The SAT: Always Scrutinized, but Racially Biased?

ByJordan Marzouk

The SAT, the most widely used college admission exam, was created in 1926 to make college accessible to all students. According to College Board, the not-for-profit organization that develops the assessment, the SAT "tests knowledge of reading, writing and math subjects that are taught every day in high school classrooms." But is it doing so fairly? Is the exam still accomplishing its original mission or has it become biased against certain racial groups?

Though differing results are to be expected in subgroups such as race, some speculate that the gap extends beyond the scope of socioeconomic and educational inequality. A Harvard study revealed that black students of equal academic aptitude scored lower on the verbal section than their white counterparts and argued that SAT questions showed bias towards white students by using language with which they were more familiar. Numerous publications including the Harvard Educational Review and the Princeton Review have even referred to the SAT as the "white preference test."

In one example of an unfair question, test takers were expected to select the words "innovation" and "time-honored" from five possible choices as the correct responses for the respective blanks in following sentence: "The dance company rejects ___, preferring to present ___ dances in a manner that underscores their traditional appeal." Though a seemingly reasonable exam question to those who understand the concept of a dance company, critics argue that it is one of many that use cultural expressions more prevalent in white society than black society. Black students are less likely to be familiar with the term "dance company" and are therefore at a disadvantage when answering the question. The claim has some validity: only 38% of black students correctly answered the question compared to 62% of white students, a much more significant difference than would dictate the normal white-black discrepancy.

The College Board, not shockingly, has responded by saying that score disparities can be attributed to the achievement gap nationwide and not to racial bias. Since better-educated students are likely to know more about the cultural references used in the world around them, the differences in scores among members of the different groups can be ultimately linked to this gap. The results of the test, it claims, simply mirror what is going on in the United States as the SAT continues to be one of the most researched and validated exams in the world. But is it fair to expect an understanding of this "white culture" as part of our culture in general? Perhaps, but shouldn't we subsequently expect an understanding of black or Hispanic cultures as well?

Though many would agree that the college admissions process today over-relies on the four-hour exam when making decisions, it doesn't appear that the SAT will cease to become an important tool anytime soon. It is therefore even more important that the test is objective and that as much of this bias is removed as possible. Though other aspects of the process are also sadly plagued by racial considerations, it is necessary that the most decisive exam students take in high school gives them a fair chance to show off their skills, as it was initially intended to. In a final push for a reform of the exam, Dr. Ibram H. Rogers, assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Albany- SUNY, states, "It is subtle, not loud. The rhythm of discriminatory test-making is regular. And it will continue to clandestinely pump out inequality unless we do something about it."