Commentary: It's Past Time to Rethink the SAT Test

Keith Boykin

Commentary: It's Past Time to Rethink the SAT Test

Are the new changes to the SAT enough, or should we eliminate, or at least de-emphasize, standardized tests altogether?

Published March 7, 2014

This week, the group that administers the SAT college exam announced major new changes to the test that millions of high school students have taken over the years. The changes are designed to focus more on real-world problem solving, expand access to test preparation, and reduce emphasis on "tricks" to beat the test. 

Standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools," said College Board President and CEO David Coleman. He's right, and those are healthy developments for a test that researchers have shown correlates strongly with family income and racial background. But are the new changes enough, or should we eliminate, or at least de-emphasize, standardized tests altogether?

I think it's time to re-evaluate our use of standardized tests and to question the trend toward judging "merit" by rigid numerical standards. My own experience with testing may provide a useful example from the past that still holds meaning for today.

Back in fourth grade, I loved math. I dutifully turned in each homework assignment on time. I cheerfully completed math quizzes and exams, and I was always the first person in class to finish each test. It was like a race for me, and I can't remember any time I didn't get an A on a math quiz that year.

After that year, it was all downhill for me and math. By fifth grade, I got involved in student council and later was elected student council president. The math bug was dead. The politics bug was born. 

By the time I graduated from high school, I hated math. I barely scored above the median on the math section of the SAT, and I worried I wouldn't be admitted to a good school because of my relative weakness in math compared to other subjects. As it turns out, a small Ivy League college in New Hampshire took a chance on me despite an SAT score below the norm for its entering students.

I survived a freshman year at Dartmouth among students from private boarding schools with perfect and near-perfect SAT scores, and despite some initial uncertainty I went on to some success in college. I became the editor-in-chief of the campus daily newspaper, a school record holder in track and field, and the winner of a prestigious college award for all-around achievement. I graduated in four years, went to work for a presidential campaign, and later got accepted to Harvard Law School.

As it turned out, my SAT score — especially the math component — was not an indicator of my success in college or beyond. Perhaps that's part of the reason why I've never liked standardized tests. Standardized tests measure a student's ability to take standardized tests, but they don't measure ambition, creativity, perseverance, or any number of other important traits that contribute to success in life. 

Some elite private colleges have already begun to rethink emphasis on the 88-year-old SAT test. They not only look at test scores and GPAs, but also extracurricular activities, family background, personal struggles, campus diversity, and other factors that contribute to a rich college experience. But less expensive state colleges, reflecting a post-affirmative action mindset of conservative state legislators, often lack the flexibility to consider these important factors, and a whole generation of young Black and Latino students are being locked out or priced out of college opportunity as a result.

In fact, a talented young African-American man I know was recently denied admission to a state university in the South, despite his 3.7 high school GPA, simply because his reading comprehension score on the ACT test didn't meet state-mandated minimum standards for admission. He's a smart kid who tried again, but Black students are also subject to "stereotype vulnerability" when taking high-pressure tests. And the second time was not much better.

In the end, he took out thousands of dollars in additional student loans and went to a private college instead. That's one more Black kid who will finish school saddled with debt instead of opportunity to make different choices.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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