By Carlene Buccino
12:13 PM EST, December 12, 2012
Americans think we live in a meritocracy where hard work can take you from rags to riches. Access to a great education can be an escape from the cyclical poverty found in Baltimore and other major cites. Attending an elite university is particularly helpful. Studies show that graduates of elite institutions — and Ivy League schools in particular — are more successful than graduates from other institutions.
Admission into the Ivy League and other top schools is also considered to be meritocratic. A major part of a student's application is his or her SAT score. Admissions officers use this "standardized" test to compare students from different backgrounds against each other.
But in practice, the SAT is far from standardized. Many high schoolers take prep classes that teach not actual knowledge but SAT-specific tricks. Some of these classes, like Princeton Review's SAT Honors prep class, can cost roughly $2,000.
Why so expensive? Because it guarantees a score of at least 2100, provided the student enrolled in the class with an 1850 or above. A 2100 is the 90th percentile, comparable to a 1400 on the old 1600-point SAT. This outstanding score will make admissions officers "drool," according to Princeton Review's website.
A 2100 might not get you in anywhere you want, but it will certainly garner your application a second look. Of course, if you were able to afford the $2,000 prep class, you were probably also able to afford volunteer work, extracurriculars and other components of a stellar application. You may have just bought yourself into the Ivy League because of an advantage that other students who also began with an 1850 just couldn't afford.
But the real problem is that the SAT is not meritocratic in the first place and never has been. It was designed, like other intelligence tests, in the 1920s by white males at Harvard and Princeton who thought they could objectively measure the intelligence of all Americans. Their methods were grounded in the then-popular ideology of eugenics, a pseudo-science founded on racism, classism, ableism and homophobia.
Although eugenics is not longer a respectable discipline, traces of these theories still exist, notably in the SAT. The College Board, which produces the SAT, uses questions that in practice give preference to white students because these questions — ones that high-scoring (mostly white) test takers answer correctly in pretesting — are deemed more reliable than those that give preference to students of other ethnicities. Princeton Review Foundation Director Jay Rosner wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Nation magazine that the October 2000 SAT was entirely made up of such "white-preference questions." This unfair process is cyclical and self-sustaining, as testing fees from mostly wealthy, mostly white students pay the salaries of College Board employees.
Why do elite schools continue to place so much emphasis on the SAT, when the test is racist and easily "gamed" by students who can afford expensive prep classes? The Ivy League should follow the lead of hundreds of other institutions in going SAT-optional. This process forces admissions officers to examine each application holistically, looking deeper into high school GPAs, recommendations, essays, interviews, and other more nuanced elements of the application.
Full disclosure: I am the white, (relatively) wealthy student that the SAT was designed to favor. My family also could afford to send me to a $600 prep class with a money-back guarantee, where I learned simple tricks to work the test. My score improved; I was accepted into Columbia University. I would like to believe that other factors like my funny essays and years of work experience contributed to my acceptance, and I'm sure they did — slightly. But I've always thought that $600 prep class really made the difference, and that's massively unfair.
I bought myself a higher score because my family could afford to, and many of my peers at Columbia did the same. We like to think we're all here because we earned it. But many of us are here because we could pay the price of admission.
Carlene Buccino is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts and a student at Columbia University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.