The SAT has been on the ropes lately. The University of California system has threatened to quit using the test for its freshman admissions, arguing that the exam has done more harm than good. The State of Texas, responding to a federal court order prohibiting its affirmative action efforts, has already significantly curtailed the importance of the SAT as a gatekeeper to its campuses. Even usually stodgy corporate types have started to beat up on the SAT. Last year, for example, a prominent group of corporate leaders joined the National Urban League in calling upon college and university presidents to quit placing so much stock in standardized admissions tests like the SAT, which they said were “inadequate and unreliable” gatekeepers to college.
Then again, if the SAT is anything, it’s a survivor. The SAT enterprise–consisting of its owner and sponsor, the College Board, and the test’s maker and distributor, the Educational Testing Service–has gamely reinvented itself over the years in myriad superficial ways, hedging against the occasional dust-up of bad public relations. The SAT, for example, has undergone name changes over the years in an effort to reflect the democratization of higher education in America and consequent changes in our collective notions about equal opportunity. But through it all, the SAT’s underlying social function–as a sorting device for entry into or, more likely, maintenance of American elitehood–has remained ingeniously intact, a firmly rooted icon of American notions about meritocracy.
Indeed, the one intangible characteristic of the SAT and other admissions tests that the College Board would never want to change is the virtual equation, in the public’s mind, of test scores and academic talent. Like the tobacco companies, ETS and the College Board (both are legally nonprofit organizations that in many respects resemble profit-making enterprises) put a cautionary label on the product. Regarding their SAT, the organizations are obliged by professional codes of proper test practices to inform users of standardized admissions tests that the exams can be “useful” predictors of later success in college, medical school or graduate school, when used in conjunction with other factors, such as grades.
But the true place of admissions testing in America isn’t always so appropriate. Most clear-eyed Americans know that results on the SAT, Graduate Record Exam or the Medical College Admission Test are widely viewed as synonymous with academic talent in higher education. Whether it’s true or not–and there’s lots of evidence that it’s not–is quite beside the point.
Given the inordinate weight that test scores play in the American version of meritocracy, it’s no surprise that federal courts have been hearing lawsuits from white, middle-class law school applicants complaining they were denied admission to law school even though their LSAT scores were fifty points greater than a minority applicant who was admitted; why neoconservative doomsayers warn that the academic quality of America’s great universities will plummet if the hordes of unwashed (read: low test scores) are allowed entry; why articles are written under titles like “Backdoor Affirmative Action,” arguing that de-emphasizing test scores in Texas and California is merely a covert tactic of public universities to beef up minority enrollments in response to court bans on affirmative action.