Deep-sixing the SATs: the misguided Left discards a valuable tool

March 6, 2021 • 12:15 pm

If you’re not a Yank, you may not know that not too long ago, the SATs (originally the Scholastic Aptitude Tests) were required of nearly every high-school student wanting to attend college. There were two sections: verbal and math, with the highest score being 800 on each. When I took them back in the Devonian (1966), nobody paid for the expensive test-preparation courses that many students take now. But as Andrew Sullivan writes in his Substack column this week (I urge you to subscribe), those prep courses don’t do much anyway, raising scores a paltry 5-20 points.

It’s a good piece this week, and there’s another longish piece on the new movie The Mauritianian, a dramatization of the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, imprisoned in Guantanamo for 14 years, and how he was tortured abused, and mistreated, but eventually won his freedom. The movie stars Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and that’s a good cast. I expect I’ll be watching it.

I like the reach and diverse interests of Andrew Sullivan, and find his site the most absorbing of all the Substack sites for demonized journalists (I subscribe to his and may to McWhorter’s). Click on the screenshot below to go to the SAT story:

Now many colleges have dropped the requirements for these standardized tests: the University of Chicago dropped the SAT and ACT (another standardized test) requirement in 2018, ostensibly to attract a wider pool of applicants. I’m not sure how that would work unless some qualified applicants couldn’t afford to take the tests (and I believe you can take them for free if you’re poor).  Other schools dropped them for a year or so because of the pandemic (you take them in a big room with lots of other students), and say they’ll “revisit” the requirement after the virus is gone.

But I don’t believe that for a minute. I’d be willing to bet that no school that dropped the SAT/ACT requirement “temporarily” will reinstate it. In fact, the tests are being dropped for another reason:  they show an achievement gap between races, and that is too meritocratic for the Woke. And yet, as Andrew argues—and I think he’s right—dropping the tests is actually harmful to minorities, for it eliminates the one way we can identify smart kids on a nearly level playing field. I wish colleges would be honest about why they’re dropping these requirements, but not a single one has told the truth.


Behind the Covid19 news, outside the 1619 wars, far more important than Dr Seuss, and much more far-reaching than dismantling the classics, a real line is being crossed in American education, and therefore American society as a whole. It’s the accelerating abandonment of standardized tests, the one objective measurement of students’ ability and potential in our society and culture: 77 percent of high school seniors sent in SAT scores in 2019-20; only 44 percent this year; and many schools want to keep it that way. What was initially a temporary suspension of tests because of Covid has become an opportunity to tear down the entire system.

The rationale for the SAT abolition movement is — surprise! — critical theory, which insists that any measurement that results in different outcomes among ethnic or racial groups is a priori racist. (Except for all cases when non-whites and non-Asians do better than whites or Asians, in which case, never mind.) In the words this week of Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York: “Standardized testing is a pillar of systemic racism.”

His argument is pure Kendi: the results are solely and exclusively what determines if a test is racist. Not the test itself; not evidence about its fairness or otherwise; not data about how it is constructed; not studies that examine its effects alongside every other way of measuring academic potential. Just the results.[JAC: Sullivan is right here about what Kendi would say, for he says that any inequity, or inequality in performance, among races is prima facie evidence of a racist policy.]

There is no countering this argument because it is not an argument. It is a threat. All it tells us is that the power of the term “white supremacist” will be ruthlessly deployed to shut down anyone who dares to argue that the SAT is, in fact, the least culturally biased of all measurements, the one thing wealthy kids cannot buy, and the most helpful tool in discovering the potential of poor, first-generation immigrant, black and Hispanic children, and rescuing them from the restrictions of class as well as race.

Sullivan then summarizes some misconceptions about the tests, and I’ll summarize his summary:

a.) The tests are still the best predictor of academic success in college (better than high-school grades) as well as of “life success” (e.g. $$).  And this predictive ability holds for all demographic groups, all minorities.

b.) The tests aren’t biased against any groups. They used to be somewhat biased against “cultures”, but a lot of work has gone into making them “standardized” with respect to culture and ethnicity. Note as well that the highest scorers are Asian-Americans—and not just the ones whose families have been here for generations. That belies the “cultural bias” narrative against people of color.

c.) Sullivan gives data showing that nearly half of students admitted on the basis of their SAT scores were poor or first-generation students (those who were the first in their family to go to college). As Sullivan says, “almost half of the SAT places were from minority or poor kids, who would otherwise have been hidden from view. Why on earth would you surrender that tool?”

d.) The ethnic-group inequalities highlighted by the tests begin much earlier than college.  As I’ve said incessantly, true equality demands expensive and yearslong efforts diverting money from the richer to the poorer. That offends many Americans’ sense of fairness, but is it fair to have permanent minority underclasses as a legacy of slavery and discrimination? Here’s Sullivan’s fix:

If you want to increase black and Latino representation in higher education, tackle the real problems, not the fake ones. Insist on higher standards from the very beginning in our failing schools; find ways to strengthen the stable nuclear family among blacks and Latinos, which is by far the most significant advantage Asian-American kids have; challenge the street culture that tells minority kids that reading and studying is “acting white”; make the SAT mandatory for everyone, make it easier to take, and make it free.

Those are good suggestions. The nuclear family issue, though, tends to bridle the Left. When I brought it up in a discussion with a liberal and antiracist friend about cultural differences that impede achievement (he was the principal of a largely black secondary school), he simply shut me down, saying “We’re not going to discuss that.” Now I don’t know offhand the hard evidence that two-parent families are better for the achievements of their kids, but I’m pretty sure it’s there. In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibrahm Kendi simply denies this effect.

We need to bring these tests back. In their desire to eliminate the meritocracy, the Woke have removed from colleges a tool to identify minority kids who deserve admission and could not have been singled out by grades alone.  It’s an example of how people have simply ignored the data in favor of their ideology, and, in a desire to be performative anti-racists, have hurt the very groups they are trying to help.  I’ll finish with Sullivan’s conclusions.

. . .many on the left want to get rid of the SAT altogether. They insist, against all the evidence, that the nuclear family is irrelevant to success. They are telling black and minority kids that things like perfectionism, hard work, and turning up on time are just “white supremacy culture,” and standards are racist. They are setting up black kids for failure, while telling them that failure is actually success, and then discriminating against Asian kids to cover up for the racial imbalance these policies create.  [JAC: He’s referring in part to the affirmative-action lawsuit filed by Asians against Harvard, which is still wending its way through the courts.]

Standardized testing has always been a progressive idea. It disrupts class and race, unseats entrenched privilege, and offers the poor and the marginalized their best chance of social mobility. And it seems to me deeply depressing that progressives would rather posture about “white supremacy” than do anything to actually help minorities progress in childhood, without condescending, neo-racist discrimination in their favor, long after the die has been cast.

98 thoughts on “Deep-sixing the SATs: the misguided Left discards a valuable tool

  1. The way to get rid of grade disparities is to get rid of grades.
    If I were a parent, it would be private schools and trade schools if I could afford them.

  2. That was one of Sullivan’s best.

    While the Left/Woke is certainly now using anti-racism to justify elimination of the SATs, they have been waging war against meritocracy for a long time. The SATs are just a very prominent example of the kind of meritocracy many on the Left hate. I understand their motivation. After all, why should kids who won the DNA lottery be given such an advantage in life? This resentment is also present in their dislike of capitalism and globalization. Why should companies and CEOs get rich at the expense of everyone else? It’s a primal conflict. Our sense of community and fairness is a desire that everyone be equal. But our desire to get ahead and optimize one’s life (or that of one’s group, company, industry) has inequality as a goal. This will always be a tension.

    1. It’s interesting that in Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist, which I just finished, he links capitalism and racism as “the conjoined twins”, which are inextricable. You can’t have one without the other, he says, and his message is to completely dismantle capitalism. That jibes with what you noted above.

      1. It amazes me that these intelligent people really want to “dismantle capitalism”. And replace it with what exactly? We don’t really hear much about that. Although racism is a big problem, replacing our whole economic system would be immensely disruptive. It seems more likely that such chaos would result in an increase in racism.

    2. why should kids who won the DNA lottery be given such an advantage in life?

      Except that the Woke are blank-slateists who don’t believe in genes. To them, if a kid shows aptitude on a SAT, it must be because they’ve been advantaged by better teaching or something else environmental. Hence, the correct thing to do is to then give the advantage to some other kid, to level things up.

      You’re right, they really do want equality of outcome, and if that means disadvantaging any kid who shows aptitude, then so be it.

      1. You are right. Nurture is part of it too. Obviously that is often affected by racism. On the other hand, the Woke know that intelligence is heritable, though many will deny it for political reasons.

      2. I agree but want to add :

        “ … it must be because they’ve been advantaged by better teaching or something else environmental …”

        Nobody will do well by just showing up – working hard is necessary, but not sufficient. Working hard has a lot to do with environment, family, neighbors, living conditions.

        Even the fantasies of Mozart, or Einstein, fall apart once one knows these individuals put in substantial work on their subjects from an early age.

    3. If you trace back the beginnings of feminism, gay rights, and even a concerted effort to abolish slavery, they go back to “whiteness” and the 19th century. Religion follows a similar trajectory.

      What has permitted them to be instantiated has been capitalism and modern science. I am gay and have spent a long time trying to understand why feminism, and its pendant, gay rights, came into existence in our time….and not centuries before.

      1. There’s a long, laudable trend against slotting things in predefined buckets. People in the buckets seem to invariably want out. It’s a process that moves at a certain rate. We will have to await further development of the Psychohistory field to tell us why the rate is what it is.

  3. The real offense of the SAT exams should not be overlooked. It is the lower scores they generate for that part of the population (of any ethnicity) who end up in college specializing in subjects like “Diversity and Multicultural Studies”, “Educational Policy”, or “Critical Cultural Theory”. The woke project is to free the west entirely from oppressive social constructs like “perfectionism”, “hard work”, and the idea of correct answers to math problems, to yield a utopia in which “cultural competence”, Diversity Statements, and the authority of journals like Social Text will be the only standards.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve heard this whole trend in academia referred to as ‘the revenge of the D+ math students’, and I think that has a *lot* to do with it. This is also one reason why the humanities are becoming more and more of a bad joke: the standards of argumentation that one sees in much work in these domains is at times mortifying, like being in the audience at an amateur theatrical production where most of the cast can’t remember their lines.

      And yes, the worst offenders are the people in ed schools, where you can get a Ph.D. for a thesis on the use of interactive whiteboards…

      1. “ … like being in the audience at an amateur theatrical production …”

        I’d use “*professional*” instead if amateur in this simile – weakness is expected in amateur productions.

      2. An apt analogy would be the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, recently made into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

        1. Oh wow that singer – what a risible, unbelievable tale… and I had that view for about 1/2 the movie, until the deep sorrow gripped me – a very good movie, made me THINK.

          Anyone into random movie recommendations on a completely different discussion thread, .. you know what to do.

      3. I like the humanities. I don’t think there should be any struggle between them and the sciences. However if they don’t want objective tests of skill, perhaps it’s time to amicably part ways on the issue.

        Notional solution: we ‘hard science’ types will concede/agree to your demand that no Example U. applicant need take the SATs or other merit/skill test to get in. And if you want to allow them to major in your [humanities] department, be our guest. For our part, the Example U. math department will require prospective majors to take math tests and get correct answers to major in math. Likewise the Engineering department, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology departments will develop their own tests for prospective majors. You go your way, we go ours.

        1. I’d be altogether content with that. But somehow I don’t think they would be. I think there’s a kind of corrosive science-envy built into the culture of those fields, a resentment of the idea that some disciplines have a special kind of connection to basic reality which makes it possible to say that this answer is correct and that one is incorrect. The insistence that science is a social construct just like (in that worldview) anything else directly reflects that jealousy.

          My own take on Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’ is that he failed to recognize and identify this asymmetry, this need within the humanities to progressively annex the sciences, despite the fact that, as Snow pointed out in a famous passage in his essay, for the most part the practitioners in these fields couldn’t define mass or identify the content of the third law of thermodynamics if their lives depended on it. The sciences would I think be happy to leave the humanities to their own methods, as long as our autonomous freedom in pursuing ours was recognized, but the very success of the sciences is, I think a sore point for the ‘comparative studies’ and ‘critical theory’ programs that now dominate the humanities in academia. That success is, at some level, an implicit reproach to the lack of anything in any of these latter fields comparable to what the great physicist John Wheeler called the ‘battle-tested results’ achieved in the physical, biological and computational sciences. So your live-an-let-live idea would probably make one half of academe happy, but do nothing to get the other half to leave us in peace.

        2. There used to be no standardized tests to get accepted as a student into most departments at German Universities (Abitur alone was your entrance card).
          The selection occurred in the first semesters, with language classes and exams a highly effective and subject-specific aptitude test in much of the humanities. If you wanted to study African studies in Germany (a friend of mine did for a while), off you went and learned at least two unrelated African languages (unrelated as in one Bantu and one Nilo-Saharan). For Islamic studies, you had to learn Arabic, Turkish and Persian, apart from being able to read literature assignments in English and French.
          Things are changing, though. Politicians want more graduates, and if only a third of the students who try pass an exam in whatever subject, then the exam has to change. Universities comply with any zeitgeist nonsense the politicians come up with. I just witnessed this happening in a STEM subject, too.

  4. We are not all equal. We deserve equal opportunity and treatment by others, especially government. But we are all different and deserve to be rewarded according to our talents and accomplishments. Our slogan of “created equal” is detrimental to the cause of equality, IMHO

  5. It’s an interesting subject to me, because we don’t have an SAT in Canada but we do have standardized provincial examinations in academic subjects. These test subject mastery rather than general aptitude. Are there any equivalent state-level examinations in the US?

    1. Not that I know of, though California was supposed to create its own statewide test to replace the SATs. I think that has died a quiet death. But I don’t get the point of provincial exams if they’re taken at the end of secondary school, because students in the provinces will often be going to schools in other provinces, and how can their scores be compared?

      1. There used to also be SAT Achievement Tests in Math, English, maybe History? Not all colleges required them. I also never took any of the SAT prep courses and I am totally against getting rid of the aptitude tests for the reasons stated by other readers. It’s APTITUDE.

        1. Weren’t those Advanced Placement tests? When I graduated from high school in 1970, most college-bound kids took the SAT which had two parts: math and english. It’s all fuzzy now.

          1. Paul, I really can’t remember. I think the Achievement parts of the SAT were different from the AP tests. It’s been a while.

          2. AP tests are subject matter related, but…
            -not every HS offers AP courses.
            -not every HS student takes them when they are offered
            -HS students taking an AP course don’t have to take the exam
            -HS students taking the course and the exam don’t have to report the results to the schools they apply to.

            In my old fogey days, for these reasons the schools I applied to didn’t use them for entrance criteria. Instead, they used them to place freshman in the correct ‘intro’ classes. So my top AP math score didn’t get me in to my school, but it let me skip the first year of calc and go right into the “201” level.

            1. Yes, I think that was true when I was getting into college as well. My high school did have AP classes and I took them. On paper, my college used them to decide whether you could skip some very introductory class in each subject. I remember thinking that taking AP classes and the AP exams didn’t buy much when I got to college. On the other hand, one doesn’t get to run the experiment both ways (AP vs no AP) and compare results. Taking AP classes probably meant I could spend more brain time in college on other subjects for which I was less prepared.

              1. My various AP courses pushed me ahead 11 credits! That was exceptionally useful as I had no interest in taking more English (it got me out of that requirement) and I was able to skip a year of math classes whose content would’ve probably bored me to tears.

      2. There’s a couple things. Leaving your home province to attend university is not a cultural touchstone here in Canada like it is in the US. It certainly happens, but I believe the percentage of university students that stay close to home is much higher than in America.

        Second, to some extent it presents a counterfactual to the argument for standardized testing. There isn’t an epidemic of Canadian university students flunking out of schools outside their own province, which suggests that the value of an objective comparison is not clear cut.

        And I suppose a third factor is that we simply don’t have as big a difference in quality of elementary and secondary education from place to place. Our best schools might lag America’s best, but I’d bet that our worst would probably rank about average in the US. Our system is reasonably well funded and does not rely on property taxes, so does not favor wealthy areas. Our teachers are well paid, and held in much higher regard societally than in the US. Ultimately, we are closer to the ideal of giving kids an equal opportunity to succeed. (Some notable failures with respect to our indigenous populations notwithstanding.)

        1. As is so often the case, Canada does it better.

          I don’t know that I agree that American students are more likely to go to college outside their home state/province than in Canada. Here in California, most high school students go to college nearby as far as I know. Of course, this is anecdotal. It is also due to CA having plenty of good colleges. What’s the basis for your impression?

        2. As an American (and recently naturalized Canuck) who’s lived in Canada for many years, I agree with most of your assertions. One thing I prefer about American universities is the fact that you usually don’t have to declare your major until the end of Sophomore (2nd) year and generally take a broader range of course in your first two years, and thus get a broader education. Things may have changed since “my day”.

        1. New York State was considering getting rid of its Regents Exams pre-pandemic, but the Biden administration, as a means of assessing the effects of the pandemic on education, has asked (?ordered) states to give their regular standardized exams; so the Regents Exams are still on, thanks to the pandemic. (Coverage here.)

          When I was a high school student in NY (1970s), passing Regents Exams was required to get a “Regents Diploma”, but not required to graduate; college-bound students would aim to get the Regents Diploma (a bit like British GSE vs.A-levels, I think). I’m not sure what the system is like now.


    2. The GRE (Graduate Record Exam) has a general test which is like the SAT, plus subject matter tests in Biology, Chemistry, English Lit., Math, Physics, and Psychology.

      These tests, however, are for college majors in those subjects who want to get into a masters or Ph.D. program, not high school students applying for college.

      1. I took the French GRE and after 4 years of reading umpteen classics in French (something like 20 17th century plays) and writing umpteen short and long papers in French, one of the dumb and typical GRE questions I still remember was “Which is the LEAST navigable (French) river (a choice of 4). I kid you not. This is one reason I became a math teacher instead of doing graduate work in French. Some of the other GREs might have made more sense.

        1. The chemistry GRE was extremely tough, as it covered all the various subdisciplines and no student really learns all of them well enough to count as a ‘major’ in them.

          IIRC, the year before I took them you could misse a third of the question and still rank within the top 10% of scorers. That’s a tough exam. Still, the relative ranking is the point, so it doesn’t matter what your objective score is.

          1. I’m sure the chemistry GRE would be a lot more meaningful than the French one (I went on to take maybe 8 chem courses (many hours of quant analysis labs.. and organic…One exam had us identify the structure of juvenile insect hormone, but that’s another story .). I’ve run into French majors from other colleges who read and wrote almost everything in English! They probably did the geography, too. My Stanford French major classmates and I averaged I think in the 50th percentile on the French GRE😖Not a well-designed test.

  6. I probably wouldn’t have been able to GO to university–certainly not the one I went to–if not for the SAT. Scholarships and other programs earned partly based on such scores have allowed many people from blue-collar places like where I grew up to develop careers their parents couldn’t possibly have had. “Good grades” in my high school were hard to assess – fewer than 4% of students in each starting class ever got any kind of college degree, irrespective of skin pigment or ethnicity, so having above average grades could not always be used to evaluate a student on any kind of more general level; the curve was just too low. But the SAT (and ACT), as noted above, is something that is generalized and reasonably objective whether you come from a wealthy suburb or you come from a rapidly and terminally declining factory town in a region whose industry is moribund.

  7. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

    That quote sums up Kendi fairly concisely.

  8. When I was going to school, way back in the 50s & 60s in Iowa they had the Iowa Basic Skills Test. We had to take them every few years, I don’t recall exactly when but they were set up for everyone to take. Maybe after first or second grade, then fourth grade and maybe sixth. I do not know when they may have stopped those test but they use to be a big deal. They were in sections and covered the main subjects. Does anyone else remember this type of test during school? They may have used these tests to see if the students were progressing as they expected. Maybe they used them to hold kids back a grade as well, I am not sure.

    1. I remember taking the Iowa Basic Skills test. I remember it because I lived in New York State & I always wondered why we were taking an Iowa test. I enjoyed taking these tests, they were a break from the regular school routine.

      1. Interesting. I asked my wife who went to school in Kansas and she also took the Iowa Basic Skills Test. That thing really got around I guess. I asked my sister to check and see if she knows when they stopped that. I have a feeling they must have stopped it years ago.

        1. When I went to The American School in London for grades 9 and 10, they suddenly decided to give us the NY State Regents Test for our final exam in history in 10th grade. There was a huge emphasis on African geography and history on this test, none of which we had covered. Can’t remember quite how the teacher decided to grade it…It was otherwise an excellent school, especially for Math and English.

  9. Related to entrance exams, this essay in Tablet is fantastic detailing how the centuries old rank anti-Semitism in Russia permeated Soviet society, and in this case in Soviet efforts to derail the careers of promising Jewish STEM students.

    Its title comes from the “Coffin” math problems given to Jewish students which were so difficult, that it was expected that their difficulty would bury their performance and hopes. And there is a link in the essay that shows you some of these “coffin” problems.

    “Coffin Problems
    How Soviet anti-Semitism buried Jewish scientists”

    1. Like the “literacy tests” of the Jim Crow south, prior to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, used (along with poll taxes) to prevent black folk from exercising the voting franchise, sometimes administered in foreign languages where needed to accomplish that end. As one would-be voter quipped bitterly upon being handed such a test, “I can’t read it, but I know what it says: No Negroes will be voting in this district again this year.”

      1. The way I heard that gag, he is given a copy of the Yiddish paper, The Forward, and says, “Yeah, I can read it. It says shvartzes don’t vote here.” Shvartze is a possibly derogatory Yiddish word for a black person.

        1. You can count that as a definite in the derogatory-term department. Pretty sure it’s been that way for at least a couple generations now.

          1. I will take your word for that. My aunts used it simply to mean Negro, and Leo Rosten in 1968 gives no indication that it is derogatory. I suspect it is now, though. Off task, but it reminds me that my father (who went to City College) was a social worker before the War – he once told me that his clients used sheenie matter-of-factly and meant nothing by it. Now, I fear, we would write the s-word. Connotations change.

            1. The way my buddies from Brooklyn broke it down for me, among first-generation, native-Yiddish-speaking immigrants, it had no pejorative connotation, but simply meant the color “black.” And maybe not much more of a negative connotation for their children, who grew up hearing it in the home. But for the generations that followed, it became something of a slur against black folk.

              Is it as bad as the n-word? Oh, hell no. Probably not even as bad as the Italian-American “titsun” or “moulinyan.” But that’s the ballpark in which you’ll find it.

          2. Needless to say, “shwartze” simply means black in Yiddish. If capitalized, it corresponds to the currently favored “Black” in English. Yes, fashions do

            1. Mebbe so, Jon, but I’d caution against using it as a form of direct address for a black dude on the streets where Bed-Stuy meets Crown Heights.

              1. These subjects always take me back to a Jewish joke, current during my childhood in the Pleistocene Epoch. A Jewish New Yorker on the subway is fascinated to see that an elderly African-American sitting opposite him is perusing the פֿאָרווערטס, the Yiddish daily Newspaper. Finally, the Jewish guy cannot restrain himself further, and says, “Excuse me sir, but I see you are reading the Forverts there. Are you Jewish?” The old guy looks up wearily at him and replies: “Dus ich darf vi a loch in kop ” .

              2. Merilee, that translation sounds more or less correct but you skipped the ‘vi’ (like): like a hole in my head

            2. The word ‘Negroe’ is basically Portugese or Spanish ‘negro’, meaning exactly the same: ‘black’.
              Also a word one would not use anymore.

          3. “Schwarze” used to be an unpolite word in Germany, too, but nowadays, as a literal translation of the now seemingly preferred Black in the US, it has come back into favor. Our major public news outlet, Tagesschau, has “der Schwarze XY” in US-related news regularly now, and I cringe every time.

  10. The original purpose of the SAT, according to the reporter Nicholas Lemann, was to keep Jewish students out of the Ivy League. Similarly, I recall taking a test for what I think was called a Merit Scholarship in 1958. To keep Jewish students or New Yorkers or whoever from getting too many of the scholarships, they invented “geographical diversity.” My score would have gotten me the scholarship in the southwest, but not in New York. That seemed defensible to me (still does), and I do not see why the SAT cannot be used the same way.

    1. In those days, the Ivies had a “quota system” that severely limited the eligibility of Jewish and Catholic students. It was because of this quota system that many of those who would go on to become the so-called “New York Intellectuals” were educated at City College (which resultantly became known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat”).

    2. National Merit Scholarships were given on the basis of PSAT scores, a standardized Pre-SAT taken in the 9th or 10th grade.

      1. So it was 1956. I am showing my age. That means you knew for 2 years that you would be getting the scholarship (or not)? Seems odd.

        1. Can’t remember in which grade I took the National Merit test. I didn’t get the scholarship, but got the next level down (98th percentile, or something? I got a certificate which I could brag about on college admissions.)

            1. Yes, Rita, you’re right! Good memory! I “commend” you😻I might have my certificate buried in one of my cupboards.

      2. Circa 1973, PSATs were usually taken around 11th grade. Scoring well made a student eligible for various scholarships, but you needed to fulfill other criteria (e.g., a relative had to belong to an organization that sponsored a scholarship). The PSATs were also used as a recruiting tool. I was heavily recruited by Michigan State based on the PSAT, but to get one of their few full-ride scholarships, there was a further test you had to take. (I didn’t get one of these, but they continued recruiting me). My daughter was recruited by MSU in the 2000s, also on the basis of national standardized test scores, so MSU has (or had) recruited high-scoring out-of-state students for decades.


        1. Indeed, MSU successfully recruited me based on PSAT, in 1977. The full-ride scholarship test was outrageously difficult, full of esoteric knowledge questions about architecture and geology and the like. I didn’t get one! But they gave me enough to approximate the in-state tuition.

  11. In my high school years the SAT was free. It was available to take several times a year at various schools in the district, not necessarily your own. I’ve kids in high school now and it is still free.

    You can pay to take it for various reasons. We paid to have our kids take it when they were in middle school as part of some sort of program that, with sufficient scores, made them eligible for some specialized summer programs at a University.

    1. Just because you don’t pay doesn’t mean it’s free. Somebody, likely your school district, is paying for that test. This is not true for all districts, and you can guess how access correlates with wealth.

  12. Provided that they are genuinely administered in a just manner and that there are no hidden criteria, admission tests should be fairer than other mechanisms for deciding student placement.

    However, my own experience in the UK wasn’t too good. The education system here used to have the “Eleven-plus” test to allocate secondary school places from age 11, hence the name. (In fact, the system still exists in Kent where I grew up.)

    I failed the test and my parents were surprised and disappointed, but dutifully visited the nearest “secondary modern” school that I would be likely to attend. On learning that English lessons would be conducted orally for the first two years “because some of our intake can’t read or write” my shocked mother rang the local education authority to appeal against the test result. (I could read and write before starting nursery.) She was told that “well, we have to fit the children from the villages in wherever we can”, which was red rag to a bull.

    Eventually, an educational psychologist was sent to assess me and I was upgraded to a “selective/grammar” school. Despite my “weak” maths having been cited as one of the reasons for my initial failure, I gained the top mark out of all the students (about 100?) in the exam at the end of my first year there. (To be clear, I had no extra tuition and I’m no genius – I’m just saying that either the eleven-plus system was pretty rubbish or my mother was lied to when she made her initial appeal.) And although the eleven-plus system supposedly ranked pupils based on their test results, the appeals process revealed that teachers’ comments were also a factor. Proximity to the school, and the attendance of older siblings, also seemed to play a part in the admissions process and some of my peers at grammar school needed remedial lessons in English. (Not, of course, the very few “minority” students at the school, who nevertheless had to suffer casual racism, including from our teachers – but that’s another story.)

  13. I’ve worked as a test prep tutor for years, serving both low-income minority children and some of the most privileged students in the country. Test prep might not matter on average, but elite test prep certainly makes a big difference. The biggest indicator of SAT performance (next to parental income) is how many times you’ve taken the test. The difference between the two populations of students I’ve served is not how smart they are on average. They differ wildly in how many resources they throw at these tests. Affluent students have a team of professionals including their parents training them on a daily basis to improve their scores. They take practice tests CONSTANTLY as if they were training for a piano recital or an Olympic event. Affluent students I’ve worked with typically see score gains of 100 points. For the non-affluent, there simply isn’t the same level of follow up, i.e. they don’t constantly take tests over a period of months, so I just don’t know how much the (much more meager) tutoring I’ve given them helps.

    The non-affluent population of students differ mainly in their familiarity with the test.. But they are not appreciably worse at the test during our first lesson together. The difference is, with poorer students, our first lesson is often also our last, and might be the last time they get any SAT practice until the actual test day.

    I won’t argue that abolishing the SAT is not a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it’s better than the status quo. Also, if any schools actually “abolished” it, that’s news to me. AFAIK, most schools still accept SAT scores, but they’ve stopped requiring them. “Woke” as I am, I could get behind the SAT as a tool for college admissions if it were redesigned to actually fit its alleged purpose: measuring aptitude of skills necessary for college. If instead of scores, the test only returned “ready for college” or “not ready”; if they removed the time limits for all students (not just for those from affluent schools with savvy guidance counselors who help them claim learning disabilities); if they designed questions to fairly test skills and not intentionally lead students astray with trap “distractor” answers, then I think it might be a useful tool for a higher education system that serves the interests of the general public. As it stands, it’s a part of the college-industrial complex where affluent privileged students and affluent privileged colleges jockey for each other.

    The easiest way to make the SAT useful is to just remove the time limit, or even to make it more reasonable, or to offer the same time extensions to all students that they offer to students with learning disabilities. That will never happen because the purpose of the test ISN’T to measure aptitude as relevant to college performance. The purpose is to maximally stratify students, by whatever means necessary. If you remove the time limit, there is just no way to use the test like the privilege filter it is now. The concepts it tests are just too basic, and too easy to master. An overwhelming number of students would get perfect scores.

    The argument that this helps minorities belies a deeply held belief in the mythical meritocracy. It’s basically saying that higher education is for all rich white kids, and minorities who are intellectual freaks of nature. The test is currently used to exclude millions of underprivileged students who would thrive and benefit enormously from a college education.

    1. Perhaps playing devil’s advocate: if you take away the time limits wouldn’t you take away the ability to measure how “quick on the draw” the kids are mentally. Would you want to pay an hourly rate to a lawyer who takes three times as long to prepare your case?

      1. There are certain careers where being able to think quickly matters. Our college admission system acts as if those were the only careers. Having taught the test for years, I can’t stress enough how insane the time pressure is. It’s not a reasonable amount of time. It’s a high stakes, four hour sprint. I encourage you to take a practice one for yourself and see what I mean, but then again I don’t because the test is brutal. 🙂

        As for the lawyer question, if I were on death row, I probably wouldn’t mind paying three times as much for the most effective lawyer. Incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell makes this point infinitely more elegantly than I in a podcast episode he did on the LSAT (

        I’d also point out that these things don’t really scale like you’re implying. Answering 58 math questions in 80 minutes and filing a legal briefing in 1 month are fundamentally different things despite the fact that both are measured in units of time. I wouldn’t be comfortable claiming that the former predicted the latter at all. They seem like completely different cognitive skills. Only the former gets at the concept of “time management” as grown-ups actually mean it.

        1. Believe me, I have taken the tests. I don’t mean to brag,but I often finished early. I think with these tests you either know the answer or you don’t. There’s not a whole lot of figuring stuff out.But then it’s been a long time since I’ve taken them. I hear you, though, on not all jobs needing the speed.

          1. If you finished early with a perfect score, kudos to you; you’re a very exceptional student. If not, consider why you missed points on a multiple choice test confined in its content to basic principles in math, reading comprehension, and grammar even though it was extremely important to your future (I’m assuming you’re referring back to your high school days). I’d wager you finished early by minutes, not tens of minutes. I’d further wager that you internalized the required pace, plus or minus a few seconds per question and basically optimized your score given the time pressure. You’re right that there isn’t a whole lot of figuring stuff out, but there sure are a lot of traps you can fall into if you’re trying to go fast instead of carefully. The other way to put “there isn’t a whole lot to figure out” is “it’s easy to master the trivial concepts the test covers”. So why is there such a range of scores?

            My final wager is that if I asked you to try for a perfect score and gave you a day to do it, you could. And if you couldn’t, you could spend a couple hours with me or anyone else who’s studied the test to point out a few simple strategies and a few common traps the test sets, and you’d then be able to.

            Or you could train like that for months and get a nearly perfect score even with the time pressure, which is the very expensive project that the United States’s most elite high school students are engaged in.

        2. On the other hand, the SAT is supposed to test whether you are ready for college, not a particular career. As I remember it, college was full of time-limited quizzes and exams so taking a time-limited test to get in makes sense. This is also why organizations hiring college graduates have to do their own tests. Having a degree and GPA from a certain college is not wholly indicative of future success. I have hired many computer programmers with good degrees on paper but been quite unimpressed by their actual work. As with most professions, it takes a certain combination of talents that neither SAT scores or degrees measures very accurately.

          1. That was not a salient part of my college experience. Personally, I did great on the SAT, went to a top school and majored in biology. I had many hard classes and certainly struggled in places, but nothing I encountered in my 4 years there reminded me of the SAT in the slightest.

            There is a difference between having a time limit or deadline and a test in which the main thing that is difficult about it is the time limit. I have designed tests for college science classes and I currently make make imitation ACT science passages and questions as well, and I can assure you the goals behind those tasks are completely different. For college tests, you are trying to make questions that fairly assesses student understanding of concepts, and you are trying to estimate how many questions students could reasonably answer in the time allotted. Basically, the goal is to design a test that accurately captures student understanding of the relevant material. For the ACT, you basically assume all students have mastered the concepts, because they are frankly pretty basic, so you intentionally make figures and passages more confusing to achieve the appropriate difficulty for each question.

            The SAT is a measurement of how good students are at taking the SAT. The more you study how the sausage is made, the harder it is to make stronger claims than that.

            As for organizations running their own tests, I’d be pretty shocked if those tests were anything like the SAT, unless they were hiring SAT tutors. Far more typical is for them to ask to see past relevant work, or to have applicants do a sample task that is same thing they’d be doing for the job.

    2. The biggest indicator of SAT performance (next to parental income) is how many times you’ve taken the test.

      This I believe. I raised my own score by ~250 points by going down to the local library, checking out books containing the past years’ tests, and “taking” them at home. I think I must’ve taken 5-10 practice tests in the several months between first official try and second official try.

      Affluent students have a team of professionals including their parents training them on a daily basis to improve their scores.

      The ‘team of professionals’ is unnecessary – see above. Nor is a lot of money necessary – again, see above. Though I WILL agree the student’s family must be affluent enough to afford them the free time to do what I did.

      The test’s been electronic for decades now. Do you know, do they still make past year’s tests available for free or minimum charge? I.e. can you download them from somewhere? I would hate to think that they have gone from the fairly egalitarian ‘check it out of the library’ to ‘you must take this $500 course to gain access to them.’

      1. Not sure I agree about the team of professionals being unnecessary, though I might be biased because it pays my bills. In a sense you’re right: why pay a personal trainer when you can theoretically workout for free and see huge gains in your personal fitness? Yet for some reason, when Hollywood stars are cast in that big shirtless action flick role, they seldom rely on personal grit to sculpt their bodies. They call the professionals for help.

        I think a lot of the reasoning I’m seeing here suffers from relying too strongly on personal experience without properly acknowledging the large number of students involved in this game, and the extremely different material realities they come from. Compared to your peers defined narrowly, who all were in the same geometry class as you in 1975, and all came from families that had similar incomes and probalby spoke the same language, the test might say something about your relative aptitude, or, more likely, how seriously you devoted yourself to the admissions process. It falls apart when applied to a group as diverse as a typical cohort of college applicants.

        I’m not sure I know what you mean about it being electronic. You can easily find past tests as PDFs online, but that is it. The only way to take an SAT is in person, with pencil in hand and no internet connected devices on your person.

        The college board did offer Advanced Placement tests online last spring as an emergency response to COVID (i.e. they didn’t want to lose the money), but by all accounts that was kind of a sh*tshow, if you’ll forgive an industry term.

        1. Largely agree. The problem is what will replace the SAT, because so many US Universities are highly selective and the less selective have less renown, so selection there will be, and it could be even worse for the non-rich as the SAT.

    3. Thanks for the details – this fits with my experience in instructional design. The idea of an aptitude test is great – but psychometricians don’t seem to really yet know how to measure it reliably. In their defense, measurement is a really tricky subject.

    4. This is a difficult issue. My first reaction to what you’re saying here is that poor kids should be given the same opportunity to do test prep as rich kids. But that sounds like a recipe for an escalating arms race. The rich kids’ parents will invest in even more test prep. On the other hand, I’ve always felt that the very existence of test prep creates the unfairness. Finally, test prep seems to prepare kids for getting a better score but at the cost of the SAT testing for success in college and life. It makes kids better test takers but that’s not really education’s, or society’s, goal.

      1. Or we should ditch the whole thing, focus on determining college readiness in a binary sense, admit that top schools have far more qualified applicants than spaces, and use a lottery system for most of them, or have schools explicitly define their objectives and criteria in creating the student body.

        If you are satisfied with the SAT as a good predictor of success in college and life, then we can probably save the world a ton of money by just having colleges select students based on parental income, see

        I don’t see any point in trying to prop up this system because it doesn’t do the thing it claims to do. That said, I think there are definitely diminishing returns in regards to test prep. The poor would benefit far more than the rich from the test prep that only the rich can afford, I think. So you might be on to something there.

  14. Couple thoughts :

    • “Scholastic Aptitude Test” as advertised is measuring scholastic – that is, academic – aptitude – and that is, … what? It sounds like if a student takes an exam COLD, randomly, while in school at some grade, the result should show with some certainty, the aptitude… but I’m thinking “aptitude” is not clearly defined and even if it was, it is only showing genuine aptitude for students *who never prepared for the test*, relying on their regular background only. That can be true only for a small fraction of students now – precisely the ones who do not have substantial support available. That is not an argument against families and students who can and want to invest in their future, but is isn’t aptitude, I’d argue.

    • I read somewhere that exams were invented at Cambridge, not very long ago – but I haven’t found any internet material to back that up.

    1. You could eliminate most bias by bypassing schools: just use IQ tests plus entrance exams. Of course such a radical approach would make most people very uncomfortable.

      1. That would be (another) gross abuse of the IQ test. That’s not what it’s designed for and not how anybody outside of the US military in the 50’s uses it. You’re also assuming the IQ test somehow escapes all the problems of bias that you assume the SAT has. Why would an IQ test be any better?

        Also, I don’t follow your logic on how “bypassing schools” helps, and what that even means. The SAT is administered by the College Board, an independent company, so aren’t they already “bypassed”?

    2. I think they ditched “aptitude” and replace it with “achievement” some time ago, in response to critiques much like yours. Problem solved, right? /s

  15. As a former Kaplan Curriculum Director and test prep tutor with 25+ years of experience, I couldn’t resist contributing here.
    Defending standardized tests is a brave position in today’s climate. Still, there’s a case for a “common measuring stick.” People go to different schools and take different classes, but everyone takes the same SAT or ACT. The exact questions differ, but the tests measure the same skills in the same way. This gives people from all backgrounds a chance to demonstrate their ability.

    Also, if we banned all these tests, schools would still need to make admissions decisions, and a test-free environment would put even more emphasis on grades. And while grades should be relevant, too many students endure a compliance/punishment style of education that marches them through worksheets all day and docks them points when they don’t respond exactly on time. A good test would be a counterweight to a system that overemphasizes busy work and undervalues critical and creative thought.

    That being said, the current SAT and ACT are not the best examples of a counterbalancing test. They are designed to test achievement, and not aptitude. The idea is to measure the exact skills you were taught in school, in the same way. This serves the “common measuring stick” purpose but not the “counterweight” purpose. We already know their grades, so I’d recommend a test that measures different things such as critical thinking, which is notably absent in today’s tests. But don’t get me started.

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