When the SAT Feels Like a Lock, Not a Key

The SAT weighs heavily on our collective imagination—and everyone can picture the nerve-wracking spectacle of students sitting at desks, droning in Scantron shapes in No. 2 pencil, while stern-faced observers roam in search of cheaters.

So it’s no surprise that SAT appears in a lot of blockbuster Hollywood movies. And they often have nightmares—as in the opening dream sequence of the 1983 film Risky Business, where Tom Cruise’s character appears late for his SAT test and fears his life is “ruined.”

The SAT is very high stakes, and the test is often portrayed as a barrier—cold and impersonal—that sitting for three hours can shape the rest of a person’s life. And it turns out that it can seem like an entirely different hurdle for different types of students, depending on things like race and social class.

In this episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we take a closer look at the impact of the SAT: Who is it for? Is this fair?

This is part of our Bootstraps podcast series on merit, myth, and education, which we co-produce with the journalism nonprofit Open Campus. We unpack popular narratives about who gets opportunities in America and wonder how everything could be different. And for this episode, we teamed up with Eric Hoffer of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who has long covered college admissions.

Listen to Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you are listening to podcasts or use the player on this page. Below is an edited sample of the conversation.

We wanted to get a perspective beyond common concepts from Hollywood, so we visited Thurgood Marshall Academy, a non-selective public charter school in Washington, DC. The school has a proven track record of helping unrepresented students get into college. Since 2005, 100 percent of its graduates have gained admission from at least one college, and about 85 percent of students enrolled at Thurgood Marshall go on to attend a four-year college.

Now you might think that the guidance counselor who has overseen much of this school’s success would have some special SAT training programs for his students. But in fact, this official, Sanjay Mitchell, director of the school’s college and alumni programs, is a well-known and outspoken critic of the SAT.

“I’ve seen collapses in the corridors when students get their test scores,” he said. “I’ve watched how talented and bright students are swept out of the light when that test result comes in. I’ve seen the ways students mobilize, they have a great SAT prep as they read and test as they struggle and struggle, and a lot of their identity as a college committed student is connected to that test. And when they don’t It gets to the conclusion that they think it should be, it actually empties our students, and prevents them from advancing into some of these spaces.”

Mitchell argues that the SAT has effects on underrepresented students that even college admissions officials may not realize.

And even when a student at Thurgood Marshall scores high on the SAT, the reaction isn’t always celebratory.

“When I really think about my students with high scores on tests, they aren’t excited or excited about applying to ultra-selective schools, because I think deep down, somewhere inside, they just know there’s still space you don’t want them to,” even Mitchell says. And it takes a lot of practice, and a lot of persuasion, and a lot of conversation, to get them to think [applying to a selective college.’”

“The test score isn’t the thing,” Mitchell points out. “Sure, they’re happy, [if they say] I got 1250. Is that a good score? This is always the question. Is this a good grade? … Yes, this is a very strong result. But then there is still disbelief. They don’t believe me when I say it’s a good result.”

These days something big is happening with college admissions. Since the pandemic, hundreds of colleges have gone for testing, which means they don’t require students to submit an SAT or ACT score. Some of these institutions may return to requiring standardized tests once the COVID-19 virus wears off, but many others say they have made the change for good.

The students at Thurgood Marshall have noted this.

“When we told students that their preferred schools were now test optional and that’s not off the table, we saw the serious ways in which they approached the process afterward—the enthusiastic ways in which they approached the process, the ways in which they found language to express themselves in the process that makes them stand out, outside the test,” Mitchell says. “If we always had this as an option, I wonder how many students would just say…” Let me apply and let me apply seriously in exchange that I will not apply because this degree tells me I am not college ready. “

Does Mitchell think this will mean a new era that will make highly selective colleges more welcoming to more types of students?

“I think I went from a pessimist to a cautious optimist,” he says. “But what worries me is what other hurdles will be put in place to replace the hurdle the SAT was in? And that is the thing that keeps me awake.”

“Because if we argue that the SAT and the standardized test were a way to standardize the review process for every applicant, there is now a need for something new, right, that unites everything,” he adds. “What will this new thing be? And how will it affect students from marginalized backgrounds?”

Will the recent rise in test-optional policies by colleges lead to changes that could improve equality in the nation’s colleges?

The question now is will this moment of turmoil create space to talk about these questions more frankly? Could the broader higher education system do better in seeing all these students on the basis of who they are, not looking for diamonds in the open, but seeing the potential in all students and helping them to mold that potential into something more complete?

Listen to the full episode on the EdSurge Podcast.

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