Affluence and race skew standardized test scores

Affluent students can afford to take a standardized test as many times as necessary

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Cayde Schmedding

Miramonte senior Byron Chan sits at his dining room table as he prepares for his upcoming SAT.

Every year, millions of prospective college students take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT). These tests are intended to measure a student’s preparedness for college, but only serve to perpetuate disparities among minority and low-income students. 

To combat the disparities in standardized testing, some colleges — most recently the University of California system — have gone test blind, meaning they won’t consider SAT or ACT scores in the application process. To fully eliminate these inequities, all American colleges should become test blind.

A 2021 study by the Student Aid Policy Analysis found a positive correlation between family income and SAT scores; students from the lowest-income families scored an average of 968 points out of the possible 1600 points while students from middle-class families scored an average of 1091. In addition, according to EducationNC, Black students on average score 104 points less than white students. Wealthy test-takers have a clear advantage and so do white students, making the standardized testing system inequitable.

“When reading your application, the reviewers will not see your test scores, if provided. Moving forward, curriculum quality and performance in courses will remain the focus of our review,” Alicia Ruff, an admissions officer at the University of Washington in Seattle said. The school is test-optional for the 2021-22 year.

On the surface, standardized testing may seem to create an equitable experience for test-takers by providing baseline data for colleges to use when evaluating applicants. Students pay $55 to take the SAT and $60 for the ACT. Most low-income students can qualify for a fee waiver — the SAT’s waiver provides two free tests and the ACT’s provides one free test. Both also provide preparation tools for test-takers. 

To qualify, students must receive aid from the country, state, or local government, be enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, or be in the foster program. Although giving low-income families a free test is a step in the right direction, lack of access to testing and tutoring still disenfranchises low-income students.

Affluent students can afford to take a standardized test as many times as necessary, allowing them to inflate their scores with the SAT’s and ACT’s super-scoring systems, allowing students to report their highest score for each section on some college applications. Those section scores are used to calculate a composite score.

According to Education Week, a student’s score can improve up to 60 points just by taking a second test. Although low-income students can take the SAT twice under the fee waiver, higher-income students can take advantage of super-scoring by taking the test as many times as they choose. 

Furthermore, wealthier students’ access to tutors and test preparation courses widen the score gap. The exorbitant price tags and the large time commitments of prep courses make them inaccessible to low-income students.

“I took a course over the summer to get a better score on my SAT. It was for five weeks, five days a week, five hours a day, and cost about one and a half thousand dollars,” one Miramonte student said.

The local tutoring company Lafayette Academy provides private, one-on-one tutoring for the SAT for over $2,000. 

According to the Oxford Journals, SAT preparation courses and tutors provide students who can invest the required time and money up to a 40 point boost in scores.

“I think that there’s probably some disparity when it comes to tutoring, but, in general, the fact that wealthier students have access to better schools is also an issue,” Miramonte senior Jonathan Yee said.