Is the SAT Racist?

14 Aug

This has been a question that’s been thrown around for about as long as the SAT has existed – is the SAT racist? Plenty of people suggest that the test is geared toward students of a certain (ie higher) socioeconomic background. It’s an easy thing to claim, but is it true?

Before I start, let me mention that I am by NO MEANS an expert on this topic, and I’m not trying to offend anyone here. Instead, I’m just voicing my honest opinion about the SAT. I’d love to hear about your honest opinion, too.

I think when talking about bias in the SAT, you should separate it into cultural and economic bias. Let me talk about economic bias first. I work in a very poor school district in the US, and I’ve seen firsthand how standardized tests create a disadvantage for students from poorer backgrounds. This applies to the SAT, as well. At this point, this contention can’t really be denied. A California study showed that test takers coming from a family with a total income of less than $20,000 had a mean score of 1310, while test takers from families with a total income of $200,000 received a mean score of 1715.  I don’t think a difference in score of over 400 points can be attributed to randomness.

Does this mean that students from less wealthy family just aren’t as smart as students from better-off families? Not really – all it shows is that those students tend to no do as well on the SAT. This could come from any number of reasons. For instance, communities tend to be relatively segregated by income, so students from families with lower incomes might be in school districts that have less resources, or attract a lower quality of teachers. Students from wealthier families also tend to be more likely to spend money of SAT prep books, SAT prep courses, and SAT private tutors, which can put them at an advantage.

As for cultural bias, there have been some people who claim that the SAT is geared to put non-black or non-Latino students at an advantage. There was one famous question on the SAT that was absolutely a disadvantage for many black or Latino students. On this question, over 50% of white students got the correct answer, while less than 25% of black or Latino students got it correct! This is without question the most famous example of SAT cultural bias. However, CollegeBoard has done a TON of research and made a lot of progress in making the SAT as bias-neutral as possible. I think at this point, it’s pretty safe to assume that you won’t be encountering any questions that are necessarily geared toward a particular culture or race.

However, I think we still have a long way to go in eliminating economic bias. I think that this economic bias tends to spill over into cultural and racial distinctions, which leads some people to assume that the SAT is geared toward white students more than any other. I tend to to think of the SAT as geared toward middle-class to upper-class students, but only because of the extra resources that are made available to these students throughout their lives.

I don’t think the makers of the SAT are at fault for this at all. Rather, I think the studies showing that students from poorer background receive poorer scores are a symptom of an illness in America’s educational system.  I see it all the time with my teaching job, and I know if it’s apparent there, it’s going to be apparent in some shape or form on the SAT.

Obviously, this is a topic which can go into WAY more depth and detail than I have time or space for here. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on these topics, with hundreds of scholarly articles published, and this simple post really only touches the tip of the iceberg with the whole thing.

What do you think? Do you think the SAT is racist toward any group? Why or why not?


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