Zombie Tests: Is the SAT Back From the Dead?

Yves here. Having taken the SAT and otheer college admission tests back in the day, when very few kids used prep services, I have to confess to having a bias in favor of them. My math scores helped counter prejudice about my being a woman and from the sort-of hinterlands (Ohio). And I came from only a middle-class family.

But now, in an era of high class and income divisions, and a marked decay in the average quality of public education, standardized tests likely do, even more than before, sort for the near and actual upper class. But don’t the cost of college education do that too?

I also wonder whether the impact of test prep services and female underperformance point to at least one underlying impediment: cautiousness about answering questions. One of my nieces, very bright, has a bit of OCD and would overthink questions. The tests treat speed as a proxy for smarts. If you don’t move along at a pretty good pace, you don’t get all the questions answered.

I know that may seem simplistic, but I wonder if there is a way to de-bias these tests, given also how many schools have even more grade inflation than ever. The result is that admissions staff need to have a refined sense of what grades mean from a particular school to judge student capabilities. Perhaps that is generally the case. Hopefully readers with knowledge of admissions and testing issues can weigh in.

By Sonali Kolhatkar , an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, higher education institutions throughout the United States started adopting a progressive standard of education that advocates had demanded for decades: they began dropping standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT as requirements for admissions. As was the case with so many other pandemic-era societal adaptations—government economic relief that lowered poverty rates, a pause in student loan repayments, free vaccines, an end to public library late fees—this offered an opportunity for a grand experiment in promoting equality.

The move to drop the tests can actually be traced to a time before the pandemic, but it was accelerated by students being unable to travel to testing sites during the lockdowns. Further, the mass racial justice uprising of summer 2020 pressured elites into embracing ideas rooted in equity.

Many celebrated the spurning of tests as the right direction for institutions that have ensured the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy since their inception. But as elite universities such as Yale, Harvard, and Caltechrecently reneged on the promise of leveling the playing field by returning to test requirements, are those celebrations premature?

Research has confirmed over and over that requiring students to take the SAT or ACT weeds out women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. As a physics and astronomy undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, I participated in efforts in the early 1990s to address how such tests undermine women’s entry into STEM fields. I was a perfect example: a straight-A student whose academic record had only one stain: a mediocre SAT score which severely narrowed my college options.

Robert Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is one of the leading advocacy groups against required SAT and ACT testing, told the 19th, “Despite the fact that young women get lower scores on the test than young men, they earn higher grades when matched for identical courses in college than the boys.”

Although the SAT has evolved significantly over the years, its origins in racist beliefs are telling. The test’s precursors, the Army Alpha and Beta tests, were analyzed and championed by Carl Brigham, a psychology professor at Princeton University and a eugenicist who believed that testing offered unbiased and scientific proof of white superiority.

Black and Latino students routinely score lower on the SAT’s math section compared to whites and Asians. This is not evidence of a racial difference in educational ability and intelligence as Brigham might have liked to believe. Rather, it is evidence of racial bias in the test.

There is a similar bias based on class. Wealthier students routinely do betteron the test than low-income students. This is no surprise given the lucrative industry built on test preparation, helping students navigate the notoriously tricky test in exchange for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The fact that SAT scores are used to determine many a student’s eligibility for scholarships further entrenches class bias.

Indeed, because of the SAT’s racial and class bias, the Los Angeles Timesreported in 2019 that officials at the University of California were convinced “that performance on the SAT and ACT was so strongly influenced by family income, parents’ education and race that using them for high-stakes admissions decisions was simply wrong.”

By 2021, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Compton Unified School District, the entire UC system permanently dropped tests as requirements for admissions. The move seemed to herald a new era in higher education, and indeed, data from the few years that this experiment has been in place shows promise in opening up higher education to historically excluded communities.

But, as advocates of racial, gender, and economic justice painstakingly chipped away at the exclusivity of higher education, conservatives predictably pushed back. A wave of right-wing attacks in recent years has taken aim at affirmative action admissions policies, the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) campus initiatives.

It was only a matter of time before elite institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Caltech did a backflip on their commitment to equity by reverting back to SAT requirements. Opinions of elite commentators such as New York Times Education Editor David Leonhardt helped validate this decision. Leonhardt wrote, “Standardized tests have become especially unpopular among political progressives, and university campuses are dominated by progressives.”

He highlighted a 2023 paper by an organization called Opportunity Insights to justify reinstating test requirements. The paper concluded that “SAT/ACT scores and academic ratings are highly predictive of post-college success.” It was precisely the ammunition elite institutions were waiting for. Harvard specifically cited the paper in its reversal on testing.

But, according to FairTest’s Schaeffer, the conclusions that Opportunity Insights comes to are flawed. He told the New York Times, “[W]hen you eliminate the role of wealth, test scores are not better than high school G.P.A.” The organization, in a report responding to Leonhardt and Opportunity Insights, accused researchers of omitting student demographics such as “family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity.” They found that when accounting for these critical demographic markers, the SAT fails to predict academic merit and that students’ grade point averages (GPA) in high school are better markers.

Aside from GPA, public school educators have backed the idea of “Performance Based Assessments” (PBA) as a better alternative to the SAT. Such assessments measure the totality of students’ expertise, achievements, and ideas. They are, by design, complex and varied—just as human beings are—and are based on interaction and collaboration—just as society functions in real life.

The SAT is largely a multiple-choice test. It is an individualistic assessment designed for an individualist mindset and is therefore an exceedingly narrow measure of a person. Aside from its essay section, each question has only one correct answer embedded in an array of wrong answers. There is no room for complex thinking and ideas. According to FairTest, “Using the SAT as the gatekeeper for higher education turns out to test one thing above all else: existing station in life.”

Standardized tests, and the idea that universities may revert back to using them, are a source of undue stress on students and their families. Thankfully, thousands of universities and colleges remain test-free or test-optional. Ultimately, only a tiny sliver of the nation’s students are able to attend the institutions that steadfastly cling to elitist practices. If anything, the decision by some to insist on outdated racist, sexist, and classist standards is a further indication of how irrelevant they are to modern American society.

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  1. HH

    If we take Yve’s test results as a data point, they clearly correlate with high achievement. We have arrived at a very strange taboo of refusing to accept differences in average intelligence among subsets of the population. Malnutrition, bad parenting, and childhood trauma can inflict permanent damage on individuals, which will be reflected in test scores. No amount of remedial investment can equalize outcomes across individuals with differing intellectual capacity. Society should guarantee equal opportunity, but it cannot guarantee equal outcomes. Granting access to costly advanced education purely on the basis of ethnicity is folly.

    1. Wolfepenguin

      Well, that assumes that the test itself is well designed, which in the face of test prep and other resources may be challenging. With that said, the solutions is tough because you can go in one of two directions: (1) abolish standardized testing in favor of a multi-metric method or (2) create a much harder test. In China, South Korea, and Japan, they create a significantly harder standardized tests that make test prep centers work much harder. In China, for example, the Gaokao test for college entrance is extremely brutal with 13 million students taking the test last year.

      This may reduce some of the gendered effects as even if you are more cautious, the test is so brutally hard that small differences in attitude are not making that large of a difference outcome. It still has an issue where wealthier households have an advantage, but they definitely have to work for it–so the wealthy kids prefer to go abroad to US or UK schools to avoid that system altogether.

      So, either go all in or move towards no testing: I am genuinely not sure which method appears less biased.

      1. BP

        Well, that assumes that the test itself is well designed, which in the face of test prep and other resources may be challenging

        As a long-time university lecturer I can say confidently – that is a very very big assumption. It is well nigh impossible to craft a test that probes all the concepts and techniques in the course(in my case physics) “fairly” and to suitable competence level, in a reasonable time. Moreover I could craft two exams that look the same to the unaided eye, where the same class would average 50% on one and 75% on the other. All because of subtle wording and framing differences.

        I am not a fan of standardized tests. Exams are far more subjective than the popular conception of them.

    2. Etrigan

      ‘intellectual capacity’ lacking well-defined parameters is bunk. Due to a childhood illness I missed almost a year of high school, and due to cognitive difficulties I have no working memory. the SATs helped me get into a good mid tier college specifically because it was possible to study for them and slowly build up the ability to take it. My intellectual capacity is much higher as an adult thanks to that college education and the relentless help of professionals who specialize in individuals with my type of disability. If I had focused on how stupid and behind I was (and believe me I did for a chunk of my childhood) none of that growth would have been possible. If imagination is more important than knowledge as Einstein reportedly said, cussedness is more important than ‘intellectual capacity’. It’s not ‘very strange’ to ignore a vague and unproven determinant.

    3. LY

      If going back to standardized tests, need to de-bias the tests. I had a decent score on my math SAT, but with coaching was able to significantly raise it in mid-nineties. And even with coaching, my verbal score was still higher than my math score.

      And it wasn’t my math ability. I aced the SAT II Math Achievement and the Advanced Placement Calculus test without coaching, cramming, or other specific preparation besides taking a practice exam.

  2. tyaresun

    Even if they want to bring back SAT, they can have different cut-offs for women and underprivileged applicants. For example, admit if (SAT > 2000) or (gender=F and SAT > 1800). These cutoffs can be set based upon the performance of students in college so that they can withstand court challenge.

    1. Neutrino

      Courts have supported extra time for standardized tests, with students enrolling in Individualized Education Plans or similar to gain whatever edge they might. Perhaps there are studies showing how much that, or test prep options, might contribute to scores.

  3. t

    Granting access to costly advanced education purely on the basis of ethnicity is folly.

    Super Duper that no one has suggested any such thing.

    If we take Yve’s test results as a data point, they clearly correlate with high achievement.

    What if we take the cited data sets showing a failure of the tests to predict how well students will perform? What if we look at the data set that supports an entire industry by showing that simply taking the test a second time will improve your score??? Test prep companies base the promise of improved score or this.

    1. reprobate

      But what if the lower SATs track students into less stringent/competitive schools? Seems like there is a potential big confounder here. I have not looked at the studies. but are you sure they adequately allow for that? Even in the California system, UC Berkeley was and I assume still is, a much more serious school than UCSD.

      1. t

        Do you think there’s a 1-1 correlation? And even with the good schools departments aren’t all the same. You can get a BA in Lit from MIT. (Usually means you washed out of a STEM major or have faculty parents.)

        There’s a ton of data looking at this. Google scholar is still fairly searchable.

        If you want a single data point – my standardized test scores on math are way off. Without a list of answers to pick from, I couldn’t get anywhere on that stuff.

  4. MT_Wild

    So are the SATs computer based adaptive tests like the GRE?

    When I took the GRE 2003, it was already computer based, and changed the difficulty and point value of the questions based on getting the first several questions right. This seemed to reduce pressure on finishing a section, an instead shifted focus on getting the first 5-10 right.

    Standardized testing got me out of poverty (at last and so far), so I’m strongly biased.

    1. Adam

      No, the SAT are not adaptive tests (and I don’t believe they are taken on computer but I could be wrong).

  5. chris

    The test never went away. The people who thought otherwise did a disservice to kids. All that happened was it became kind of, sort of, optional, for admissions purposes only, in some schools, for some programs.

    But it was still required as criteria for scholarships. It was still required to show entering level of competency when determining if a student needed remedial courses in college. It was still included in criteria for admission into difference programs at an institution. It was still considered for acceptance into communities of learning. Some of the issues had remedies besides taking the SAT. Like, if you didn’t have it on your record, you could take placement exams at your school. But the placement exams aren’t free and aren’t standardized and don’t have tutoring options like the SAT does. Which means some kids were given the choice of spending the $150 for taking the SAT (plus any tutoring or books) or taking multiple placement exams that cost $100 each (or more). For comparison sake, if my daughter hadn’t taken thr SAT, she would have had to spend $400 and take four different placements exams after she was accepted into college. As it happened, because she didn’t take the science SAT, she still had to take one placement exam.

    My family has put two of our own kids into this process during COVID, and this was our experience. We’ve helped a dozen more who aren’t related to us go through the college application experience recently, and this was what they encountered too.

    The people who thought the SAT went away, or that AP tests weren’t worth it, or that their kids could avoid standardized tests, are either very rich or in for a bad surprise.

    1. Laura in So Cal

      This. My son graduated high school in 2022 and took the SAT the prior year during Covid. Even though many admissions were “test optional”, not all were and we wanted to keep our options open. It also turned out that the school he went to (for a STEM degree) used your math SAT score to determine math class placement. My kid was only a B+ student in high school even taking AP Math and History classes. He is very bright but somewhat disorganized and hates “busy work” which affected his grades. I told Him that if he got above a certain score on the SAT, he would only have to take it once. He used all the free resources on-line (Khan academy is very nice) and beat the score. No paid prep or extra resources.
      Today he is finishing his sophomore year at a mountain west state school majoring in engineering. So far so good.

  6. expr

    some anec-data
    + I got into Rice U (Houston) from MO with high SAT and achievement scores (+ really good teacher recommendations) with about a 3.5 grade average since I could not write an essay
    – due to high verbal SAT and English achievement I got exempted from freshman composition

    25+ years teaching math at a mid level engineering school
    Something I have not seen yet– test anxiety: students doing worse than their knowledge
    “Ted taught me this stuff and got 10 points less on the test”
    test in a room with no ability to separate students put A students in back of room, B in the next to back and told the rest to sit anywhere they wanted. Woman did much better than before. When I asked she said she got so mad about the sit anywhere comment that she forgot to be scared

    I do not know if women (or minorities) in general are more prone to test anxiety the few women in an engineering program are pretty tough

    predicting college results:
    I ran freshman Calculus in the mid -70s at did a regression of SAT, achievement test and high school averages (Math, Science, Humanities and overall) against performance in freshman Calculus: I found with all this information, I could predict grade within 1 letter grade
    I tried putting the worst predicted students with my best teachers. It frustrated my best teachers
    My successor tried a triage approach and had the best students do poorly
    Note: these were mostly first or second generation born in the US and many spoke parents language at home
    Best single predictor was the math achievement test

    In the 80’s I tried again with a class on the Long Island campus The school no longer required achievement tests and there was very little predictability

    Again in the mid-90s shortly before I quit to write computer programs I got nothing useful at all.
    The highest predicted score was a guy who did not come to class and failed.
    Overall, I think the SAT (aptitude) has little predictive power for freshman Calc
    (We started using placement exams to put people in Pre-Calc)

    Note; most or all of this anecdata is from before test prep was a big thing

  7. William Gruff

    Are tests biased or do they simply reveal actual differences between some demographics?

    Of course, the “woke” will shriek “No! Everyone is the same!”, but let us consider another test: Tryouts for American football teams. At the junior and senior high school levels in the US, these have in almost all cases been open to female students. Indeed, all boys’ sports at those levels have always been open to girls, but few girls ever tried to “make the team” because anyone with a remotely realistic view of the sports know almost no girls can be competitive with boys once they reach that age. Even the female professional all-star soccer team is regularly beaten by the local boys’ junior varsity team. This difference in performance is precisely why Title IX support for girls-only sports was created.

    “But academic tests are different!” the woke will shout in as shrill a voice as possible (perhaps they believe if it is voiced loud enough it will become true?).

    But no, academic tests are not different. As someone who has been on committees designing academic assessment instruments, I can say tremendous effort goes into removing bias in the tests. The only way anyone has ever been able to get equal outcomes across demographics from assessment instruments is by removing all of the content that the test is supposed to be evaluating the mastery of. The problem is most definitely not the tests. The problem is that there are real differences in attained mastery between demographics.

    “But muh equity!” the usual suspects cry.

    There is no problem with enforcing equity in many university programs. Most are nothing more than entertainment anyway; daycare for adult children; Special Education for “special” students. The diplomas awarded are nothing more than participation trophies to indicate where the recipient spent four years of their youth. The humanities, journalism, business administration, specific minority studies, public administration, and so on are programs one must just show up for and scribble some vaguely readable nonsense in MLA format for each class to graduate from, and nowadays the student can get generative AI to do most of that work for them. Do programs like these really need any entrance requirements for matriculation? Obviously not.

    But university is supposed to do real education also. Do you really want the guy designing the bridge you have to drive over on your daily commute to be someone who struggles with algebra? Do you want your brain surgeon to be someone with too short an attention span to be able to complete a real exam?

    There are many professions in the world where it is highly desirable for the practitioners to be… well, professional, and be able to demonstrate that professionalism. Many of the university programs to develop the skills for those professions require entrants to those programs to already possess significant skills and abilities. For these programs entrance exams are absolutely essential. Without entrance exams you will end up with massive “washout” courses for freshmen, like first year calculus, with 95% of students flunking and being dropped from the program. Is that better than entrance exams? Not for the students who were actually prepared for the class who must sit through tedious whining from the unprepared students about how difficult the professor is to understand.

    It all boils down to what you expect from university. If all you want from university is entertainment, then of course no entrance exams should be required. If you want university to cultivate real skills and cognitive abilities that have consequence in the world, and even that people’s lives may depend upon, then you will need entrance exams (and final exams and high stakes capstone evaluations and so on).

  8. Adam


    In addition to other points people have made about why these tests might be useful in some cases, the article mentioning gender bias is weird because the scores don’t really support that. There is an 13 point average difference between the scores of male and female students, but over a 300 point difference between Asians and Blacks (the race groups with the highest and lowest average scores).

    The two links in the article talking about race and gender bias both are actually about racial bias. It looks like Harvard and Yale have slightly more female students than male, but takes them far more balanced than the general college student population which in 2021 was 58% female (it was 56% in 2019, so if 2020 was the year where the SAT was dropped you can’t say that the SAT was holding back women entering college nowadays). There are majors (and specific colleges like CalTech) where there is a gender imbalance favoring men, but that isn’t the argument Sonali is making.

    The fact that the article seems so skewed away from reality on this point makes me wonder how many other links in it don’t actually support what is claimed.

  9. Albe Vado

    Meritocracy is ultimately an unattainable myth, but a key step towards at least vaguely achieving some semblance of an even playing field is standardized testing. In Japan at least it’s not uncommon for students from different economic backgrounds (with perhaps the caveat that most of Japan is at least broadly middle-class) to attend the same school because they passed the same tests. I’m not saying we should adopt all of the East Asian ‘exam hell’ model, because we absolutely shouldn’t. But I think this is a good example of the merits of a focus on testing.

    On the flipside there’s the criticism that too much focus on it means just teaching for the test and no one is actually learning anything at a deeper level, but frankly I see precious little evidence that any model of formal education produces people with curiosity or critical thinking. Focusing on non-objective measures like grading the supposed quality of essays has proven to be a disastrous approach. At least with SATs you can get some objective gauge of things like math and reading ability, or knowledge of basic raw facts.

    Never forget that something like a quarter of California adults are functionally illiterate in English, and over half of the elementary students are as well. That is a damning statistic. I would say just from that, whatever liberal California is trying to do, do the opposite and you’ll get better results.

    1. JBird4049

      Part of the problem is the increasing poverty as well as the income and wealth disparities with all the differences in resources and opportunities or lack of them for students. Yes, there are differences in culture that creates differences, but so does the hunger, problems with housing, and the general chaos that being poor creates. When the United States was more broadly equal the differences in class with the differences in living standards were less meaning that the ability to do well was not as class dependent.

      I am baffled by some people’s insistent that race, instead of economic class and social culture, plays any role. Even if this was true, a person’s background would still be a determinant, but accepting the real world consequences of culture would mean accepting responsibility for one’s actions and accepting the real world consequences of an empty stomach and bad schools would mean accepting society’s responsibility for preventing hunger and providing a good education.

      However, Congress refuses to expand and adequately fund SNAP or expand the child tax credit, which are two extremely effective and cheap means of helping children and the poor in general. I am saying all this because I understand the need for a good method of screening college applicants but between the increasing difficulties in living, which increases the problem of being college prepared, the insane cost of an education, and the decreasing quality of it seems to be putting the cart before horse.

  10. Maxwell Johnston

    Post-Soviet RU embraced some western educational reforms, and in recent years has largely abandoned these and reverted to the (highly successful) Soviet educational methodology. But one reform that caught on and remained was the Unified State Exam (the “ЕГЭ”, pronounced “yeh-geh”), the bane of all RU high schoolers who want to enter university:


    The Yeh-Geh is roughly similar to the USA’s ACH tests or the Asian exams, basically a knowledge test on various subjects (as opposed to the SAT which claims to be an aptitude test). The problem with the Yeh-Geh is twofold. First, there’s an issue with cheating (this is RU, after all), although the authorities are trying hard to eliminate this. Second, and more importantly, wealthy big-city parents have learned how to game the system by prepping their offspring (often using underpaid university professors as tutors) to boost their test scores.

    Important note: in RU, if your Yeh-Geh test scores are sufficiently high, you get a free ride to university (of course the more prestigious universities have higher cutoff scores).

    All three of our offspring (educated in Moscow) have had to deal with this testing. I think it’s a good thing, overall. It gives brilliant but underprivileged kids from RU flyover country a chance to come to the big city and get a free education at a top university. My RU wife disagrees and favors the old Soviet system (in which every university had its own tests).

    Perhaps the solution both for the USA’s SAT and for RU’s Yeh-Geh is to change (very drastically!) the test format every year, in order to prevent wealthy parents from gaming the system, and thereby to retain the test’s goal of providing an unbiased yardstick. Otherwise Goodhart’s Law comes into effect.

    My own experience: I took the SAT un-prepped (since my high school was in Europe) and did OK. Prior to business school, I took a practice GMAT and did OK, then took practice tests for several months, on my own but without a tutor, and then took the test for real…..and scored 110 points higher. So there’s no question in my mind that all these tests are game-able. My RU wife says that these tests simply test one’s ability to take tests. Maybe she’s right. I still think some kind of objective testing is useful when it comes to allocating scarce university slots.

  11. Lefty Godot

    Are the SATs all online now? The old tests on paper had a simple strategy: do all the easiest questions first, go back and do the slightly more difficult next, then the more difficult, etc. So if you had to (or chose to) leave any questions unanswered, they were going to be the most difficult ones.

    When I took the GREs later in life, the first time the test was on a computer (but not internet based). The program would not allow you to go back. Each question was presented and you answered it or not, but you never got a chance revisit that question. After that I asked specifically for a paper test the next time I managed to schedule a GRE again. My score was about 70 points higher the second time.

    1. EAC

      Today’s digital SAT allows students to move between questions as long as the student is within the same section – one can move back and forth within the current section but cannot revisit another section.

  12. aj

    The ACT test, and subsequently the GMAT was how I both got into an afforded college. Granted this was 20 years ago. I come from a low-income working-class family and have ADHD. I never really did great in high school because I hated physically being there and couldn’t pay attention for 7 hours straight every day. Luckily I am smart and was able to do well on the ACT, which got me into college with a scholarship. Similarly, when I was applying for grad school, I scored high enough on the GMAT to get a full scholarship along with and stipend. My extra-curriculars were less than stellar and my grades weren’t that good, so I totally credit my ability to attend and afford higher education to those standardized tests.

  13. Revenant

    The English system of University admission assumes the child studies A-levels between 16-18 and then applies to University based on predicted grades and receives an offer of a place conditional on their actual grades. Some take a year out and apply with their actual grades (or resits!). Three subjects at A-level is the norm for a University offer, which is given in Letter grades, e.g. 3 A’s or an A and 2 B’s. Some courses demand specific grades in specific subjects, others accept any combination of subjects and grades.

    When I did it, offers were sometimes just 2 B’s or, if you had already passed a University entrance exam, 2 E’s (one person I knew had a 2 E offer from Oxford for Greats because the translation papers covered texts he had practised the week before and failed to get in because he got an N (= not enough to grade) and a U (“unclassifiable”, I.e. you bled/wept all over the paper) in his A-levels!).

    The high flyers do four A-levels (Oxbridge; Vets and Medics; Engineers; Scientists), usually Maths and Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry or Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology for the STEM courses or some permutation of three of these and a humanity. Oxbridge humanities types (Modern and Mediaeval languages, History, English) have more freedom and would probably offer languages and economics / history / geography and the numerate among them might offer maths.

    Oxbridge offers are typically straight A’s and may also require STEP papers or S-levels, both essentially scholarship papers, in one or more subjects. Sometimes a candidate from difficult circumstances will interview so well (Oxbridge longlists candidates and interviews every one, with two or three interviews for eaxh candidate in a day, one or two academic and one on general / personal qualities ) that the offer will be reduced. A friend read English at Trinity Cambridge (most oversubscribed faculty and in the richest College) with an offer of ABB whereas I was offered AAA Step 1 Step 2 for Natural Sciences at the poorest College. They wanted him a lot more than me!

    The A-level system is perennially criticised for restricting study too early to 3-4 subjects. However, it does result in a national system of examinations in which subject knowledge is tested in multiple choice, extended answer and essay questions and in coursework and practicals. Children are taught to the test and there is not much open ended intellectual enquiry but the breadth of testing modality and depth of study is a lot closer to University study than, by the sound of it from these comments, a multichoice SAT-type exam.

    I find it hard to imagine a multiple choice test reflecting fine reasoning skills (the questions are often so badly written!) and the idea of a grade point average is horrifying (boys hate coursework, it us for girls with coloured pencils). Indeed, Oxbridge has begun reintroducing a proprietary exam, which was dying out when I applied, but in the form of a new public exam available to any one rather than private exams for their own institutions, because modular exams (I.e. taken in many short papers across the course rather than a day of marathon papers at the end) and school-marked coursework have led to grade inflation and reduced the discriminatory power of A-levels.

    It is a very different system. I hope it is interesting to non-UK readers!

    Oh, I forgot, another aspect is that UK degree courses are “major only” courses and often start where a second year US course starts, with accelerated depth at the expense of the US system’s breadth and all those 101 courses in minor subjects….

  14. petal

    The SAT helped this poor rural kid stand out. It helped get me into an Ivy. The GRE also helped me stand out, that I wasn’t an idiot. If kids can’t do decently on these basic tests, they probably shouldn’t be going to college because chances are they aren’t up to snuff and probably won’t do well there. Lower standards don’t help anyone.

  15. Peter L.

    I’d like to complain about two things in this piece.

    First, the schools which are reinstating the SAT/ACT requirements are claiming that they are doing so because not taking the tests into account harms diversity, and is especially bad for kids of lower income. Of course, we can’t read their minds, but it is definitely worth noting that these schools say they want the tests back because lower income students were worse off without them. MIT claims that

    “It turns out the shortest path for many students to demonstrate sufficient preparation — particularly for students with less access to educational capital — is through the SAT/ACT, because most students can study for these exams using free tools at Khan Academy, but they (usually) can’t force their high school to offer advanced calculus courses, for example. So, the SAT/ACT can actually open the door to MIT for these students, too.”

    The admissions officers say that all aspects of admission criteria are affected by inequalities, but as it turns out SAT/ACT are less affected by inequality. A kid who is rich can have all kinds of “enrichment activities” from unpaid internships to unusual sports, and might be more likely to go to a school that practices grade inflation, as well as offers advanced courses.

    The people who are concerned about reintroducing the tests need to address these claims and arguments. Frankly, I don’t see why the admission officers would be lying about the lack of testing requirements hurting diversity. Maybe their analysis is incorrect, of course.

    Second, as stupid as multiple choice exams are, they are at least transparent, with clear criteria about how to do well. Kids who are not good at following orders and getting along with teachers can sometimes use tests to achieve access to educational rewards and entrance into prestigious schools. The author writes, “I was a perfect example: a straight-A student whose academic record had only one stain: a mediocre SAT score which severely narrowed my college options.” That’s definitely not fair, and I can see how aggravating that would be to someone who just doesn’t do well on high stakes tests. Being able to handle the game of testing is a bit like doing well in a sporting event. However, it goes both ways. Some students get bad grades because their teachers don’t like them, or they are disorganized, or so bored by their homework that they don’t do it, etc. Tests allow these students another path. I think this is what some of the schools are figuring out.

  16. Altandmain

    Other nations have faced similar challenges.

    I know that may seem simplistic, but I wonder if there is a way to de-bias these tests, given also how many schools have even more grade inflation than ever.

    China for example has restricted for profit tutoring.


    Part of the reason why is because of the higher spending by rich families, giving their children an advantage.

    This did spawn a black market that needed further regulations and enforcement, but overall there is an attempt to reduce the amount of advantage that rich people get.


    Keep in mind that the Chinese college entrance exams, the Gaokao, are far more challenging than the SAT is. There is some multiple choice, but also a lot of essays, derivations, etc. How the test taker arrives at the solution is looked at as much as the correctness of the answer. Post secondary university admissions are a complex topic, but in many cases the Gaokao score is the sole admission, meaning no extracurricular activities are considered.

    I’m not saying that the Chinese government is perfect, but they do seem to be trying to eliminate the advantages of the rich. In a sense, China is actually trying to make the nation more of a legitimate meritocracy. They don’t always have success, but they do seem to be heading in that direction.

  17. KLG

    Late to the party. Another issue but not unrelated: The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) has essentially no predictive utility regarding academic performance in medical school or, more importantly, whether the student will become a competent physician. Yes, there is a trend, but the scatter renders it completely unable to predict performance of any individual. A correlation coefficient, r, of 0.3 is taken to be a mild-to-moderate baseline for predictive utility, through some obscure reasoning based on one paper that is not really relevant to the topic. This is one rabbit hole that is maddening. The coefficient of determination, r-square, at r = 0.3 is 0.09. Or basically: 91% of performance is due to something else. The key is to identify that “something else.” We live in a Bayesian world, not one ruled by Galton-Pearson-Fisher, who were focused on their efforts to put eugenics on a (spurious) mathematical foundation. More to come…

    1. jrkrideau

      I think the MCAT has such a high-achieving, more or less homogeneous, applicant population that is likely to have close to zero predictive value. Rolling dice would probably as good or better.

  18. JayTheCurious

    “Black and Latino students routinely score lower on the SAT’s math section compared to whites and Asians. This is not evidence of a racial difference in educational ability and intelligence as Brigham might have liked to believe. Rather, it is evidence of racial bias in the test.”

    I do not understand this statement. What evidence is there of racial bias? How can math be racist? 2+2=4 no matter what color you are. Did I miss something?

    1. Peter L.

      I don’t believe that anyone serious claims that questions of arithmetic are racially biased. What I have heard anti-testing activists say is that the system in which the test takes place is biased. The most sensible of these claims is that the system of high stakes testing is biased, obviously, against those who have the least resources to prepare for the tests. Since resources, especially time, money and a low stress enviroment are unequally distributed, in ways that correlate well with racial classification, this is interpreted as racial bias. I think this intrepretation is fair, but it isn’t clear to me that getting rid of the tests is the right answer. As I remarked above, MIT and others claim that using test scores actually helped lower income students, students with less “educational capital,” in their words.

      It is true that many of the anti-testing crowd will claim that math exams are racially biased withou explaining themselves, and perhaps not doing much self-interrogation with regard to what they actually mean. It is annoying.

      (One small consideration I’ll also throw out there with respect to NY math tests: I’ve noticed that the New York State yearly standardized math tests for elementary and junior high school students tend to be really heavy on “word problems.” In my opinion, the word problems test reading comprehension more than math, and perhaps these are harder for kids who don’t speak English at home, or tend to speak non-standard English dialects.)

  19. njdevil

    I have experience teaching mathematics at the high school level in the US, in both private and public schools. The level of grade inflation would take your breath away.

    For example, teachers give take-home exams, knowing full well the students can have all the problems solved for them on the internet. Students have final grades of 105 for a marking period. Grades of 90-100 are given for what amounts to little more than filling out a teacher-evaluation form.

    Even though I never have been crazy about standardized tests, the SAT, ACT, and AP exams are the only way to guarantee students have basic skills in mathematics. Lots of A and B students in high school would bomb those exams, and not because of the color of their skin, but because they no longer are getting an honest education.

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