Created by Horace Mann as a way to fairly evaluate the abilities of students from elementary school and onwards, standardized testing has been a major part of American schooling since its beginnings in the mid-1800s. In the modern age, however, standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT don’t quite live up to Mann’s original vision of equality. Instead, they frequently fail to account for the societal barriers to strong performance that many students face.
The costs alone ($47.50 for the SAT and $50.50 for the ACT) can dissuade people from taking the test more than once, if at all. More importantly, wealthy students also have greater access to in-depth test preparation resources, such as individual programs and tutors. These advantages represent yet another way those from low-income backgrounds continue to be systematically put down in American society.
As the College Board and ACT (the companies behind the SAT and ACT tests, respectively) have come under increased scrutiny for the inequality their exams perpetuate, certain changes have been implemented in an attempt to account for students’ various backgrounds and assist all through the admissions process.
Last year, for instance, the College Board announced the addition of an Environmental Context Dashboard, commonly referred to as the “adversity score,” to student test scores. The change was met with an intense backlash from those who were concerned that a student’s complex background could not, and should not, be quantified into a single number the way a student’s math and verbal skills are.
In October of 2019, ACT announced a program designed to help students better “showcase the skills and accomplishments [they] gained over time,” as opposed to merely capturing their test-taking abilities on a particular day. Starting in September 2020, students who have taken the test before will be allowed to retake individual sections—for a fee.
It isn’t difficult to see why this change, if implemented, is problematic—it only serves to artificially widen the gap in test scores between test-takers of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Wealthy students are being handed yet another advantage over students from low-income backgrounds, who may not be able to afford the cost of retaking sections on the ACT until their score is higher.
No matter how many changes are made to the testing process, it is clear that there is no way for the corporations behind the SAT and ACT to reconcile their exams with a truly objective college admissions process. For this reason, many colleges have stopped requiring applicants to submit test scores at all, a decision that increases minority representation within these universities without any decrease in graduation rates, according to a major study for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Despite its significant evolution over time, standardized testing has always served as proof that the college admissions process is strongly influenced by socioeconomic status. Until more colleges institute test-optional policies to allow for a more holistic review of applicants, it is doubtful that this narrative will change.