OPINION: The racist roots of the SAT render it ineffective

Last week, Interim President Wanda Austin announced USC’s lowest acceptance rate in history — 11 percent. As admission to USC grows more competitive, the USC community must address systemic inequalities present in standardized college entrance exams. Children from affluent backgrounds simply have more advantages when they take such tests — advantages that are prominent in their test scores. 

Standardized testing was founded on racism and class inequality. College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, created their tests based on ones used for the United States Army, according to PBS Frontline. These tests were initially developed to determine those who could be considered “mentally inferior” and unfit for military service. 

“During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in units segregated by race and by test scores,” the National Education Association said. The tests were scientific, yet they remained deeply biased.

A study published in 1923 by Carl Brigham, one of the men who created one of the original tests, wrote that the so-called “American Intelligence” would not develop further “owing to the presence of the negro.”

Now the test, more commonly known as the SAT, is used as a metric for admission by most colleges. 

While Brigham’s boilerplate racism is one of the past, students of color continue to be discriminated against, even in the creation of test questions. Education Weekly writer Catherine Gewertz studied SAT results in 2017 to look at trends among students of different races taking the test. 

“Hispanic and African-American students score significantly below [the average composite score],” Gewertz found. 

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, commonly known as FairTest, also reported that students of color score lower on standardized testing used in college admissions. Lower scores impact their ability to secure merit-based scholarships, contributing to the racial gap in college enrollments and completion, according to the NEA. Consistent low scores for minority groups create not only a systemic cycle of racial gaps, but also a psychological one — the NEA reports that the use of high-stakes testing affects test takers’ emotional and psychological states, causing poor performance and a dismal academic outlook. 

SAT tutoring also perpetuates economic inequity in testing. While very few students paid exorbitant amounts of money to cheat on these tests, many affluent students have access to expensive test prep that drastically improves their scores. Elite Test Prep near Arcadia High School, the high school that sends the highest number of students to USC, offers a morning SAT prep course that costs $2,740. While seeking out tutoring for academic achievement is not inherently wrong, doing so places lower income students who cannot afford such test prep at a noticeable disadvantage. 

This economic inequality is represented in the student population of USC. A recent study by The Equality of Opportunity Project found that USC was falling behind its California peers in enrolling students whose family incomes were in the lowest 20 percent.  Because the SAT is unfairly biased against minority students and those of lower socioeconomic classes, the University must champion students from lower income households, especially those from communities around USC.

The SAT cannot truly measure student aptitude due to its deep historical roots in racism and its present-day propensity to disadvantage minorities and those of lower socioeconomic classes.

On the USC Admission Center website, the University claims to review every application comprehensively and holistically. As USC admission becomes more competitive, the University must recognize the racial and economic barriers some of its prospective students face. While a standardized test score is not the only consideration in assessing an applicant, maybe it should not even be considered at all.