The Magazine

The SAT and Its Enemies

Fear and loathing in college admissions.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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One Saturday morning this month, a quarter million kids or more will slump their way into the fluorescent tomb of a high school classroom, slide into the seat of a flimsy polypropylene combo chair-desk, and then, with clammy palms dampening the shafts of perfectly sharpened number two pencils, they will take the SAT. They will carefully mark only one answer for each question, as instructed, and they will make sure to fill the entire circle darkly and completely. They will not make any stray marks on their answer sheet. If they erase, they will do so completely, because incomplete erasures may be scored as intended answers. They will not open their test book until the supervisor tells them to do so, and if they finish before time is called, they will not turn to any other section of the test. And over the next three hours they will determine the course of the rest of their lives.

At least that's what a lot of them will think they're doing. They'll be wrong, of course--dozens of people have gone on to live happy and healthy lives after bombing the SAT--but they won't know it because an oddly large number of powerful forces in American society have combined to elevate the SAT to unlikely heights of influence and to impute to it unimaginable powers. You'll hear the SAT can wreck a person's future, even if only temporarily, or salvage a new future from a misspent past. The SAT can enforce class hierarchies or break them open; it unfairly allocates society's spoils and sorts the population into haves and have-nots, or it can unearth intellectual gifts that our nation's atrocious high schools have managed to keep buried. It is a tool of understanding, a cynical hoax, a triumph of social science, a jackboot on the neck of the disadvantaged. But rarely is it just a test.

Even the College Board, which administers the SAT, and the Educational Testing Service, which designs it each year, are sheepish about using the word. The SAT was originally an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test. When critics objected to the word "aptitude," for reasons we'll consider in a moment, SAT came to stand for Scholastic Assessment Test. Marketers soon realized that test and assessment have pretty much the same meaning, making "SAT" a kind of solecism, one of those repetitive redundancies that repeats itself--bad form for a test measuring verbal ability. So they gave up trying to make an acronym altogether. "Assessment" was dropped, and so was "test," and "scholastic" too. Today the SAT is officially just the SAT; the letters don't stand for anything, as if the test-makers were too timid to declare what they're up to.

And who can blame them? Critics of the SAT are eager to remind you that its intellectual genealogy traces back to the intelligence tests that eugenicists, racial theorists, and other creepy types promoted in the early 20th century as a way of purifying the gene pool.

"Racists worked hard to design a test that would confirm their racism, and they succeeded," says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, an activist organization that has declared war on all standardized tests, especially the SAT. A large number of people in higher education share his disdain, both for the test itself and for the uses to which it is put, usually by themselves. Any gathering of college admissions professionals--deans, school counselors, private coaches--swells before long with a chorus of complaint about the SAT's deficiencies, even though most of them are bound, by habit, custom, or popular expectation, to use the test in their everyday work.

Now they're beginning to rebel, and the hostility grows more ferocious every year. It's fair to say the tide of elite opinion now runs solidly against the use of the SAT in college admissions. Last fall, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) released a report calling on its members at last to act on their skepticism by taking steps to decommission the test for use at their schools. When the report was presented at the group's convention last September, the only complaints were that it didn't go far enough in condemning the test. "It's a lousy test," one NACAC member said heatedly on the convention floor. "It's destructive of what all of us here are trying to do."