deal of difference between what they are doing now and what they’ve done in the past. It’s seems as though a cycle happens every three years or so of the SAT board wanting to do something different, and they call it the revamping of the exam. I don’t really believe that to be true.
I’m sure that, from their perspective, these changes are big and will be effective. I don’t really see that though. As far as I’m concerned, I’d really like to see the entire test eliminated for a number of reasons.

What are some of those reasons?
The SATs are not particularly culturally competent. That’s one of the biggest things. These exams are not geared toward families that are low income or limited income, certainly conveniences of color. That has always been the issue with SAT. This is why a number of universities and colleges are getting away from using the SAT as an indicator of college success. The data is showing that there is little correlation between how a student scores on the SAT and how they will perform in college.
The main point here is cultural competence. If you have students from an inner-city Bronx school, for example, and they take the SAT, they may not fare well on it, compared to students in, say, Dalton in Manhattan, where they have the resources to really prepare their students. The parents are also more likely to have the resources. This is why I remain a critic.
A recent study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling showed virtually no difference between people who use the test and don’t use the test.
Exactly. I think just anecdotal evidence would suggest that. You have students who don’t take the SAT at all and go to a community college, for example, and do well at a community college and transfer to a four-year school. There’s virtually no university or college system in the U.S. that doesn’t have an articulation agreement with a community college system.
Therefore, students going to a community college, without taking the SAT or the ACT, can do well and still be able to transfer to the four-year school of their choice.
What the SAT does is demonstrate whether a student can test well or not test well. I just don’t believe that it has been a reliable indicator of how well a student will perform in college.

So why do high schools still place so much importance on it?
That’s a great question. Part of it, certainly, is that it’s a money maker, although people would not argue that as such. But when you look at the SAT, the money that it costs to take the SAT, the prep classes for the SAT and so on—we’re talking about large sums of money. That’s one aspect of it.
The more important aspect is that the SAT remains the vanguard of a number of colleges, particularly the elite universities that can point to this exam and say that if a student doesn’t score X, Y and Z on it, then we’re not going to consider them. There are a number of universities that say they rely less on the SAT, but I also know that there are many universities where, if the student doesn’t reach a certain benchmark score, their admission is pretty much settled at that point.
Regardless of the revamping of the SAT, it is still seen as a great indicator and a way to identify the students that will be admitted or not to a particular university based on their scores.

Bard College in New York has replaced SAT scores—and even GPAs—with a series of five essays, totalling 25,000 words, that they believe more accurately demonstrates a student’s ability to comprehend and impart knowledge.
I absolutely agree with this approach. There are, in fact, a small number of universities that are getting away from scores and GPAs. Instead they do an assessment of students’ performance via evaluation.
We’re beginning to see that in a number of schools around the country. If more of the elite universities went this way of eliminating the SAT, then perhaps the rest of the colleges would follow.
I honestly don’t know why more universities are not getting away from the SAT, given the criticisms. This is not new. I took the SATs in the 1980s and there was great criticism even then.

Students go through the K12 system being tested for everything. It seems the SAT is a continuation of that system, and they can’t get rid of it.
You come up in K12 knowing about the SAT from an early stage. It’s just this huge, horrific thing that you are prepping for from middle school on up. The perception of the SAT is that it is an exam that you have to do well on to get into college.
I don’t see the K12 institutions as having a strong impact on whether or not the SAT stays or goes. I believe they feel their mission is to help the students prepare for that test as much as possible. But, again, I have to go back to social class. If you go to, say, Gompers High School in the South Bronx, I don’t necessarily think that they feel their mission is to really prepare students for college. If they go, that’s fine. Not to pick on Gompers, but I think they see it as more important to get the students out to get jobs.
In other words, I don’t think a lot of high schools—again, in the inner cities like New York’s South Bronx, Los Angeles and Chicago—I don’t think they have a huge dog to fight in this SAT game, because a lot of their students are not going to be taking the SAT because they are not going on to college. Social class is a huge issue when we talk about the SAT, whether it is revamped or not. It has long been one of the key criticisms of this test and it remains such.

High schools would probably be relieved to eliminate tests like the SAT. Is there a fair and feasible replacement for it?
I see no value in standardized exams at all. I see much more value in assessing a student based upon their grades and their writing ability. You mentioned essays before. I think that is a fair assessment. You are grading a student on a certain question, but you are allowing them to have flexibility and to bring in their backgrounds to answer this question or these sets of questions.
I think, first, this leads to more creativity, and it relates to more analytical skills. One of the things that I struggle with as a university professor is a student’s lack of analytical skills. That’s the case at both the undergrad and the graduate level. One would think that by the time a student has advanced to graduate school that they would have learned to analyze. But they can’t, because all through K12 students basically learn how to regurgitate. If the teacher says the sky is blue, well, you say the sky is blue, as opposed to being able to analyze this data and say, “Well, the sky may not be blue, and this is why I think that’s the case.”
The SAT, as far as I’m concerned, is just another instrument that keeps us from advancing as a society, because there’s nothing analytical about the test. Again, you learn how to answer the questions and you learn that through a series of mechanisms, whether through SAT practice tests, study programs or whatever the case may be. But you are basically regurgitating information.

Do you think we’ll ever reach a critical mass of people opposed to these standardized tests—SATs and others?
The SAT has been around since the 1920s, and there hasn’t been a huge outcry to eliminate the test because it is so ingrained. I honestly don’t know. The admissions departments rely on it. Ironically, there’s often a disconnect between the admissions department and the faculty. As far as I can determine, there’s never been any true collaboration between faculty and admissions on what faculty feel they are missing from the students.
I don’t know what it would take to have this test eliminated. But what I do believe is that, as time goes on, we will have more and more universities and colleges not using it or using it less and less as an admissions indicator.


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