Monday, February 9, 2009

Are the SAT's Discriminatory? Yes, and...?

Many educators and education professors have suggested that the SAT is a faulty test because it unfairly discriminates in favor of those who grow up in affluent, book-laden, and educationally rich environments. Against this, John McWhorter has written a recent article arguing, in essence, that throwing out the SAT is " throwing a baby out with the bathwater."

I cannot expand much on the content of McWhorter's wonderful article, but I do want to clarify his argument a little. What McWhorter is really saying, and I agree, is that even if the SAT discriminates in favor of students who know fancy words like "lugubrious" and can do advanced algebra, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this fact. In fact, discriminating between students based on who can handle the material being tested better is basically what tests should do.

The major line of argument against the SAT is that the test discriminates against those who may never have had occasion to learn "college words" or learn advanced math (even if the lack of opportunity was due to no fault of their own). Of course, this begs a question: are students who do not know how to do these things the students who are capable of being in college? As McWhorter points out, "as most of us would suspect[,] mastery of advanced vocabulary is vital to understanding the texts presented to a college student." If a student can't perform to a certain standard on the SAT vocabulary test, then regardless of whether their lack of ability to do so is environmental or not, this student may well not have the requisite knowledge that college demands.

What is unfair about that? It is sometimes argued that penalizing a student with a college-inhibiting low score on the SAT for something that may not have been the student's fault is unfairly discriminatory. (Why deny a student the opportunity at college simply because their parents could not afford private school, books, or tutors?) This is best answered as a question: Are the purpose of college admissions tests (a) tests designed to filter applicants based on their ability to demonstrate desired skills; (b) instruments for administering social justice?

For those who might actually have answered (b), here is a thought experiment. Before becoming a lawyer, every student must take their state's bar exam, testing their readiness to practice law (the same way that every medical student must pass a series of exams before practicing medicine.) As law is highly specialized, the purpose of such tests are to "weed out" the prepared from the unprepared. It would be a catastrophe if we argued - as we do about the SAT - that the tests are unfair because they discriminate against those who might not have had the money to go to a top 100 law school. Even though the tests might discriminate thus, the fact is that the "weeding out" process of the tests is necessary to ensure that only those who are prepared to practice law actually practice law.

The same logic should be applied to the SAT tests. The question is not whether they discriminate (they do), but whether the things it tests are actually those things that are prerequisite for a successful college career. We need to get past the idea that the SAT's are wrong because they discriminate against students (who may have gotten higher scores had they lived in more affluent or academically rich environments). Until that sad day where we make college admissions a tool of social justice, and suggest that mathematic and vocabulary ability is unimportant to predicting college success, then I agree with McWhorter: Long Live the SAT.

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