College Guide


June 21, 2010 11:00 AM The SAT’s (Many) Problems

By Daniel Luzer

Scholars and admissions personnel have long suspected that the SAT test might be a little culturally biased. In 1987 research psychologist Roy Freedle first argued that the test puts black students at a disadvantage. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the test (and once employed Freedle) dismissed his claims. Well now there’s a little more proof that Freedle might have been right. According to a piece by Jay Matthews in the Washington Post:

Now, in the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review, the two scholars… have published a paper saying Freedle was right about a flaw in the SAT, even in its current form. They say “the SAT, a high-stakes test with significant consequences for the educational opportunities available to young people in the United States, favors one ethnic group over another.”
“The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results,” said Maria Veronica Santelices, now at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago, and Mark Wilson of UC Berkeley.

Their core findings suggest that disadvantaged black students do better on hard questions, which contain large words with unambiguous meanings. Students can learn these words in practicing for the SAT. Black students do worse, however, on easy questions, which are mostly made up of simple words. “Simpler words tended to have more meanings, and in some cases different meanings in white middle class neighborhoods than they had in underprivileged minority neighborhoods,” according to Matthews.

Freedle’s answer to this problem was adding another component to the SAT that featured only the hard questions.

The trouble with this is that it isn’t actually the SAT scoring that hurts black students so much as it is poor education that hurts black students. Adjusting the score wouldn’t fix that problem.

It may all just be irrelevant, however. While the Scholastic Aptitude Test was originally designed to eliminate bias and predict the grades of all potential applicants, regardless of background, high school students and their parents have long understood that the SAT is just an IQ test that doesn’t really predict much of anything.

Read the Santelices and Wilson paper here.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • jim on June 21, 2010 8:07 PM:

    �Simpler words tended to have more meanings, and in some cases different meanings in white middle class neighborhoods than they had in underprivileged minority neighborhoods,�

    Hmm they may be on to something here. To my knowledge however, no matter how underfunded or badly a certain school performs, I do not believe that the English dept would actually teach the wrong definition of "simple words" that could not be found in the dictionary. So lets think for a minute, what cultural force exists that may be distorting or holding up different forms of slang, that may inadvertently affect African Americans in inner city neighborhoods? I'll give you a hint, if you do not know how to get "crunk", "hyphy", "shake that laffy taffy", "turn ya swag on", "have a baby by me baby, be a millionaire", "make it rain on these hoes", then you probably will not figure it out.

  • Crissa on June 21, 2010 9:21 PM:

    It's just another one of those situations where if you don't know what they're asking for, the question might be, 'but I don't know what 'is' is.'

    Blaming it on rap or poetry is really, really stupid, btw.

  • Ed Cray on June 21, 2010 9:36 PM:

    As educators across these 50 states recognize, the SAT as constructed is simply a barometer of failure, NOT one of success. In other words, the lower the SAT score, the less likely it might be that a student would successfully complete a four-year program.

    What the current SAT score does not indicate includes such intangibles as the candidate's personal drive, his or hers promise to him/self that he/she will succeed; the family pressure, particularly strong within that group of first-generation-in-my-family-to-get-a-college-degree. (I personally have experienced it with two former students, one of whom at least had an NFL tryout.}

    In sum, this recruiter at USC knows damn well that the SAT counts for a less than those who take it believe.


  • poppin on June 21, 2010 10:21 PM:

    You know, Jim, as William Lebov has pointed out, creativity in language is a feature of English and particularly Black English, and that's good, not bad. I know most Americans think the restricted and limited vocabulary of middle-class whites is "educated," but then, most Americans don't teach teenagers, as I do, and don't see that language creativity is a thing of joy. Shakespeare had it, and I bet you think he was kind of cool. :)
    The SATs are too important as a determinant of a young student's future. The truth is, that the #1 predictor of success in college is how the student did in high school. Why? Because working hard is the ticket. I think you'd be all for that. But the SATs, see, pretend that you are no more than your vocabulary at the moment you take the test. You aren't your potential, you aren't your past, you aren't your willingness to work and take chances and create.
    You're nothing but a score.
    And yeah, a lot of us don't think that's a very efficient way to predict success in college, especially since it DOESN'T WORK.
    Student college performance doesn't actually generally reflect their SAT scores, which is why a lot of college don't bother with them, even though it's free to schools (though not the students). Students usually do as well as much they work hard. Kind of old fashioned and "conservative," but then, "conservative" isn't very conservative anymore.

  • Sid on June 24, 2010 8:09 AM:

    So it took 25 years for researchers to learn the lesson taught by Arnold and Willis on that episode of Diff'rent Strokes when they were tested to get into Mr. Drummond's alma mater. Money well spent.

  • JunkScienceMom on June 30, 2010 5:31 PM:

    There are so many flaws in this study that the media are not telling you. All of them are exposed here: