Why They Really Hate the SAT
by Steve Sailer
Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 5/2/91, 800 words
The Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT, endured by more than a million college-bound students annually, is regularly denounced as racist, sexist, and elitist. Yet evidence for these accusations is so paltry that their popularity seems more symptom than cause of the entrance exam's disrepute.
For example, the Associated Press, Newsweek, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and others recently reported that the SAT quizzes students on "regatta," by implication a word known mostly by white, male yacht owners. That "regatta" question, in fact, was scuttled back during the Ford Administration. All questions since have been pretested for bias. Whether from reduced bias, improved education, or other causes, blacks' average scores have risen by 50 points (out of 1600) in 15 years, while whites' results have stagnated.
Critics assume the mere fact of whites outscoring blacks and boys outperforming girls proves the questions must be culturally biased toward white males. If so, prejudice would appear more in the test's verbal half because the truths of mathematics are cross-cultural. For instance, Asian-Americans lead all groups in math scores. But because many are immigrants, Asians trail whites on the verbal module, which by definition is biased toward English. In contrast, blacks and females do relatively worse on math than verbal, implying that test bias doesn't explain these differences. In 1990 whites exceeded blacks by 106 on math versus 90 on verbal; similarly, males surpassed females by 44 on math but by an insignificant 10 on verbal.
Further, academic analyses demonstrate that the SAT predicts freshman year grades as accurately for blacks as for whites. Finally, even if the test unjustly discriminated against blacks, the impact would be limited because exclusive colleges admit freshmen according to racial goals: blacks compete against blacks, and whites and Asians against whites and Asians. Politics, not test scores, determine the racial balance.
Critics proclaim bias because females score lower but earn higher grades in college. Sophisticated studies that adjust for males taking more rigorous science and engineering courses, however, indicate no unfairness. Many are also upset that more boys than girls tally extremely high (e.g., boys earn 96% of the perfect 800's on math). But as Daniel Seligman of Fortune has noted, many psychometric studies show equal intellectual performance between the sexes on average, but greater variability within the male population. As any woman could testify, there are more stupid men than women; likewise, at least in math, there are more brilliant men than women. This also partly explains higher average male scores: only the college-bound take the SAT; since the lower depths aren't tested, boys average higher.
To show that the rich enjoy advantages, the media unskeptically repeat the hype of tutoring firms purporting to quickly and dramatically lift scores. It is prudent to learn the SAT's rules of thumb (e.g., the longest answer is often right), but most kids willing to work through the free practice tests can figure out for themselves the main tricks taught in short tutorials. As a former teenager, I suspect the course-takers' biggest edge may be that having invested money and time, they are less likely on the Saturday morning of the test to show up hung-over. Conversely, long courses that teach useful skills like deciphering new words from Latin roots can deliver educational value. While American commentators worry that studying after school to raise test scores is undemocratic, our Japanese competitors have made intensive test preparation a national mania.
Ironically, critics of the "biased" SAT urge more reliance on subjective criteria: grades, interviews, and recommendations. What they really can't stand about the SAT, it seems, is its objectivity.
Years ago, the SAT was admired for spotlighting smart students in bad schools and bright kids who got lousy grades because they were bored by their classes. Even average students respected it for exposing some straight-A classmates as mere grindaholic weenies who never read anything besides textbooks. Why are opinion-makers now so eager to swallow anti-testing sophistry? Probably because, unlike in Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, half of all SAT-takers score below the median. Once, society strove to identify the excellent. In this more sensitive era, our primary impulse is to protect the mediocre from awareness of their mediocrity.
Problems with the SAT remain, but its creator, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey, is only now addressing them because the SAT has enjoyed a near-stranglehold. (David Owen of the Atlantic Monthly calls ETS "probably the most powerful unregulated monopoly in America.") Outside the Midwest, prestigious colleges disdain the competing American College Testing (ACT) program of Iowa City, Iowa as if it were for country bumpkins. The educational establishment should drop its prejudice and foster intense competition between the ACT and the SAT.
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Steve Sailer (email@example.com) is a Chicago businessman and former teenager.
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