The SAT: The Test We Deserve, But Not the One We Need Right Now

by Emile Session


We get the tests we ask for. Once again, the College Board has announced a round of “fundamental” changes to the SAT. The biggest change is that the essay section added in 2005 will now be optional. The biggest thing to stay the same is that, like any other story about education, this one prompted another predictable round of criticism of standardized testing. With conservative homeschoolers and liberal “whole child” advocates united against the way our students are tested, you would think that there would be momentum for reforming or eliminating our entire system of assessing students’ talents. You would be wrong.

It’s easy to forget that the SAT was created as a tool for educational equality. Before the SAT, the most selective—read “exclusive”—colleges were even more prone to take only students from the most selective high schools than they are today. As JFK’s Harvard application makes clear, the elitism of the era didn’t hide behind the pretense that the top schools only took the most brilliant students. The Educational Testing Service—now a billion dollar non-profit—designed and promoted the SAT as a way to break open the elite college admissions process by measuring how well prepared a student was for college regardless of their family, race, class, or where they went to school (the book The Big Test gives a good account of this).

American meritocracy sells the idea that the spoils of education go to whoever can muster the most talent, schooling, and paid preparation for the test. The SAT fulfills that goal admirably, and we’re understandably happy that you don’t have to be a Kennedy or a Bush to get into Princeton. We’re also upset that the SAT favors students who can afford prep classes and that it is biased against African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-Americans. Despite knowing that, we haven’t rejected the idea of an educational meritocracy based on a drill-and-kill assessment model, so test designers deliver assessments that meet the standards of our limited imagination.

This is not inevitable. The College Board itself researches how we can apply what we’ve learned about intelligence and success in the 78(!) year history of the SAT to better predict college success while narrowing racial and ethnic disparities.  This isn’t pie-in-the-sky futurism. The AP Studio Art exam has been graded based on standards derived from portfolios of students for years. We define success in art as actually creating art, so the exam is based on students’ creations. We won’t get college entrance exams grounded in the actual performances of our students until we define success in math and literacy as actually using those skills in a practical way, not just writing about them on paper.

Politicians, state education agencies, and test designers won’t focus on recognizing the full range of strengths our children bring until we reset our expectations of how they’re assessed. As long as we expect to choose and be chosen for our futures based on a sterilized half-day paper form, we’ll continue to deserve the SAT.

About the Author, Emile Session

emile-sessionEmile Session lives in Brooklyn, NY and works for Achievement First, a network of high performing public charter schools. He has worked as a math teacher, education researcher, and classroom observer, and is a graduate of Cornell and Columbia University.


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