The Pros and Cons (But Mostly Cons) of the SAT: the Standardized Testing Debate

So before I proceed to unrelentingly bash the SAT and standardized testing in general, I’ll get some of its benefits out in the open…

Any proponent of this whole standardized testing deal will have you know that there are bare minimums necessary for a student to be considered competent in the world today. In order to be remotely useful to society, which is the ultimate goal of our education system, a student must be able to do things like sit in a classroom against his wishes and do homework even when he deems it unnecessary. Similar situations are apparent in almost any job in the adult world. There are basic skills all kids need to be considered something above retarded – quite literally, without using the term in a derogatory sense. Standardized testing is an efficient way of weeding out individuals who lack the skills to contribute anything to society; that is, people who cannot do basic math (God knows I’m not a math genius) or basic vocabulary/writing questions. I’m not being mean or pompous about it. There are certain things you have to be able to do and that’s a given. It can also tell apart the geniuses from the norm; obviously, no ignoramus is going to waltz right into the testing room and walk out with a 2400. That’s also a given. Another benefit is the simpler means of comparison that a standardized test provides. One school may offer a curriculum that is exceptionally harder to succeed in than another school’s “easy A” type of curriculum. A test like the SAT provides an objective measure that is roughly the same for everyone who takes it and therefore makes it easier to assess a particular student when compared to another one who took the test. Congratulations, College Board. The way I see it, that’s about it for the “pros.”

The negative aspects of the current standardized testing system far outweigh the positives mentioned above. I mentioned that the SAT provides an “objective measure.” The question remains, what is the SAT objectively measuring? It’s measuring math and English skills that were supposed to have been acquired throughout one’s academic career, and nothing more. The problems with this simple fact are limitless, but there are two in particular which I want to discuss.

1) What if somebody’s skills lie outside of the realm of traditional mathematics, reading, or grammar skills? One could say, “sucks for them, there are some things you just have to be good at to get by.” Yes, this is usually the case. But imagine a budding artist whose drawings are somehow better and more revolutionary than the likes of Pablo Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh. Let’s say this kid really, really sucks at the subjects the SAT deems worthwhile. What of this poor student? He could go on to accomplish great things in the world, but the SAT will make it extremely difficult for him to get into a top notch college if he really just can’t do well on it. I guess this objection could be summarized by saying that the SAT does not make room for multiple intelligences. It idealizes only a very specific set of skills and impedes the goals of students who might be otherwise extremely talented.

A better comparison might be the hypothetical situation of Albert Einstein in the modern education system. You’d take it for granted that Einstein would graduate from a school like Harvard or some other elite school with numerous honors at the top of his class. But let’s say, he couldn’t construct the best essay in the world and maybe didn’t have the finest grammatical skills. Then, from a purely statistical level, Albert Einstein could have been labeled a fairly mediocre (or even worse) student, especially if his SAT score was looked at holistically and not broken down into the individual sections. Sure, young Einstein would have been equipped with the math skills to grow up and change the world as everyone knew it. But had he been living today, when SAT scores are placed on a level of utmost value, and when so is the college that one attends, who says he would have attained the same level of success that he did in reality? Eh. The argument might be a little shaky. But the point is that there are different types of skills and intelligence levels that the highly valued SAT simply doesn’t allow for, thus making it harder than necessary for children of such skills to thrive.

2) Another gaping flaw in the logic behind the SAT is the supposed “objectivity” of its measurements. As I said originally, one potential benefit is the ease with which two SAT takers can be compared, instead of being compared through their school curricula, which could differ greatly in levels of difficulty. But the simple fact of the matter, and my strongest objection to this method of testing, is that standardized tests such as the SAT are clearly socioeconomically biased. All these tests – the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GRE, you name it – cover skills which are supposed to be learned over an extended period of time. The vast majority of test-takers will have forgotten some of the information that the test demands not be forgotten, hence the need for private tutoring, which most people I know (myself included), do make use of. Even the books that some students study religiously count as extra tutoring. That being said, standardized tests are too obviously biased towards wealthy students.

Since these students are wealthy, or at least wealthier than some who may be less economically fortunate, they can afford professional help in studying for these tests. They will therefore score higher than students who cannot afford, for example, a course designed to increase scores. I think anyone who can make use of it will make use of it, which is why I do. Nobody wouldn’t due to some moral objection. But if I didn’t have the money to cover it, my scores would be dramatically less than the scores I’ll apply to colleges with. And those scores make a huge difference, whether you and I like it or not. I happen to perform excellently in both the verbal and writing sections of the SAT. I also happen to perform downright terribly on the math section, because it’s just not my thing. My point is that if I had no money to buy the books, the courses, and the tutors, it would be apparent to colleges from one glance at my test scores that math is really “not my thing.” But thanks to the extra help I acquired through way too many dollars spent, my scores will ultimately be at least 150-200 points higher than what they would have been with no extra help. Had I been less fortunate, my college options would be slimmer than they will be, and we all know how important a decent college is in the current economy (may it make a speedy recovery, now let us all respond amen).

It is primarily due to the facts that standardized tests make no room for certain talents, and that they are socioeconomically biased, that I have no respect for them. They’re not a valid measurement of intelligence at all, rather a measurement of how many tutors you can buy and how many books you can bury yourself in order to increase your score, and thus your college options, and thus perhaps the big picture of your lie. All around, an epic fail at pretty much everything it pretends to be, if you ask me.

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4 Responses to The Pros and Cons (But Mostly Cons) of the SAT: the Standardized Testing Debate

  1. Kevin Matthew Wolf says:

    I vehemently object to your assessment of the SAT. First of all, I think we agree that the SAT do not measure one’s intelligence. Far from it. The think you’re not realizing though is that the SAT is not an intelligence test! As someone who I can’t remember once said, “The SAT measures the ability of someone to take the SAT.” As you see it, there are people out there who do poorly on the SAT who truly deserve to get into good colleges. The refutation for this statement is simple: What makes you more qualified than college admissions centers to determine who gets into their college? Allow me to elaborate: (a) Most colleges are private institutions. They and only they decide who gets in, and who “deserves” to get in is irrelevant. (b) The SAT is a test owned by the College Board, a company that is not government owned. The makers of it can do whatever they want. Colleges are not required to use it–they choose to. (By the way, does that not tell you something in itself?) (c) As you have made clear, intelligence is not single faceted, nor is it the only determination of ability to, let’s say, “influence the world when you’re older.” The SAT does not cover all types of talents, but it covers the most important ones. And if you don’t do decently on them, then you probably shouldn’t be going to a top-tier college no matter artistic or whatever other skills you have. Besides, if you do poorly on the SAT when you’re really a hidden genius, it should show through in other areas of your college resume–for example, your school grades in comparison to other students in your high school, awards you might have won, extracurriculars, etc. (d) Even if the SAT are a bad indicator of any sort of intelligence, they still reflect one important characteristic: hard work and dedication. As you point out, intelligence isn’t the only important qualification for admission to college.
    Overall, I think this can be summed up in a little story. My dad (who I think moonlighted in admissions) told me that colleges all know that most kids don’t write their own college admission essays and their parents do. When I asked him why they still make them write it anyway, he said if the essay is good, it shows that the kid’s parents are smart, and so he’s probably smart too. Pretty much what I’m trying to get across is that the reasons colleges use the SAT might now be as simple as you think. I’m sure they don’t actually believe that every person who does badly on the SAT is automatically an idiot and doesn’t belong in their college. Maybe doing well just shows you are rich, but then again maybe colleges only want richer kids, or maybe it at least shows a capacity to do well, etc.

  2. M. Bernard says:

    Einstein got bad grade in school, as did many other unusually gifted individuals. Applying your reasoning, this means that GPA should not be used in college admissions.

    The flaw your argument is that it assumes that if a standard measure fails in some exceptional cases, it is completely useless. Instead, standard measures are useful because when taken together with other measures, in many or even most cases they are accurate.

    Wealthy students often need tutoring because they are less motivated and less willing to work on their own than they would be if they had less. Tutoring helps them to compensate for this handicap.

    • Blaze says:

      let me begin by stating that i don’t agree with the author in this essay, but your absolute statement that wealthy students are less motivated and willing to work on their own is absurd. I’m not sure if you have visited a private high school before, but the amount of intelligent, wealthy students who are taking 4 or more AP classes is astounding. do they feel they do not need to work because they are wealthy? no. is that a fallacious stereotype? yes. it’s basically the same as saying less affluent students in society don’t work hard because they know their future will be mediocre at best anyway. the fact that you consider their wealth a handicap is naive and simple narrow minded.

  3. Daniel says:

    To Kevin Wolfe, Not all colleges are private institutions, many in fact are state funded and must follow the requirements of the state. My issue with the SAT and ACT tests are that there is no critical thinking instilled in them, they are, like most tests, just a regurgitation of information, and can’t interpret someone abilities as accurately as other standardized tests used in other countries. After all, whats more important, the answer or the way in which you achieve.

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