SATs, College Admissions, and Leveling the Playing Field


One of the articles we read for Politics of Reading this week was a New York Times column by Frank Bruni, called “Rethinking College Admissions.”

Part of that article was about how some colleges no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.  In my opinion that’s a very good thing, because the admissions process, as Bruni notes,

“fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds….And late last year, more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy League, announced the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which is developing a website and application process intended in part to diversify student bodies.

Colleges are becoming more conscious of their roles — too frequently neglected — in social mobility. They’re recognizing how many admissions measures favor students from affluent families.”

Specifically, students whose parents who can afford test preparation services (such as Kaplan) or private tutors have yet another advantage over students whose families cannot afford them.

I have been thinking about this lately because I work in a public library that is a popular site for tutoring sessions.  I have noticed many private SAT prep sessions taking place, and sometimes overhear a good bit of what is being said when I am working within earshot.  The thing is, all of the high school students I hear being coached are white and middle-class.   They attend competitive high schools in the area.  They don’t seem like the kids who would most need SAT/ACT tutoring sessions–but they are the ones who can afford it.

The kids who would most benefit from SAT test prep are more like the kids I work with at a local middle school.  They have dreams of going to “good colleges,” too; but because of their family backgrounds and finances, they are much less likely to have a shot at it than the kids I see being tutored privately at the public library.  One of the students I work with wants to be an electrical engineer, but he would be the first in his family to go to college.  His parents are less likely to know about private SAT test prep and less likely to be able to afford it than affluent, college-educated parents.

From the comments section of the NY Times article:

Southern Hope, Chicago January 19, 2016
“My kid attends a urban public high school with 70% of the kids on reduced-lunch program. But we are a family with extra funds (since we don’t have to pay private school tuition) so we decided to spend $1300 on ACT/SAT tutoring. While its hard to say what my son might have scored had he received no private tutoring, his scores went straight up once he completed the tutoring. And because of his score (which rose, primarily, by being taught the timing and tricks behind these tests), he’s now eligible for more schools.

“The bottom line is that money makes all of the difference here. He’s no smarter than he was before we spent the money but raising his standardized scores made him *appear* to be smarter.

“And that’s the advantage that 70% of the kids in his class will never have. It’s way past time to change the way we admit kids.”

Another commenter agreed, and commented:

Cristina Aguila, Key Largo, FL January 20, 2016

“As a senior currently awaiting college decisions, this article speaks to me. I entered high school with the understanding that I had to do everything right if I was to go to an elite school. I was very successful academically until I reached my junior year- I piled on as many AP courses and extracurriculars as I could…. What really let me know that my future was ‘shot’ however, were my SAT scores. I expected 700s. I performed much lower than that. With private tutoring however, I raised them over 120 points. Keep in mind that if my parents did not have the money to do this, my application would be laughable.

But still another commenter had this to say:

Anton Call, Salt Lake, UT January 20, 2016
“For better or worse, parents will always have the right to help their kids get an edge. Whether it’s staying at home to help them learn to read or paying for an SAT prep course, the upper class will always have the advantage. That is why college admissions (and life in general) will never be fair.”

So if life in general will never be completely fair, is it useless to try to make the playing field more level?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps the upper class will always have an advantage, as the previous commenter noted; but being aware that the system is regularly gamed by those who already have all kinds of advantages ought to prompt us to do something to mitigate it.



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4 Responses to SATs, College Admissions, and Leveling the Playing Field

  1. claire.s says:

    Such a great post and overview of the discussion around this article! Love how straightforward the commenter was who said “He’s no smarter than he was before we spent the money but raising his standardized scores made him *appear* to be smarter.” It just goes to show how arbitrary standardized test scores can be. The fact that there are tricks and tips that one can learn about how to take the test, completely unrelated to academic potential, shows that there is a design flaw in the tests. I too wonder if there is a way to level the playing field for students who do not have access to private tutoring…perhaps an elective class offered in schools on SAT/ACT prep? Although it is frustrating that valuable school time would then be wasted preparing for these tests. I guess for now I hold hope in the fact that many schools are recognizing other ways that students can earn their place at their college or university, and hope that SAT/ACT scores will continue to take a backseat.


    • juniperonjupiter says:

      Thanks for your comment, Claire! It is troubling how much preparing to take the SAT/ACT has come to mean learning about tricks and tips for taking the test, as you say. As my younger child will enter high school next year, I find myself wondering whether she will want to take test-prep sessions before taking the exams. It is something like an arms race: if most others who can afford it are doing it, as Annie mentions below, those who can’t are at a disadvantage.

      And even without SATs/ACTs, students from middle-class or higher families are already hugely advantaged compared to students from lower SES backgrounds.


  2. Annie R says:

    Thank you for sharing! This is such an important issue that is not getting enough national attention. The SAT/ACT are just codes you need to crack. If you have the tools to figure out how to take the test the best way, then you will succeed. The problem is the tools come with a price tag that many students cannot afford. I remember I had some friends who started SAT prep freshman year of high school. My parents wanted me to be able to compete with my peers, so I took a few preps courses in my junior year but they were nothing compared to some of the more affluent students at my school. Looking back I feel ridiculous that I actually felt at a disadvantage in comparison to my peers. There were some students at my school who could only take the ACT given freely during our school year because taking the tests were too expensive and they couldn’t get to the location on the weekends. It is encouraging to read that some schools are starting to veer away from standardized tests in college applications, I truly believe that it cannot come soon enough.


    • juniperonjupiter says:

      Thanks for commenting, Annie! You raise a few other very important issues that I did not: that the tests are expensive, and that it can be difficult to get to the test locations. In this school district, the schools offer one free SAT/ACT on site, but if a student wanted to improve their score with a retest they would have to arrange it and pay for it on their own–and get to it, which can be very difficult for someone whose family does not own a car. Neither one of those things is a problem if a family has means, but for kids from lower-income families, it is a much bigger issue.


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