This piece originally appeared in The New Yorker Daily newsletter.
Eren Orbey talks about inequality in college admissions, and what it’s like to take the new digital SAT.
The SAT feels like such an integral part of the college-admissions process—some students even have parents who enroll them in rigorous after-school test-prep programs just so that they can ace the exam. But the SAT is also partially a relic from another time, something that has evolved as times have changed. What’s your sense of its importance as a factor in college admissions today?
I was surprised, in my reporting, how quickly executives from the College Board were willing to say that the test is lower stakes, as they put it in their press release. They really do seem to be advertising the digital SAT as a different kind of tool, focussing on its power to help certain students stand out rather than on its potential threat to students who don’t score well. But there’s still so much pressure on the other side, from high-school administrators and test-prep tutors and others. I think the SAT has become a kind of cultural relic with a lot of weight and meaning that is perhaps separate from what the College Board is actually intending.
To me, the most interesting question in this new moment is whether the messaging from the College Board and from test-optional universities will affect the way kids look at the test. Because there are so many new doubts now, like, If I don’t submit an SAT score, are colleges going to assume that I did poorly, or will they assume I didn’t take it and directed attention elsewhere? There isn’t a lot of consensus. That has created a different kind of panic.
I will say that I was impressed when I spoke with leaders at the College Board—they came across as earnest, smart people who are trying to make the best version of this test that they can. I think the biggest difference between the critics of the SAT and the makers of the SAT is that the critics don’t think the test can be perfected, whereas the College Board is continually retooling the test to make it better, in part because they think it’s, if not perfectible, then at least worthwhile.
As a student, I felt that I benefitted a lot from the SAT. I went to a private school, but I was raised by a single mother, who had immigrated to the United States. I felt that the SAT was a lot more predictable and controllable than many other elements of the admissions game. So I went into this story eager to listen to what the defenses of the test were, but also well aware of the broader systemic critiques of the test that have intensified in recent years.
There’s this moment in your piece when you talk about this idea of an adversity score, which the College Board announced in 2019, attempting to contextualize students’ scores based on their backgrounds—and which backfired. Underlying the College Board’s strategies, you write, is a “conviction that quantifying students’ records can help promote social justice.” But others see the use of SAT scores as inherently discriminatory. What was it like to speak with different groups about this question of inequality?
A refrain I heard from executives at the College Board was that the SAT doesn’t create inequality; it just reflects inequality that already exists. You can extend that argument in favor of the test further by saying that, during the pandemic, at a time when remote learning is worsening educational outcomes for so many students across the country, it can be valuable to have a measure for how students are doing. On the other side, critics of the test point out that it’s possible for the SAT to be a reflection of existing inequalities, but also to contribute to those inequalities at the same time. I think the drama around the adversity score blew up because it was a confession that perhaps the test scores alone aren’t actually painting a full or useful picture of college readiness, or the deservingness of students, who are working so hard with drastically different resources available to them.
You could see the adversity score either as a fraught step toward making the tool more transparently meritocratic or as kind of a concession—that if you have to append all this information to the test, maybe the test isn’t so fair in the first place. I think distilling things down into a single score, when you’re talking about levels of disadvantage, also makes critics of the test uncomfortable when you think about college readiness in general—if the move to quantify levels of disadvantage is potentially incomplete or reductive, then maybe the SAT isn’t so neutral a tool after all. I’ve noticed that the most compelling arguments in favor of the SAT usually involve looking at the worse evils in the college-admissions process—things such as essays, which can be gamed a lot more easily, or extracurriculars, which are generally available to richer students who have more time and resources, as well as parents pushing to get them involved. As part of your piece, you actually took the new digital SAT. How did that experience compare with your experience taking the paper test a decade ago, as a high-school student? It just felt simpler. It was a two-part reading-and-writing section followed by a two-part math section, and the user interface they designed was sleek and straightforward to use. Taking the test on a laptop, instead of having to worry about bubbling in answers, felt like it removed a lot of the stereotypes about the test that make the experience feel kind of robotic, or otherworldly. One student I spoke to said that she loved being able to test on her own laptop, because she felt like she was familiar with it. My first question for the College Board executives when I finished the test was: Are you worried you made it too easy? They said that the same number of students are getting the questions right and wrong. So the test has still retained its predictive capacity, but what’s changing is that students feel it’s easier.
Many colleges and universities adopted test-optional policies during the pandemic, and so there was a decrease in over-all students taking the SAT. But as a result some schools, you write, saw an uptick in applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. This seems to leave schools in a tricky position—some applicants will have scores and some won’t, but their applications should be considered equally. How should students be balancing whether or not to take the test?
There are three statuses I see among schools right now. First, the schools that require the SAT—such as M.I.T., which went test-optional for two years and is now restoring its requirement for the test. On the other extreme is the University of California system, which has gone test-blind, so it won’t look at the test, even for students who take it and want to submit their scores. And in the middle is where most schools reside, currently, in part, as a result of the pandemic: test-optional. They let students who want to submit their test scores submit them. For students who don’t want to, it’s not a problem, and these schools say that they’ll just weigh other aspects of the application more heavily.
I still find that misleading. What I found a little bit tricky about these schools advertising more diversity among applicants is that a more diverse applicant pool doesn’t necessarily mean a more diverse freshman class. It seems logical that, when the test requirements disappear, more students would be inclined to apply to selective schools. What’s less clear is whether the absence of SAT scores, or the option to submit them or not submit them, actually helps those outcomes, or whether it’s a kind of superficial advertisement from these colleges. You get schools that have seen a huge uptick in their applicant pools and meaningful increases in diversity among their classes. There are also statistics from schools that ended up admitting mostly students who had scores. Is that because applicants mostly submitted scores even when scores weren’t required? Is it because applicants who chose to submit scores when given the choice are also generally those with higher G.P.A.s? We may need several years of data to know more certainly.
There are so many different players in this game, from students to high-school counsellors to admissions officers to parents to test-prep tutors. My sense is that students who are trying to get into selective schools are still feeling pressure to take the test. I was struck by the sense that even a lower-stakes SAT might not feel lower stakes to students who are trying to figure out how to put their best foot forward in college admissions. It’s kind of a mess, and I think the clearest way to reduce stress for students would be to have a consistent rule. I feel relieved I’m not applying to college in this environment, because it seems like every year the admissions figures go down, and more and more players are entering this college-prep game.
At the end of the day, the real problem seems to be the scarcity of opportunity for higher-education success. Across top schools, there’s so much interest and so few spots, and it tends to seem like a cutthroat win-or-lose, net-zero game. I think that is really sad. The true tragedy of the situation is that there should be more accessible and higher-quality educational opportunities available to students who seek them, and there should be fair, fulfilling, and dignified professional opportunities for students who don’t go to four-year colleges.