The SAT and the ACT Are Back with a Vengeance

Horace Mann, who visited schools in Europe as the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, came back with an idea that has left its imprint on public and private schools in the US ever since. Mann was taken with standardized tests then administered in European schools and soon began the use of standardized testing in Massachusetts. Here is the reasoning that he used:

“When the oral method [of testing] is adopted, none but those personally present at the examination can have any accurate or valuable idea of the appearance of the school… Not so, however, when the examination is printed and written answers. A transcript, a sort of Daguerreotype likeness, as it were of the state and condition of the pupils’ mind, is taken and carried away, for general inspection,” (“History of Standardized Testing,” Lehigh University, October 18, 2013).

“Instead of being confined to committees and visitors, it [standardized testing] is open to all; instead of perishing with the fleeting breath that gave it life, it remains a permanent record. All who are, or who may afterwards become interested in it may see it.”

As historian William J. Reese, author of Testing Wars in Public Schools: A Forgotten History, wrote in a New York Times essay: “What transpired then still sounds eerily familiar: cheating scandals, poor performance by minority groups, the narrowing of the curriculum, the public shaming of teachers, the appeal of more sophisticated measures of assessment, the superior scores of other nations, all amounting to a constant drumbeat about school failure,” (“History of Standardized Testing,” Lehigh University, October 18, 2013).

Over 170 years later, the debate over what standardized testing means for college and university admissions and economically challenged, but high-achieving students is highlighted in “The Misguided War on SAT,” (New York Times, January 7, 2024). The article cites a recent study that shows a subset of “lower-income students and underrepresented minorities” can benefit from the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test-literacy, numeracy, and writing sections). The test purports to measure verbal and mathematics aptitude. The test can be a conduit for high achievers among these groups, offering entrance into the so-called most selective colleges and universities in the US, and hence, entrance into careers at high echelons of US society. Without the purported benefit of this test, the proponents cited in this Times article argue, these students would likely be left behind and not enter the elite stratosphere of higher education and work. The authors of this study argue that reliance on high school grades, sometimes inflated, are not predictive of college and university achievement.

“Standardized test scores are a much better predictor of academic success than high school grades,” Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, recently wrote. Stuart Schmill[,] the dean of admissions at M.I.T., one of the few schools to have reinstated its test requirement told me, “Just getting straight A’s is not enough information for us to know whether the students are going to succeed or not,”(“The Misguided War on SAT,” New York Times, January 7, 2024).

The group Opportunity Insights, speaking about the “Ivy Plus colleges,” eight Ivy League schools and Duke, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, released a study showing “a strong relationship between test scores and later success” (“The Misguided War on SAT,” New York Times, January 7, 2024).

Standardized testing feeds into political, economic, and social issues that change with the way the wind blows. In the era of great changes of the 1960s and early 1970s, testing was seen in perspective and not the sole determining factor for individual achievement. With the far right Ronald Reagan, the winds shifted and public schools, teachers, teacher unions, and student achievement were all in the crosshairs of the attacks against government in general and public schools in particular. The juggernaut to begin the long march to privatize public schooling in the US began with the product of his administration “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Educational Reform” (1983). Could the sea of  the sameness of uniforms typifying charter schools that feed at the public tax trough, while having little or no oversight by states and localities, be far behind? Could the god of standardized testing also be lurking close by?

None of the Above: The Truth Behind SATs (Revised, 1999), is a critique, in part, about how that test reinforces the socioeconomic status quo. Schools generally reflect the communities in which they are located and the economic status of students’ families. The connections between income, community, and achievement are undeniable. Rather than improve public schools across this nation, cherry-picking talented students from schools that are not high performing goes to the heart of the argument about those students who are left behind because of schools not recognized for high college admissions test results. It’s a long process to improve schools and this is a nation that loves myths and demands immediate results.

“The intended purpose of the SAT I, SAT II, and ACT is to help predict first-year college grades. Yet high school grades, class rank, and rigor of courses do a better job of forecasting college performance than any of the tests.”

“These findings lead to one central conclusion: substituting one university admission exam for another benefits neither students nor schools. Colleges that are genuinely committed to increasing the representation of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans must look into other alternatives,” (“Different Tests, Same Flaws: Examining the SAT I, SAT II, and ACT,”  Journal of College Admissions, Fall 2002).

Prior to the current juggernaut supporting the administration of the SAT and the ACT (American College Testing: English, mathematics, reading, and scientific reasoning sections) and their purported advantages for underrepresented minorities and students from so-called underperforming schools, SAT critics noted gender bias and other stereotypes in  the SAT (“Tutors See Gender Bias in SAT. Testers See None of the Above,” (New York Times, June 26, 2016). Some of the reading selections of the newest iteration of the SAT at that time were so highly edited that the final selections, in some cases, were beyond the pale. Many reading selections were edited to remove references that may have been unfamiliar to some test takers.

There are tests such as those reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that offer a snapshot of how students perform at different levels of educational development and there is a valid claim as to their necessity. But, college admissions tests exemplified in the SAT and the ACT miss much of the abilities and multiple intelligences of many students and often provide only a one-dimensional view of those students. But now, among many college and university administrators, testing with all of the anxiety it creates among high school students is all the rage.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).