Who's afraid of the SAT?

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The College Board dropped the acronym “Scholastic Aptitude Test” in 1997, making the SAT stand for nothing. Fast forward to the pandemic, when colleges and universities nationwide adopted test-optional applications. Those changes continued well past Covid-19’s peak, suggesting a widespread belief that standardized tests hold little value.

But the perception of standardized testing seems to be rising. Elite colleges like MIT, Dartmouth and Yale are reinstating their SAT requirements.

As a high school senior who just went through the college application process — and found SAT prep at times dreadful — I couldn’t agree more with this restoration.

Aside from standardized test scores, the entire college application process seems very subjective. Essays and interviews clearly are, but so are grades and GPAs. In my own high school, two students taking the same class but with two different teachers can have vastly different grading experiences. The variety of GPAs is even worse — different schools have different GPA scales across the nation. Try comparing a 4.0, 4.3, 5.0, 5.3 or even an 11-point grade scale.

With this lack of standardization in high school academics, it’s not surprising that both students and admissions officers benefit from having standardized test scores. Students want to show off their scholastic prowess through standardized tests, and admission officers can compare students’ academic preparedness.

Despite this, the common argument against standardized tests is that they favor students from wealthier families. But as someone who has taken more than 20 practice SATs, completed over 1,700 practice questions on Khan Academy, taken the SAT three times and now tutors other students for the test, I can confidently say that the SAT itself isn’t biased toward the wealthy. I have yet to encounter a question that relied on knowledge about art collecting or summering in Milan (if that’s what the wealthy still do). And SAT questions are “vetted to weed out potential racially-, ethnically-, or class-biased questions,” according to Adam Tyner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

It is true that wealthier test-takers can afford expensive test prep resources and elite tutoring. But this doesn’t mean standardized testing harms non-wealthy students — it actually does the opposite.

Consider students who don’t attend schools with lots of AP classes or have the chance to develop and show their full academic potential. These students can still obtain high SAT scores, proving that they have similar academic skills as students with more opportunities. A high score demonstrates academic potential. The SAT acts as a great equalizer.

And the inequality in test prep is changing. There are now free weekly SAT peer-tutoring classes online. Such online peer tutoring has been shown to produce a 40-to-55-point increase in SAT scores. Khan Academy offers free SAT test prep material, and research conducted by Khan Academy and the College Board shows that studying for 20 hours on Khan Academy is associated with a 115-point average score increase.

I used Khan Academy’s free SAT prep program and a self-paced online SAT prep program that cost $400, essentially a question bank organized by topic. It was expensive, but still more affordable than the name-brand 30-hour $2,200 prep class. With Khan Academy, the online question bank, and around 250 hours of studying, my first official SAT score was 300 points higher than my first practice test. Non-wealthy students can succeed on standardized tests.

In fact, having test-optional policies can actually harm low-income students. Researchers at Dartmouth found that many low-income students didn’t submit their test scores, which would have helped them be admitted. The students thought their scores were too low, but admissions officers would have seen the scores as evidence of overcoming adversity and potential for success at Dartmouth. If applicants were required to submit, the outcome could have been different.

Beyond providing a standardized metric to measure academic preparedness and offering an opportunity for students to demonstrate their potential despite socioeconomic barriers, the most compelling reason for keeping the SAT is for what it represents — and it’s more than just the number of questions someone gets right.

The young people I’ve tutored attended twice-a-week 75-minute Zoom sessions at night, completed practice problems and took multiple practice tests. Their scores reflect the time they spent studying between school, extracurriculars, jobs and other responsibilities. It represents not only academic aptitude but also time management and dedication, the same traits required for success in any level of education, especially college.

That’s probably why researchers at Dartmouth found that standardized test scores are a better predictor of college success than high school grades. Not surprising for a test that is supposed to measure “college readiness.”

Sidhi Dhanda is a senior at Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, Mass., and will be attending Harvard University this fall.

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