Graphic by Jacquelyne Germain / North by Northwestern

As Weinberg freshman Shira Nash waited in line at her local public high school to check in for her first SAT, she felt intimidated seeing students she knew, subconsciously comparing herself to them. The line grew shorter and shorter, and she thought her test anxiety couldn’t get any worse.

Then, it did. When Nash entered the testing room, she was immediately struck by the lack of diversity among the students seated around her.

“I often was the only person of color in my [SAT] testing room, definitely the only Black woman,” said Nash. “It was definitely an overwhelming experience.”

Along with 40,594 applicants around the world, Nash submitted her standardized test scores as part of her application to Northwestern University. The middle 50% of Northwestern’s Class of 2023 had SAT scores ranging from 1450-1550, some of the highest  in the nation. In comparison, the 2019 national average score was 1059. Today, Northwestern’s Class of 2023, along with the rest of the undergraduate population, reap the benefits of their test scores and other exemplary academic and nonacademic factors, attending one of the top institutions in the country. However, though the SAT is framed as an objective calculation in the college admissions process, the test can be used to foster socioeconomic inequality that is then reflected in the student populations of elite institutions like Northwestern.

A History of Inequality

The origins of the SAT lie within America’s eugenics movement in the early 1900s, which  aimed to uphold white supremacy by removing “undesirable traits” from the human race. Such traits were often associated with lower income minority populations who were victims of forced sterilizations and other oppressive practices of the eugenics movement, according to Scitable.

“In the eugenics movement, there is this inherent belief that Black people, African-descended people [and] people from the global south are intellectually inferior to the descendants of Western Europe,” said David Stovall, an African-American studies professor who investigates education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Princeton University psychology professor and devout eugenicist Carl Brigham designed the SAT in the 1920s. It originated from Brigham’s Army Alpha Test, an intelligence test administered to millions of World War I army recruits, according to PBS. In 1923, based on the analysis of the results from the Army Alpha Test by race, he published “A Study of American Intelligence.” In the book’s conclusion, Brigham wrote that American intelligence was declining “as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive.” Brigham further stated that this sharp decline in intelligence owed itself to “the presence of the negro” in America. Brigham would eventually modify the Army Alpha Test to be used in the college admissions process, renaming it the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In 1926, the SAT was administered to high school students for the first time.

The Impacts of Racist Roots

The test’s racist history continues to be reflected today, shown through massive racial scoring gaps.  

“I feel like [racial scoring gaps] are a reflection of systemic racism and how in Black and Hispanic communities the schools are underfunded and have less resources for students than more affluent schools,” said Weinberg freshman Rebecca Covington.

Broken down by race, white and Asian students had the highest average SAT scores in the nation in 2019: 1114 and 1223, respectively, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). The average scores for Black and Hispanic students were lower: 933 and 978, respectively. These disparities are reflective of larger inequities within America’s long history of racial oppression.

Data provided by the College Board (These averages are from 2019 and are based on the new SAT scoring system: scale of 400-1600)

“When you start to think about something like the SAT, you also have to think about how racism operates structurally, meaning that as a system, there are strategies that are used to justify the means by which to declare African-descended people inferior,” Stovall said.  

A 2003 study by national admissions test expert Jay Rosner revealed that experimental SAT test questions that resulted in better scores for Black students compared to white students were discarded by test authors in favor of those that white students answered correctly. Although test developers did not explicitly consider race when selecting questions, racial scoring disparities drove question selection. These experimental questions were then used on future versions of the SAT, giving an upper hand to white students and contributing to a cycle of racial inequality.

Some students, like Nash, found the language of the SAT to be restrictive in this way.

“You have to know everything the question is asking and you have to know the answer, and that’s not always fair because some words are not in people’s vernacular,” Nash said.

These inequities operate not just in relation to race but also to class and students’ socio-economic situations. Poor students of all races perform worse on standardized tests compared to more-affluent students, according to Education Week.

By requiring students to submit standardized test scores, predominantly white institutions like Northwestern are stifling socioeconomic diversity.

Black, Hispanic and Native American students are more likely to be poor compared to white and Asian students. They also make up the lowest percentages of students at every top 10 institution in the nation, including Northwestern.

In 2014, students with annual family incomes over $200,000 averaged a composite score of 1714, whereas students from families earning less than $20,000 annually averaged a composite score of 1326, according to the Washington Post.

Data provided by the Washington Post (These averages are from 2014 and are based on the old SAT scoring system: scale of 600-2400)

At Northwestern, students coming from households earning $20,000 or less annually only make up about 4% of the student body, whereas 66% of students come from the top 20%, according to a 2017 report from The New York Times’ The Upshot.

SAT preparation gaps are reflective of such economic inequities as well.  Communication freshman Caleb Whittaker recalls an SAT test-prep program called Test Masters in his Texas hometown that cost $700-$800 for its duration. He said that students who did not perform particularly well in school academically could get the high scores needed for admission into elite institutions simply because of their ability to afford these programs.

“They learned how to take these tests rather than learning the material,” Whittaker said.

In contrast, Whittaker said he himself didn’t have many resources to study from for the SAT. He primarily relied on general knowledge from school and some free online test prep materials.

Medill freshman Jordan Mangi had a similar experience preparing for the SAT. She was able to take the test for the first time because it was offered for free at her high school during her junior year.

“I didn’t have a prep book or anything. I didn’t go to an SAT test prep class. That wasn’t really an option for me,” Mangi said.

Resources like SAT test prep classes and private tutors are more accessible to affluent students. According to CostHelper, instructor-led SAT preparatory courses can range from $75-$1000, while private tutoring can cost $75-$250 per hour on average.

Although low-income students are often eligible for fee waivers to mitigate costs associated with the SAT, the College Board, the non-profit organization that develops and administers the test, charges students every step of the way.

The SAT costs $52 without the essay and $68 with the essay. If a student registers after the initial deadline or needs to change test dates, they are charged an extra $30. Sending a score report to colleges costs $12 per institution. If a student is crunched for time and needs to rush order these score reports,  there is an additional $31 fee. If the website crashes when scores come out due to increased website traffic and a student is anxious to view their score, for $15, they can call and get it over the phone.

“[The SAT] makes rich communities where students are able to pay for tutoring or take it a bunch of times look smarter, but in reality it’s just about how much money you have,” said Medill freshman Onyekaorise Chigbogwu.

Medill freshman Ellisya Lindsey was able to afford a private SAT tutor and said tutoring was helpful as she navigated the test-taking process. Her tutor provided her with an SAT study book containing practice questions and was able to walk her through the layout of the test, what the questions would look like and how to go about answering them.

“Without a tutor or without any sort of resources whatsoever, you would not know what you’re getting yourself into and you’d definitely be underprepared,” Lindsey said.

Moving Forward

To combat these issues, in August 2019, the College Board introduced an adversity index called Landscape that provides colleges and universities with background information to use in conjunction with a student’s application. The information includes basic high school data including locale, senior class size and the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced lunch. It also includes test score comparisons within each high school, as well as high school and neighborhood indicators such as median family income, education levels and crime rates.

But Stovall said that Landscape is not enough, referring to it as a “Band-Aid on the initial concerns” of the test. He advocates for a more holistic portfolio review of students and their achievements by colleges and universities that doesn’t revolve around standardized test scores.

Northwestern ranks standardized test scores as a “very important” academic factor in its admissions decisions, according to its 2019-2020 Common Data Set. Standardized test scores take precedence over other factors such as a student’s essay, recommendations and extracurriculars, ranked lower as “important” factors.

Though in response to COVID-19, a day after seven of the eight Ivy League institutions went test optional for the 2020-2021 application cycle, Northwestern also decided to go temporarily test optional for the Class of 2025. Other schools have chosen to permanently ditch the requirement, recently the University of Chicago and the University of California system. Other test-optional universities include DePaul University, New York University, American University, George Washington University and more.

“I feel like who you are as a person and your work ethic and things you really believe in and are passionate [about] are very good things to focus on,” said Medill freshman Kacee Haslett in reference to  factors that should be valued more in the admissions process.

Stovall emphasized the need for the college admissions system to reconsider how it evaluates socioeconomic scoring disparities, referencing Gloria Ladson-Billings, a School of Education professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies critical race theory.

“Instead of looking at gaps between test scores for certain racial, ethnic and economic groups, she says we can consider a debt,” Stovall said. “What debt is owed to folks who have been historically isolated and marginalized and what would the payment of that debt look like? When we start to think about that, now how do we construct admissions policies and how do we construct access for historically marginalized groups?”

Northwestern’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion refers to access as one of its defining strands along with equity, enrichment and wellbeing. Though these values guide its framework and operation, standardized tests with discriminatory origins, practices and outcomes continue to be used as an objective measure of student aptitude in the admissions process. To some, the SAT is far from an unbiased calculation.

“While you’re in the test, sure, it’s the same for everyone, everyone’s going to do the same questions,” Nash said. “But we have to think about what happens before the test and after the test, that I think is not equal at all.”