Changes to the SAT: different, but not equal

Bryell Turner, Contributing Writer

The College Board announced sweeping changes to the SATs on March 5, sparking conversation about the potential for the revision to work toward eliminating racial bias. For many years, critics of the SATs have argued that the very language utilized in standardized testing draws on a white, upper-middle class culture, thus perpetuating inequality based on color and class. In response to this and other objections, College Board is making the SAT “more focused and useful” in an attempt to better assess students’ college readiness. But just how far can revising a test go toward dismantling deep-seeded racial biases and inequalities?

Much of the conversation surrounding the SATs’ contribution to racial bias focuses on the industry of test prep and tutoring. The exorbitant costs of SAT prep courses, private tutors, and extra practice tests prohibit low-to-moderate income students from participating. One way College Board is trying to even the prep playing field is by offering 200+ videos through the online education giant Khan Academy. Free SAT prep is great, but this assumes students have reliable Internet access and a compatible computer they can use for the hundreds of hours they would need to take advantage of this opportunity. The Internet is increasingly available to communities, but unless a family has money to pay subscription fees or the transportation to get a student to a public access point, no amount of motivation can connect students to these free courses. The sad reality is that the majority of money and mobility is still located in white hands. Minority students that want to do well on the SATs are more likely to be barred from free prep options by structural issues that extend far beyond motivation and intelligence.

Let’s pretend access to these free prep videos is equal. How will the content of the new test be more relevant to the typical college experience? Many of us can recall, with certain dread, the difficult vocabulary of standardized testing. College Board admits that obscure locutions, which are irrelevant to quintessential didactic milieu, are no longer efficacious. The previous sentence serves as an example of the intellectual imperialism that dominates standardized testing. Knowing definitions of big words is more a measure of cultural intelligence than of college readiness, and not all students are socialized in “SAT language.” The move to integrate typical college-level discourse in the redesigned test makes sense on many levels, but the relevance of language is relative. Often race corresponds to class and education, a fact we work hard to contest. College hopefuls who come from underfunded and under-resourced districts still may have a linguistic disadvantage; as long as districts are geographically segregated and funding for schools is based on tax revenues, education will advantage those with the money to support the system.

The measures College Board is taking to revise the SAT are certainly important, but the extent to which they will affect racial bias and favoring  is questionable at best. If we are serious about addressing the racial rift in higher education, we must examine the structural and institutional biases sustaining Western society. The outcome of these biases has been inscribed in our citizens for generations through systems of economic inequality, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and capitalism. To use an analogy: profit and power are to white privilege as color and location are to disadvantage. It is ugly and uncomfortable to admit, requires self-reflection and revolution to tackle, and cannot be mitigated through restructuring a test or waiving a fee. Let’s not get distracted from the issues of racial bias and inequality in our education system by the excitement of an “easier” college entrance exam.

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