Is the College Board Useful?

How useful is the College Board?

There is a huge amount of class divide and unfair advantages between upper and lower class students who take College Board exams. The College Board makes it near impossible for people in lower class communities to do as well on their tests as their richer counterparts, and therefore make the college application process much harder for poorer students.

A Brief History of the SAT

The SAT was created in 1934 by Carl Brigham, a psychology professor at Princeton University. Brigham, a supporter and participant in the Eugenics movement, created the Army Alpha Test that was given to millions of World War I recruits. Using the data from this test, he published "A Study of American Intelligence." Brigham describing his study's findings stated,the decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.” This public action was, of course, segregation. Brigham believed that the only way to preserve intelligence in America was to preserve the purity of the "Nordic races" and thought that Jews, Blacks, Latinos, and Italians were all contributing to declining American intelligence. Eleven years later, in 1934, Brigham slightly modified the Army Alpha Test to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT as we know it today.

The SAT doesn't stand for the Scholastic Aptitude Test today, however. In fact, the SAT doesn't stand for anything anymore. It's a meaningless acronym. The reason for this is because in 1970s, the first American test prep company was seeing great success. Kaplan Inc. was tutoring kids for the SAT and each year, more and more students would pay for the service. Kaplan Inc, founded by Stanley Kaplan, claimed that it could raise a students SAT score by as much as 100 points. And after an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission in 1979, they found out he was right. Kaplan could raise kids scores, generally by around 25 points, after they went through his tutoring program. This created a boom in the test prep industry, with hundreds of new test prep companies popping up around the country.

In response to criticisms that the SAT was not an aptitude test, in 1993, the College Board changed the SAT to the "Scholastic Assessment Test," claiming that now the test was designed to test how well students learned in school. However, the public had issues with this definition as well, so in 1997, the SAT lost all meaning. Ever since 1997, the SAT has stood for nothing.

In fact, the SAT is so inconsistent, that between 1994 and 2021, the College Board has made nine major changes to the test. That's an average of one major change every 3 years. So why is it that an exam that can't even figure out what it's trying to test has been the most popular college admissions test for the last century?

Even Carl Brigham himself refuted much of his own work in his later years. He stated that much of his work was done "without foundation" and that the creation of the SAT “one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or school. The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant.”

Richer Students Score Higher

On both AP and SAT exams, students from more affluent backgrounds consistently outscore lower income students. The median SAT score of a student whose family income is between $40,000 and $60,000 a year is 1070 while students whose families make over $200,000 dollars a year have a median SAT score of 1230. A difference of 160 points is very statistically significant.

One reason for this achievement gap is that wealthier students can afford to take the SAT as many times as they would like. Taking the test multiple times is known to increase scores, as the College Board boasts about on their own website. Also, many colleges use "superscoring," in which they combine a student's different SAT tests and use their best scores from each section giving them a "superscore."

Additionally richer students are more successful because they have access to more resources. Students at better funded schools tend to score higher on AP exams than students in poorer school districts. And even though the College Board brags about getting AP courses into poor school districts, students who enroll in AP courses in low income areas struggle to be successful in those courses and score lower on the exams. Often, lower income teachers are unable to get through the dense AP curriculums by the time their students take the exams.

Students from richer families also have access to private tutoring, a commodity that is surprisingly expensive. The Princeton Review, one of the largest test prep companies, offer one on one tutoring starting at $250 an hour. Their SAT 1400+ course costs $1,599 and offers students 24/7 access to a tutor. These test prep companies have been proven to boost students standardized test scores but they just aren't financially accessible to low income students. The College Board has teamed up with Khan Academy to create free test prep for the SAT. Before this program's roll out, the College Board always downplayed the benefits of test coaching, stating "Coaching companies’ current estimates of the benefits of coaching for the SAT are much too high. Coached students are only slightly more likely to have large score gains than uncoached students. In addition, about 1/3 of students experience no score gain or score loss following coaching." But now it proudly proclaims that "practicing on Khan Academy® can help you improve your SAT scores—and could lead to college scholarships." However, the College Board's official test prep only offers online videos, with no in person tutoring. It's difficult to see a scenario in which Khan Academy online test prep could compare to the aforementioned Princeton Review course that offers students 24 hour access to their tutor.

The College Board tried to address these issues in 2019 by creating "Adversity Scores." This system gave every student a numbered adversity score based off of 15 socio-economic factors, including crime rate, parental marital status, and household income. However, this system was inherently flawed. Just because it used numbers, did not mean that it could make concrete conclusions. Adversity Scores were just somewhat educated guesses. There is no way to quantify the adversity someone has faced in their life. The College Board would replace adversity scores within a year with the new and improved "Landscapes" system. Landscapes does the same thing as Adversity Scores except it doesn't give each student a numerical rating of their adversity. Landscapes instead gives colleges information on students' backgrounds and then the individual colleges can determine each student's "adversity" for themselves. Now, the College Board is using the same flawed system while leaving it up to colleges to figure out how challenged a student's life has been.

Adding "Landscapes" and free Khan Academy tutoring is not an improvement to the College Board, it is an admission of guilt. Why do students need colleges to assess their childhood adversity if the College Board's tests are as equitable as it claims? Why do students need test prep when for years the College Board has stated test prep is not useful for improving scores? The College Board is trying to patch up a sinking cruiser with duct tape. The College Board knows its tests aren't effective at predicting college success and instead of coming up with a better way of evaluating students, it is complacent and culpable by administering ineffective tests that do little to effectively evaluate students. But these largely performative actions are not enough. The College Board needs a complete overhaul that goes beyond simply renaming old, broken systems.

For anyone wondering about how necessary standardized testing is today, I would highly recommend reading Jon Boeckenstedt's blog that addresses this matter.