Standardized Tests Magnify and Reflect Inequality

When the college admissions scandal (which desperately needs a catchy nickname) first hit, I was worried that the sheer outrageousness of the fraud would distract us from the perfectly legal things that powerful people do in order to tilt the playing field in favor of their children. But that’s not what’s happening. Somehow, this extreme example of corruption has provoked a larger discussion about educational inequality. To our credit, we’re moving past our addiction to offense and our fascination with the celebrities involved and opening up an honest discussion. That’s a good thing, because as infuriating as the alleged behavior is, the effects of that behavior are a rounding error compared to the unfairness of the college admissions process that we live with every day.

Among the aspects of that process that have come under new scrutiny are standardized tests and test preparation, and for good reason. One of the dark jokes in test preparation is that you could get rid of the SAT and ACT if you simply allowed students to submit their parents’ tax returns instead, because you’d get pretty much the same result and save everyone a lot of time. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the actual data is not promising, either. There’s definitely a connection between family income and SAT/ACT scores,[1] and so it’s reasonable to ask whether rich parents give their kids an unfair advantage by enrolling them in pricey test preparation courses and hiring expensive private tutors. I’m one of those expensive private tutors, and even though I’m not exactly a disinterested observer here, I hope my experiences will provide a helpful perspective on the controversy.

Why Do Standardized Tests Exist?

The first question worth asking is whether we need standardized tests at all given what we know about their current tendency to reinforce economic as well as racial[2] inequality. The defense goes something like this: everyone knows that these tests don’t measure everything important, they do measure some important things, and whereas high schools are all different, we know that these tests measure pretty much the same things every time. Also, the recent scandal aside, it’s pretty hard to cheat on these things. Sure, there are drawbacks, but every other means of comparison is imperfect, too. Grade inflation makes grades less relevant. Admission essays could be written by the parents or professional editors. So although many colleges are moving away from standardized tests,[3] many more are convinced that they are useful in predicting who will succeed in college.

Besides, there’s no reason that standardized tests have to deepen inequality. Originally, the SAT was designed to fight inequality by giving kids from poor areas a chance to show that they had the same skills that the rich kids did.[4] Overall, though, it hasn’t worked out that way, because SAT and ACT reflect the inequality in our society, and to some extent they magnify that inequality as well.

Reflecting Inequality

Ask yourself, would even a perfect college admissions test lead to perfectly equal outcomes? Probably not. After all, these tests come pretty late in the game, long after many of the advantages of wealth have already expressed their influence. Imagine the cumulative results of better-funded schools, years of extra help, summer enrichment programs, greater physical security, and dozens of other benefits. These things add up. Given how unequal society is, it would be a miracle if SAT and ACT scores magically evened everything out. They don’t, but this may be evidence that the tests reflect inequality rather than cause it.

Magnifying Inequality

Then again, it doesn’t have to be either/or. We might concede that rich kids come to the SAT and ACT with tangible advantages and still argue that these tests amplify those advantages. There’s something to that, since rich people can afford courses that cost close to $1000 as well as tutors such as, well, me. Although I feel as though I should acknowledge my bias with every sentence, I think the truth is more nuanced: As someone who wrote those courses, I can say that a lot of them are pretty good. As someone who has personally taught thousands of people how to succeed on these things, I can say that having a real expert on your side can make a difference. Still, I’d argue that the ability to pay for people like me is not a big factor in educational inequality, for these reasons:

1. It’s not magic. Spending money doesn’t automatically raise your score, and more expensive test prep isn’t necessarily better.

2. It’s not comprehensive. Test prep isn’t designed to make up for profound and extensive content weaknesses. Most of my engagements are less than 10 hours, and that’s not enough to teach all of high school math and get people with weak reading skills up to college readiness.

3. Inexpensive test prep options are actually pretty good. For less than $50, you can get advice about as good as that provided by most tutors. Khan Academy offers free SAT prep.[5] ACT Academy[6] offers pretty good free resources, and those last two options have a level of personalization that the books (and even some of the pricey courses) don’t.

4. The most-disadvantaged kids often have challenges that hiring tutors can’t solve. Adding test preparation to an already-busy schedule requires parental support, a good place to study, and an overall environment that reinforces the fact that test prep is worth it.

This last point is controversial, but it’s real. Not every problem that is caused by money can be solved by money. Throughout my career, I’ve seen efforts to provide extremely high-quality test prep to the most disadvantaged kids fail, and it’s heartbreaking every time it happens, especially when you’re the one trying to make it work. Kids who have no experience with test prep or private tutors need a lot of support to make the most of the experience, and the best advice in the world doesn’t help you if you don’t take it. I’m not blaming the kids here; I’m just saying that by the time they could get to someone like me, access to someone with my skill isn’t the biggest thing standing in their way. This is true across the board, but especially for the most-disadvantaged kids that we’re concerned about the most.

More Important Factors Influencing Inequality

We know that educational inequality exists, and while some of the influence of money is baked in by the time college admissions rolls around, money finds new ways to intrude into the process during the testing process. I’ve argued that test prep isn’t the worst offender in this regard, but I have some other nominees:

The subject matter tested: While the testmakers represent their product as a neutral measurement of the skills one is supposed to acquire in high school, choosing what to measure is a value-laden judgment with real consequences. While the SAT and the ACT are different, both are essentially achievement tests, designed to measure curriculum-related skills. Arguably, this format magnifies the consequences of school inequality and punishes people who had the misfortune of attending schools that taught different things.

Achievement tests are also easier to prepare for. A test of abstract reasoning skills might (and probably should be) more relevant for college. Add harder vocabulary questions, and you get a test that’s much harder to prepare for as well.

Granted, this test (which is pretty similar to the old SAT) would not measure the exact skills taught in school, but why should it, especially when we already have their grades? A test of different skills would be more likely to reward people who didn’t fit in at their high school instead of replicating those high school results in college admissions. Why not test critical thinking and the skills that are acquired over a lifetime of reading challenging texts? Wouldn’t that give disadvantaged people a better chance to compete?

The remediation vortex: As we rethink what’s truly worth testing, we have to look at the humanitarian crisis that is our current remedial education system,[7] a system in which disadvantaged people disproportionately participate. If someone demanded that we install a system in which millions of people, many of whom are especially vulnerable, take on debt to pay for classes that they don’t pass and give them no credit, we would resist. But that’s what we have. Efforts to fix this often involve making the classes better, or free, which sounds perfectly reasonable. However, we should also take a hard look at what we consider to be required for college readiness. I’m looking at you, College Algebra. While it’s easy to argue that concepts such as percents, ratios, averages, and so on are really necessary to understand the world, it would be much harder to make a practical case for the necessity of polynomial functions and matrices. Is there any good argument for imprisoning potential social workers who can’t master the concept of rational zeroes?

Accommodations abuse: Testing accommodations have “progressed” from being an uncontroversial effort to ensure fairness to another way to game the system. Many disabilities are of course real. No decent person could resent large print, small-group testing for those with severe anxiety, braille versions of tests, and so on. Unfortunately, some people have figured out how to get extra time for conditions that they don’t have or that shouldn’t justify an accommodation. And again, while the typical accommodations applicant is perfectly legitimate, the privileged among us can find the doctors who (honestly or not) would certify virtually anyone with ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, or something else that will entitle them to extra time. Even worse, this kind of abuse creates skepticism for people with legitimate claims. Just as the abuse of the “emotional support animal” caused problems for people who need guide dogs, accommodations abuse creates skepticism for people who just want to be able to compete fairly.

Diploma mills: Space limitations prevents a more complete discussion of this topic, so suffice it to say that there is ample cause for intervention when overpriced programs of questionable quality are marketing aggressively to vulnerable populations.

Legacy admissions: If we wanted to pick one practice that most clearly involves maintaining inequality through the generations, this would be it.

Some Last Words of Hope

Although the obstacles of economic inequality are daunting, they are not insurmountable. The skills that open up the doors of educational opportunity can be learned, and there may be low-cost ways to duplicate some of the benefits of wealth, such as focusing on the number of words encountered in the home.[8] Low-cost test prep can be very effective if we give it a chance. But we need to take the challenge seriously and make test readiness a priority without letting it run our lives. People like me have a special obligation in that regard, and I’ll try to do my part to communicate the facts about the tests and how to prepare for them. I hope this essay is a good step in that direction.

[1] (Note that this data corresponded to an earlier version of the SAT, but there is no strong reason to believe that the current version would be different in this respect.) [2] [3] [4] See Nicolas Lemann, The Big Test for a useful account of the SAT’s early days. [5] [6] [7] [8]

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