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The SAT: The promise of meritocracy? 

As of Feb. 3, Carleton has closed the door on applications for the class of 2027. Applicants numbered more than 6,000. Most were in the top 10% of their class, about 20% identified as BIPOC and 80% indicated that they would apply for financial aid. Yet one number in particular jumped out: 54% of students elected not to include standardized test scores in their application. 

What will it mean for Carleton that less than half of the first-year class evaded the fever dream of no. 2 pencils and scantron sheets that is the standardized test? Academics and others have wrestled with this question and its effects on higher education today, but standardized testing has much deeper roots in American history than one might expect: gnarled roots of institutional racism, science and the American dream leading all the way back to the test’s founders. 

Developed in 1917 during World War I, Army Alpha was the first attempt to measure intelligence on a massive scale — over 1.5 million recruits took the exam throughout the war. Army Alpha was an IQ test that measured verbal and numerical ability. Commanders used it to determine a recruit’s leadership potential and unit placement. The test included the first use of analogy, number-completion and synonym and antonym questions — still characteristics of standardized tests to this day.  

In 1923, Carl Brigham, one of the psychologists who developed Army Alpha, published “A Study of American Intelligence.” The book detailed by race the results of Army Alpha tests administered to 116,000 soldiers. In doing so, the book also revealed Brigham’s eugenicist beliefs. 

Brigham outlines his racial hierarchy of intelligence in a 1997 article from “The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.” He believed that, due to genetic differences, intelligence declined the closer an ethnic group lived to the equator. He concluded that “Nordics” were the most intelligent, followed by “Alpines,” who were in turn smarter than “Mediterraneans.” All of whom were more intelligent than the “Negro.” Brigham’s book went on to blame “the importation of the Negro” for a decline in American intelligence. 

Around 1923, Brigham introduced the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a version of Army Alpha adapted for college admissions. The new SAT shared Army Alpha’s racialized roots as well as the goal of measuring pure intelligence, differentiating it from previous tests which measured subject mastery. It included nine subject areas ranging from definitions to arithmetical problems to paragraph reading. In 1926, it was first administered as a college entrance exam to more than 8,000 high school students. 

The SAT was born. Carl Brigham, eugenicist, was its father. 

Ten years later in 1933, Harvard University president James Bryant Conant instituted a new scholarship program. The program, along with expanded financial aid, was intended to funnel the best and brightest to Harvard rather than just those who had attended prestigious preparatory schools. 

Conant was obsessed with the idea of a classless society, noting in a 1948 speech that Thomas Jefferson “deemed it essential to a well ordered republic to annul hereditary privilege.” In a 1938 Harper’s Magazine article, Conant again invoked Jefferson as he called for higher education to expand to the lower and middle classes, “to cull from every condition of our people the natural aristocracy of talent and virtue.” He turned to Carl Brigham’s SAT to accomplish that goal.  

In 1934, Harvard adopted the SAT to select applicants to the new scholarship program. In 1935, the SAT was required for all applicants. By the 1940s, the SAT was used to select scholarship recipients at all Ivy League schools. By the 1950s, in large part due to Conant’s advocacy, the SAT became the standard college admissions test. By 1957, more than half a million high school students were taking the SAT every year. 

By backing the SAT — designed to measure intelligence regardless of the quality of the test taker’s education — Conant believed he was bringing higher education closer to Jefferson’s vision of a meritocratic, classless society. 

Yet critics today claim tests like the SAT exacerbate the very discrepancies in wealth and schooling they were meant to remedy. As one administrator at the University of California put it, the test has become “a proxy for privilege.” 

An analysis of SAT data by FairTest, a leading critic of standardized tests, found that students with a family income of more than $200K outscore those with a family income of under $20K by more than 400 points. FairTest has dubbed the SAT the “Student Affluence Test.”

When you sort SAT data by race and parental education, you get a similar story. A student with parents that hold a graduate degree will score on average 300 points higher than a student with parents that hold only a high school diploma. White and Asian students score on average more than three hundred points higher than Black students. 

So how has the SAT come to preserve the privilege it was intended to disrupt? 

One answer is that the tests are culturally biased toward the top rung of the socioeconomic ladder and against nonwhite test takers. This would make sense given the test’s eugenicist origins. The classic example, and perhaps the most notorious standardized test question of all time, appeared on the SAT in the 1980s, and goes something like this: 

Runner is to marathon as?

a)envoy: embassy, 

b)martyr: massacre 

c)oarsman: regatta 

d)referee: tournament 

e)horse: stable. 

The answer is C. According to scholar Leslie Yalof Garfield, the question is an example of how the test favors those with knowledge of white upper-middle-class social norms: the word “regatta” is likely familiar to affluent New Englanders but few others. Some 55% of white students answered the question correctly, compared with only 22% of Black students. 

Questions like these that appeared on the analogy section of the SAT are low-hanging fruit for critics who indict the SAT on charges of cultural bias. But the analogy section hasn’t appeared on the SAT since 2005, and the socioeconomic disparities still endure. 

Even if sections like reading and writing & language are socially biased, that doesn’t explain why math scores follow the same trend — how could derivatives and equilateral triangles possibly be culturally biased? 

Cultural bias is not the only explanation for disparities in SAT scores. The rise of the $1.7 billion test-prep industry poses a major threat to Conant’s meritocratic vision. 

Notwithstanding the college admissions scandal that roiled the country in the spring of 2019, money can still buy the wealthy a leg up. A New York City test-prep company called Ivy Coach now offers families a five-year college consulting package. As reported by the New York Times, the package includes help selecting classes, insight into which extracurriculars will stand out on an application, careful editing of college essays and “intensive preparation for the SAT or ACT, both “coachable exams,” according to Brian Taylor, Ivy Coach’s managing director. 

The package will run you somewhere around $1.5 million. 

“Is that unfair? That the privileged can pay?” asked Taylor in an interview for the same article. “Yes. But that’s how the world works.”

James Conant selected the SAT because Carl Brigham sold it as a measure of pure intelligence that wouldn’t be influenced by the test taker’s high school, parental education or income. 

But Conant made a crucial mistake. The SAT was — and still is — an achievement test. 

“Tests like the SAT have always been achievement tests,” said Carleton College professor of Educational Studies Jeffrey Snyder in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed. Snyder argues that college admissions tests like the SAT “largely register rather than create socioeconomic and racial disparities.” 

“Imagine a village where boys are prevented from attending school,” wrote Snyder. “If you administer a math test to all of the 12-year-olds in the village, the boys are going to bomb the test in comparison to the girls. Is the test ‘biased?’ More likely than not, the results are revealing real differences in mathematical knowledge and skills as a result of divergent educational opportunities.” 

If the SAT is, in fact, an achievement test, it makes sense that poor, non-white, students of less-educated parents would, on average, score worse than rich white students with highly educated parents. The latter group has access to better-funded schools with better teachers and is untouched by systemic racism and classism. The test isn’t biased. The country is. 

“The assumption that scrapping these tests will open the doors of educational opportunity for deserving, disadvantaged students is alluring,” wrote Snyder. “But it’s a feel-good mirage, wishful thinking of the highest order that ignores the real gaps in the academic preparation of the haves and have-nots.” 

The test fails to realize James Conant’s vision, fails to equitably “cull from every condition of our people the natural aristocracy of talent and virtue.”

The contradictions of the test run as deep as this country’s own contradictions. The SAT promises meritocracy but was fathered by a eugenicist convinced of a racial hierarchy of intelligence. Thomas Jefferson penned the words “all men are created equal” while waited on by a man he considered his property. 

How one scores on a standardized test hinges precariously on race, wealth and family education. This is not a fluke nor a misrepresentation. The results are a reflection of who has access to quality education in America and who doesn’t. They point us toward the racial and socioeconomic inequities we must remedy if the promise of meritocracy is ever to be fulfilled. 

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