The Right Answer or the White Answer? The Racist Past and Present of the SAT

I’m taking yet another practice test to prepare for my upcoming SAT. I’m rather confident in most of my answers, and the English section is going smoothly. I run into a question relating to a passage regarding an important 20th-century scientist and scholar and the media’s initial reaction to her studies. “Which sentence would best fit here?” the question asks, and gives me four options. I narrow the choices down to the only two that make sense: “Critics disparaged her work in the press” and “Critics dissed her work in the press.” Although both answers are correct in terms of grammar and spelling, one immediately stands out to me as the one that adjudicators will mark correct. And I come to a sad realization: as a white student, I am privileged to have the “correct” answer on a standardized test reflect what I and others of my race are more likely to say. “Diss” is a verb roughly meaning to denounce or disrespect in a public manner. It originated in African-American Vernacular English, and rose to prominence through rap slang, especially in reference to a “diss track” aimed at another rapper. The word is formally recognized by both Merriam-Webster and Collins’ English Dictionary, and although it has a more brash and upfront connotation than “disparage”, both words mean the same thing at heart, and both would have effectively communicated the point that the scientists’ work was met with a negative reaction. The common rationale for why the word “disparage” is considered the right answer is because it is more respectable, or has a more formal tone. But what does that say to Black students, and other students of color? It tells them that the vocabulary they are more familiar with and makes more sense to them, simply through cultural and linguistic differences, is not good enough. The racist history of the SAT, a common standardized test administered by College Board and often required for admission by many colleges, became more widely known during the uptick of racial tensions and the spreading of antiracist information this past summer, sparked by the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests. The test was created in 1926 by Carl Brigham, a eugenicist who sought to prove that white students (those descended from the Nordic race, as he termed it) were superior to students of color (grouping them into the racist categories “Alpine”, “Mediterranean”, and “Negro”). He published these findings with the intention of restricting immigration and protecting the standard of “American intelligence”. Much later in life, by the time the SAT had already been widely popularized and instituted, he recanted his baseless theories and essentially admitted his test was impartial and discriminatory, saying the scores are a “composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else relevant and irrelevant” (Fussell, 2019). However, the damage had already been done, and the SAT was used to justify racist policies ranging from disproportionate school funding to anti-immigration legislation. Ninety years later, the racism embedded in the fabric of the SATs is still prevalent. Entire sections of the test are devoted entirely to value-judgments: questions that have no objective right or wrong answer, such as the “disparage” vs. “diss” question. Depending on a student’s ethnic heritage or background, they may not be able to give answers that satisfy the demands of the test, although these answers are in reality just as valid. Of course reading, writing and grammar are important aspects of a student’s aptitude, but the intensely biased scale on which they’re currently being judged is in dire need of reform. Nowhere is it more prominent than in questions like the one I originally posed, where test creatorstake a word like “diss”, a word specifically associated with Black slang, and use it as a booby trap for Black students. The other shockingly racist facet of this well-known test is that it has virtually no options for those who do not speak English. A prepscholar.com article shows that “sadly, no, there is no special SAT ESL or bilingual version”, and that as a result, “ESL, bilingual and international students often score higher on the math section than the writing and critical reading sections.” It also implies that the easiest way for ESL students to ace the persuasive essay is not to learn more English, but to “familiarize [one]self with what graders want to see”, or to assimilate into graders’ narrow, whitewashed view of the language without learning anything substantial for future language requirements. Since higher percentages of Black, African-American, and Latine students are classified as ESL learners, and a higher percentage of students who live in urban areas as well, the deck is clearly stacked against these students, and they are likely to perform significantly worse on a test crucial to admissions chances due to no fault of their own. To fully examine the racist history of the SATs, we must also examine the racism of the College Board, its administrator and de facto parent company. Keep in mind that the College Board specifically asked for Brigham to develop the SAT after directors read his book, A Study of American Intelligence (1923). A racist testing system was not forced upon them; they chose that knowing full well it would lessen minority students’ chances of getting into good colleges. Beyond the harm that decreasing admissions chances does to a students’ livelihood, the College Board and similar education systems across the country, including the Regents board of NYS, have used test results to determine funding for public school systems. If a test is designed for White students to succeed and Black students to fail, this inevitably means that historically White schools will continue to receive more funding than historically Black schools, widening the financial gap between the communities and promoting harmful segregation. In addition, College Board has been accused of monopolizing and streamlining the college admissions process, and more aggressively asserting power over education in recent years. AP curriculum has become more rigid and restrictive, and the Board recently created the CSS profile, their own required, pricey version of popular federal student aid (FAFSA) form. These displays of sovereignty are disconcerting, especially when it is taken into consideration how the College Board’s programs continue to harm students from marginalized communities. There is a not-so-distant hope for a future without the racism of the SATs looming over students’ heads, and it has come as an indirect benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of acknowledgement that many students could not have access to the test as a result of quarantine, most U.S. schools have gone test-optional for the 2020-2021 admissions year, and some have even done away with testing requirements permanently. Many colleges are realizing not only that what they learn about their prospective students through interviews, auditions, resumes, and other information is enough to make an admissions decision, but that the SAT is rooted in racism and it is unfair to use it for admissions even in a non-pandemic-affected world. I applaud these colleges for taking the initiative to break free of the increasingly redundant, archaic testing system, and setting a good example for other institutions. However, in the meantime, the SAT is unfortunately still a fact of life for many high school juniors and seniors. There are alternatives to this test though, most notably the equally respected ACT, and the newer, more progressive CLT (Classic Learning Test), which can be taken fully online and is already accepted by more than 100 colleges nationwide. All these options are fantastic opportunities to show one’s academic prowess and skills without paying into an actively racist and monopolistic system. Let’s look forward to the promise of a more just, more equitable education system when the SAT vanishes in our collective rearview mirror.

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