SAT: A Test of Inequality

Revolutionary Worker #1106, June 10, 2001, posted at

Education under capitalism is a system of savage inequalities - a system that reproduces inequality. Children in poor communities go to inferior schools with overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, and lack of materials. For many kids, schools are little more than prisons where the only aim is to maintain control, and students are subjected to armed police, metal detectors, searches, and abuse. The learning process is molded by tests that discriminate against the poor and the oppressed nationalities. In affluent schools, education is marked by the pursuit of grades and rewards, self-seeking competition, and elitism.

Draft Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party

This year over two million U.S. high school students will take the "SAT 1 Reasoning Test"--or SAT. How well they do will play a big part in determining whether or not they'll get into college, and whether they'll make it into an elite university.

Anyone who's sweated through the SAT, whose stomach has been twisted into knots by worry that one's whole life hinges on a bunch of multiple choice questions, or whose sense of worth and possibility has ridden on a few hours of testing--will be glad to hear that University of California President Richard Atkinson had called for ending the use of the SAT for UC admissions.

Atkinson dropped his bombshell during a February 18 speech to the American Council on Education. He warned that the misuse of SAT is so widespread that it "is compromising our educational system."

Atkinson said, "Anyone involved in education should be concerned about how overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priories and practices, how the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating impact on the self esteem and aspirations of young students.... Many universities, faced with having to choose among thousands of highly qualified applicants, give too much weight to the SAT." Atkinson has asked UC's Academic Senate to drop the SAT by 2003, and base admissions on a more overall look at applicants.

Debate and Struggle Over the U.S. Educational System

Atkinson still favors some kind of standardized testing. But the idea of dropping the SAT jolted the education system because for over 50 years most U.S. colleges and universities have relied on it in deciding who gets admitted and who doesn't. Currently, about 1,800 out of over 2,100 U.S. colleges and universities use the SAT in admissions. And the University of California system, with eight campuses and 170,000 students, is one of the largest and most prestigious public university systems in the country--as well as the SAT's biggest customer. So any decision to drop the SAT by the UC system could reverberate nationally.

Atkinson's suggestion also struck a nerve and triggered a flurry of debate over the validity of the SAT and the state of U.S. education because today there's sharp struggle within the U.S. over the direction of education.

Powerful forces in U.S. society are pushing for even more reliance on tests like the SATs to enforce capitalist "standards" and determine which schools are judged as successes and which as failures. Recently, the House of Representatives passed the so-called "No Child Left Behind" bill which is central to President Bush's education plan and would force schools to do annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight.

Yet many educators are concerned by this trend to increasingly orient education toward standardized testing--and away from real learning and creative thinking. Teachers and parents in several states recently kicked off a "month of resistance to testing" and at the State Capitol in Albany, NY, more than 1,500 people demonstrated against the regents' exams.

Atkinson's questions about the SAT was sparked, in part, by visiting a private school and finding 12-year-olds drilling for the SAT--which they wouldn't take for another five or six years! He said, "I learned that they spend hours each month - directly and indirectly - preparing for the SAT, studying long lists of verbal analogies such as 'untruthful is to mendaciousness as circumspect is to caution.' The time involved was not aimed at developing the students' reading and writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills. What I saw was disturbing."

Many educators are also alarmed at the increasing polarization and segregation of U.S. education--at a time the U.S. is growing increasingly diverse. This is particularly sharp in California, the U.S.'s most populous state, where white people are now a minority. In 1995 the University of California's regents voted to outlaw "racial preferences" in admission. The next year Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in California schools. These racist assaults resulted in a steep and sudden drop in the number of Black and Latino students, particularly at the most prestigious University of California campuses such as Berkeley.

In 1997 African American students made up 7.3% of UC Berkeley students and Latinos 17.1%. By 2001 the number of African American students had been cut nearly in half--to 3.9% of the student body at UC Berkeley--while Latino enrollment had dropped to 12.7%. Overall Black and Latino students are now only 16.6% of the UC Berkeley student body--a 32% decline from four years ago.

A System of Savage Inequalities

Atkinson's proposal unleashed a reservoir of anger and resentment among the oppressed who know how tests like the SAT are used to block many of their children from getting into the better universities. One UC spokesperson told the SF Chronicle, "We have been a little surprised at the magnitude of the reaction."

In fact, the debate around the SAT has shined a spotlight on the ugly inequalities running throughout the U.S. educational system--and how that system is designed to perpetuate them. Across the U.S., public schools are mainly funded by local property taxes. This means that schools in richer neighborhoods, where property values and tax revenues are highest, the schools are much better than those in poorer areas. So students from upper and middle class backgrounds already have a big advantage over proletarians.

Often this shapes who stays in school and who doesn't. The New York Times (3/25/01) reported that Latinos are over three times more likely to drop out of school than white students due to the pressures of poverty and having to work, poor schools, and the English-only culture of U.S. education. The lack of birth control and abortion, as well as "macho culture," were also cited as major reasons why Latino women end up leaving school. Overall 31% of Latino males drop out of school compared to 12.1% of African American males and 7.7% of white males; 26% of Latino women dropped out of school compared to 13% of African American women and 6.9% of white women.

Bob Herbert, in the New York Times (3/12/01) reported that studies have shown that smaller class sizes--which are generally found in richer schools--lead to higher achievement, especially for poor and minority students. In one study, placing students in smaller classes narrowed the achievement test gap between Black and white students by 38%. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is cutting funding for class size reduction.

Poor students and those from oppressed nationalities are also disadvantaged by the lack of Advanced Placement (AP) classes in their high schools. AP classes prepare students for college entrance exams and often give them college credits. In San Francisco a lawsuit has been filed against the AP system by the ACLU charging that the state is denying students equal access to such AP classes. One survey found that students from oppressed nationalities--who make up 60% of high school students in California--are only 30% of those taking AP exams.

Reproducing Class and National Oppression from Generation to Generation

The SAT is a three-hour test with 138 verbal and math questions, nearly all multiple choice. The test's analogies, sentence completions, reading comprehension, standard math problems, and quantitative comparisons supposedly measure certain mental abilities, no matter what school a student has attended or what course of study he or she has taken.

But whenever students go to school, or sit down to take a test, the profound inequalities in educaton and in society overall are already at work. And tests like the SAT serve to perpetuate them. MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, points out that as long as schools are unequal, no test will be fair in admissions: "We will just reproduce California public schools' inequities at the higher education system."

The College Board, which administers the SAT, claims the SAT tests aren't biased against any ethnic group. They blame racial differences in scores on inequalities in the U.S. education system, not on the test. Well, they're half right--national oppression and white supremacy shape the entire educational system. But study after study over the years has shown that the SAT test is no objective measure of what people have learned or can learn. Instead, it most accurately measures social class and whether English is your first language.

Peter Sacks, the author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, argues that the SAT is a weak predictor of actual performance in the first year of college. And he goes on to say that, "After that, its usefulness vanishes completely. Moreover, the SAT has proven to be a vicious sorter of young people by class and race, and even gender--and has served to sustain the very upper-middle-class privilege that many of the exam's supporters claim to oppose." Sacks says that the latest figures show that SAT scores correlate mostly closely with family income, with each $10,000 adding another 15 to 50 points on the SAT. (The Nation 4/2/01). A chart in the March 5, 2001 issue of Newsweek neatly tracks rising test scores with rising family income. At the bottom, those making $10,000 and under average 800-850 on the SAT, rising to an average of 1,150-1,200 for those making over $100,000.

Maintaining National Oppression, White Supremacy and Male Privilege

The SAT tests have served the system as a prime guardian of white and male supremacy--sometimes discouraging students from oppressed nationalities from even applying to universities and discriminating against female students.

Among students entering college in 1999, African American students scored on average 93 points below whites on the verbal portion of the SAT and 106 below on the math portion. Jay Rosner of the Princeton Review Foundation (which does SAT preparation courses) says that "The SAT is a white preference test and everybody kind of knows it." Rosner has studied the SAT extensively and found that test makers do not select "black preference questions." Rosner found that the percentage of whites answering correctly was higher for 474 of the 580 questions on the 1988 and 1989 SAT tests. He calls these "white preference questions." Rosner reduced the overall SAT gap by 40% by creating a test from questions with the smallest racial gap. And because the SAT is a timed test that favors speed, it is particularly biased against students whose first language is not English.

In 1997 the University of Texas began admitting any student in the top 10% of his or her class, regardless of SAT scores. The result: more minorities were admitted and classroom performance went up.

Studies have also found that the SAT discriminates against women. According to a study by UC Berkeley's School of Education found that young women with the same or higher grades get on average 30 to 50 points lower on the SAT's math section. One reason is the test's emphasis on speed. This contrasts with math courses in which women do as well as men--courses which the study says emphasize solving complex and personally-relevant problems and place a premium on sustained reasoning. The Berkeley study concluded: The "ability to refine complex problems and design appropriate solutions goes beyond the skills measured in college entrance examinations."

One of the most striking illustrations of how deeply national oppression and racism pervade U.S. society and how they affect the consciousness of students from oppressed nationalities are the "stereotype threat" studies done by Professor Claude Steele of Stanford's Department of Education.

Steele administers the same SAT-type of test to two different groups of Black and white students. The first group is told that the test is an unimportant research tool, and whites and Blacks end up doing about the same. The second group is told that the test measures their verbal and reasoning ability. In this case the Black students do half as well as the white students.

Steele calls this the "stereotype threat," and explains, "If you're a member of a group who's intellectual abilities are negatively stereotyped, it will be applicable to you right in the middle of an important standardized test...the threat might occur. That would undermine performance." Ironically, the threat is the strongest among the best students, who begin to try too hard, re-reading and double-checking their work, which is deadly on a timed "aptitude" test.

Further Distorting Bourgeois Education

The SAT is bullshit. It doesn't measure anything. It measures how much money you want to pay to get a high test score and it measures how high you are in society by the classes you can take and how you can manipulate the test and learn the techniques to get it. It has nothing to do with your knowledge. It's also very one dimensional knowledge. It has no concept of critical thinking or analytical skills. It's basically just another thing to make sure the elites keep their kids in school and keep the other kids out.

Student at SF State

Capitalist education is education in capitalism and its outlook.

Draft Programme of the RCP

The SAT mirrors and reinforces the cut-throat demands and outlook of capitalism. Competition to get into the most prestigious universities has heated up over the years with the increased polarization in society, marked by the decline of well paying factory jobs, the growth of low paying service or office work, and the narrowing of the more highly paid middle and professional class. This admissions competition has spawned a massive test preparation industry, with some 150,000 students spending a total of $100 million per year on SAT preparation courses. Some classes costs $750 for a 12-week session; others reportedly pay private tutors as much as $400 per hour.

This setup favors those with the time and money to afford the test-prep courses. It also fosters the bourgeois outlook of grade-grubbing, me-first competition among the people. One Bay Area high school student told the RW: "I think if [the test] was really to measure your knowledge about how they're teaching you then you wouldn't have to learn how to master the test and manipulate the system. It has nothing to do with your knowledge. I have friends that buy these books and they offer the classes and everybody is packing into those--you really have to do good on these. It doesn't make any sense. I saw a girl spend a whole summer making SAT flashcards so she'd know all the SAT words. Now how's that going to help her life, how's that going to prove what she's learned in school? It hasn't proved anything."

A Real Revolution in Education

The socialist educational system will foster and develop creativity, the critical spirit, and the desire to understand and change the world. Students will not be written off, policed, sentenced to mind-numbing lectures, or punished for thinking differently; rather they will engage in practical as well as lofty study and investigation, actively take part in artistic expression and, above all, plunge into the class struggle to revolutionize society. Schools will link theory with practice, and link the educational system as a whole with the masses--for example, a science class might work with people in the community to research and solve an environmental problem.

Draft Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party

The idea of getting rid of the SAT is a little bit of fresh air in the putrid anti-affirmative action, standardized testing, grade-grubbing atmosphere that prevails these days in U.S. education. But this alone won't come close to ending the many inequalities in U.S. education or society.

What does it say about capitalist society that it has no use for the talents and potential of millions of youth? Why is it that only a small percentage of students are given the opportunity to go to college--that only a very small minority can have the best education, and the rest have to be weeded out through grades and testing? It shows the system's bankruptcy, and how it's strangling, not liberating, the vast productive capacity of humanity.

Then there's the whole notion that someone is "smarter" than someone else, which mostly reflects the outlook of a society divided into classes, where life is dictated by the needs of capital and the fact that all the potential of the people cannot be used. Instead, ways have to be found to stifle and suppress people's aspirations--while we are told that it is justified that some people "deserve" higher education while others are relegated to manual labor.

Communists recognize that different individuals will have different levels of ability, and different kinds of abilities. But we're fighting for a society without classes, one in which individual differences are not widened and solidified into class differences; where they don't become the basis for one group to rule over another.

Our slogan is from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. And that means bringing together all the strengths of the people, and utilizing all of them to contribute to the liberation humanity.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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