One afternoon in high school, a good friend of mine sent a message to the group chat. It read, “I got a 34 on the ACT!”
My other friends and I congratulated him; this high of a score meant he would be a shoe-in for acceptance at his dream college.
“It only took 10 tries,” my friend typed again, leaving all of us shocked. Ten ACT attempts seemed crazy to think about. None of us could imagine sitting in a high school cafeteria for four hours to take a mind-numbing exam more than once or twice, let alone 10 times.
More surprising than the thought of sitting for the test 10 times, however, was the thought of paying for them. The year I graduated high school, the ACT fee was $52 without the essay portion and $68 with it. This meant my friend’s family paid somewhere between $520 and $680 for him to sit for all 10 exams. This was not including expenses to physically get to the exams, which could be far away, or for any tutoring services my friend may have utilized.
Upon realizing this, my other friends and I were in awe — none of our parents would have ever paid that much for us to take it that many times.
My friend’s score helped him do exactly what he had hoped; he now studies at his top choice university. I’m thrilled for him, but I can’t help but think of all the other opportunities he must have taken advantage of up to that point that most of my friends couldn’t.
It’s one of millions of examples of how standardized tests are archaic and put less privileged students at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.
For years, research has shown there is a correlation between standardized test scores and economic status. Standardized tests don’t measure hard work or talent — they measure access to resources.
There are a few likely reasons for the score gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The biggest is access to resources; wealthier parents are able to afford tutoring services, especially to prepare for the SAT or ACT. They can pay for their children to have more attempts at getting their target score, like my high school friend.
Statistically, low-income students are more likely to be People of Color due to the racial wage gap, as well as historical patterns of segregation, which still affect the neighborhoods Black students grow up in today. Low-income students and students of color apply to universities with a significant disadvantage. More likely than not, they did not have a college application coach assist them with their application, nor a tutor to give them ACT prep questions.
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools,” Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be an Antiracist," said in a public statement last year.
It’s true that fee waivers are available, but standardized tests don’t only put low-income students at a disadvantage because of the cost and access to test preparation resources. School funding is at play as well.
Students from wealthier families tend to live in neighborhoods with more expensive real estate and higher property taxes. Considering property taxes are the primary source of funding for public schools, those in wealthier neighborhoods have more assets. More funding means a wider variety of classes and standardized test preparation services. For example, schools are more likely to be able to pay for each sophomore to take the practice SAT, so they have an idea of what to expect when they sit for the exam.
The public school system doesn’t help everyone succeed, only those who already have the building blocks.
A simple fix for this problem is to give standardized tests much less weight on college admissions. I’m not supporting doing away with them completely; rather, universities should more heavily consider other factors: GPA, classes taken, extracurricular activities and application essays. Students of color still face disadvantages with some of these as well, but they are arguably easier to combat than a century-old standardized test system that has been working against them for years.
Psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham, a white supremacist who believed that interracial marriage would bring about the demise of the education system, had a large part in developing the SAT, which debuted in the 1920s. Based on his published, extremely racist remarks, it’s clear Brigham was not interested in creating a test that was truly fair for every student and would adequately assess their knowledge. Its origins were racist, and therefore, the system needs major reform.
Some universities, such as NAU, have taken away the standardized test requirement and replaced it with a set amount of coursework to be considered for admission. Students who would like to be considered for merit-based scholarships, or have deficiencies in the course requirements, may submit their SAT or ACT scores to make up for it.
This is a step in the right direction — while merit-based scholarships still favor students with higher socioeconomic statuses, it’s encouraging that the opportunity for admission is overall available to more students.
If organizations such as College Board and the Department of Education will not work to make higher education more accessible to all students, perhaps it can start at the university level by considering other factors for admission. A diverse, vibrant student body will help an institution succeed, and a straight-laced, archaic standardized test requirement will only hinder that success, for universities and students alike.