Detached and unfair: how standardized testing stops the underprivileged from achieving their dreams.

Originally created for the wealthy and privileged, standardized testing is now ingrained into our education system, legislation, and hopes for the future.

I have gone on 10 tours to different colleges and universities all over the country, talked to two admissions officers from two different universities at my high school, and attended one college fair in Minneapolis. Every. Single. College or University I have toured, met with, etc. has identified their admissions process holistic. The word “holistic” is defined as “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” The holistic review process started at the nation’s top medical schools to promote diversity in accepted applicants. It has since trickled down into the nation’s other top leading universities and colleges. The aim of the holistic review process is to look beyond the numbers and “ assess an applicant’s capabilities by which balanced consideration is given to experiences, attributes, and academic metrics and, when considered in combination, how the individual might contribute value as a student” (AAMC). By looking beyond the GPA’s and test scores (which tend to favor the privileged) elite universities can make their final decisions with a more full picture of the student front of them. In doing so colleges have attempted to make their campuses more racially and socioeconomically diverse. Higher education, however, has an extreme roadblock to overcome in creating more diverse campuses: standardized testing.

The SAT began in 1903 as a college readiness exam for the elite universities of the time, who were accepting applications almost solely on affluence. The SAT was originally created for the wealthy and privileged. As higher education gained popularity in the post World War II era to due to the GI bill which greatly raised the number of returning veterans going into colleges and universities, the college board saw an opportunity to expand its horizons. Because of the influx in people pursuing university higher education experienced a major shift from being just for the wealthy and privileged to being the middle class’s ticket to a better life. Colleges and Universities saw a surge in applications and it became commonplace to attend university after high school. Colleges responded to this by reducing tuition through government support and scholarships being established to help people who couldn’t afford higher education. In all this shifting to accommodate a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds in higher education, the SAT did not change. The SAT, a test that was designed for the wealthy, became a benchmark in college admissions for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

In 1959 the ACT was developed to compete with the SAT. In the beginning the ACT was very different from the SAT, instead of focusing on “cognitive reasoning” like the SAT, it focused on what students were actually learning in school. As time went on, however, it replaced the natural science portion with scientific reasoning and the Social Studies portion with Reading. In doing this the ACT shifted from being a test on what students were learning in school, which would have put everyone on fairly equal footing, to a test very similar to the SAT, a test that favored the wealthy who could afford private tutors, classes, and study material. Almost the complete opposite of what it had set out to do.

When the ACT was created to compete with the SAT it effectively turned standardized testing into a market (Lindsay). A very large and profitable market; In fact, The college board’s net revenue in 2015 exceeded $600,000,000 (note: this figure includes revenue from Advanced Placements tests as well)(Costello and Ruff), and revenue from the ACT is estimated to be nearly the same. Both of the College Board and the ACT are labeled as Non-profit organizations, so what do they do with all of that extra revenue? The president of the college board, David Coleman, has around a $900,000 salary and 12 other college board executives make over $300,000 a year. The college board also has also spent over $1,400,000 lobbying for legislation to increase the amount in standardized testing. David Coleman is also very commonly referred to as the “architect of the Common Core State Standards Initiative”, a piece of legislation that David helped to write before he left to become head of the College Board. The common core greatly increased the amount of and emphasis on standardized testing in the American education system; the common core is currently used by 42 states. the College Board and ACT are two very profitable “non-profit” organizations that hold a considerably large influence in legislation on the national and state levels and have ingrained themselves into the American education system.

With the rise of standardized testing in the education a new market emerged: test prep. A main criticism of the SAT and ACT is that what students are being tested on is not what they are actually learning in school; To combat this, students, who can afford it, will use private tutors, classes, prep books, etc. The standard prep industry was born in the Manhattan home of Stanley H. Kaplan who began tutoring students on how to prepare for the SAT. Kaplan continued to expanded his business until the Washington Post Company bought the brand in 1985. Since then many more prep companies emerged turning standardized test preparation into a multi-million dollar industry that still continues to grow. Although some students might find success through self studying most agree that the best way to raise your score is through private tutoring. The SAT and ACT aren’t normal tests; they will try to trick you and confuse you. Elite tutors know these tests and how to “outsmart” them, but with some charging upwards of $500 per hour, that knowledge is not very accessible to people who can’t pay the steep price tag. This is reflected when the College Board releases test scores by income every year.

So why does the disparity in scores actually matter? Because poor students are not able to afford test prep for standardized testing they are much less likely to be accepted into elite universities. The Harvard class of 2020 report listed that over 58% of incoming freshman come from families who make more than $125,000 annually while less then 15% of students come from families who make less than $40,000 annually. At Dartmouth about 60% of the class of 2020 come from a household that makes over $200,000 annually while only 11% come from households that make less than $40,000. With the average ACT score of accepted applicants to these schools being 34 and 32 (Zhang) respectively its not hard to see why the majority of students come from very affluent backgrounds.

Standardized testing was built on privilege. It was designed for the privileged and elite but was expanded to the rest of the population because of corporate greed and lobbyists. Although many colleges are moving away from standardized a 2011 survey concluded that admissions officers believe that standardized test scores are just as important as GPA for getting accepted into university (Zinshtyen). Standardized testing stops socioeconomic diversity in elite campuses and limits underprivileged students from being accepted into colleges and universities. And finally, at the end of the day is 3 hours of filling in circles on a Saturday is not a good reflection of your knowledge or ability to succeed.


“About Holistic Admissions — Holistic Review — Initiatives — AAMC.” About Holistic Admissions — Holistic Review — Initiatives — AAMC. AAMC, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Anderson, Nick. “ACT’s College Admission Testing Grows, but Scores Stagnate.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Carol Costello and Bob Ruff. “Educating America: The Big Business of the SAT.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Klein, Rebecca. “More Students Are Taking The SAT, Even As Scores Fail To Improve.” The Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web.

Lindsay, Samantha. “The History of the ACT Test.” The History of the ACT Test. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Weissmann, Elena. “The College Board: A Very Profitable Nonprofit.” New Brunswick, NJ Patch. N.p., 14 June 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Zhang, Dr. Fred. “What’s a Good SAT / ACT Score for the Ivy League? What’s the Lowest Score I Can Get in With?” What’s a Good SAT / ACT Score for the Ivy League? What’s the Lowest Score I Can Get in With? N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Zinshtyen, Mikhail. The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016

Zumbrun, Josh. “SAT Scores and Income Inequality: How Wealthier Kids Rank Higher.” WSJ., 07 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.