It costs a lot of money to get into college. There’s the cost of high school extracurriculars and test prep, all the things that are supposed to give a student a better shot at getting into the “best” school. There’s trips to visit potential schools to prove that your student is deeply interested in attending. There’s bribery for “side door” acceptance, if you’re into that sort of thing. But even if you don’t spend thousands on upping your potential to get into college, there’s one cost that is basically unavoidable: the cost of taking the SAT or ACT.
The SAT (formerly standing for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now just SAT) and ACT (originally American College Testing) are standardized tests that are functionally mandatory for admission at many colleges across the country, from elite universities to community college. Currently, it costs $47.50 to take the SAT ($64.50 with the Essay portion), and $22 for each of the SAT subject tests, not including the $26 registration fee. The ACT costs $50.50 ($67 with the Writing portion), and for each test there are extra costs for late registration. Advanced Placement (AP) tests cost $94. Fee waivers are available, but considering most college counselors suggest students take these tests multiple times, odds are many students and their families are paying hundreds of dollars just to be considered, turning college testing into a billion dollar industry.
Recently, these tests made the news again in the college admissions scandal centered around “counselor” William “Rick” Singer. Part of this particular scam involved bribed proctors either allowing professionals to take these tests in place of students, or editing the test results before sending them in. And thus, a decades-old conversation about bias and corruption in college testing — and whether the SAT and ACT should exist at all — was given a shot of adrenaline.
The college testing industry is run by two nonprofits: the College Board, which develops the SAT, PSAT, and AP curriculum, and ACT Inc., which administers the test of the same name. And for decades, the two have been accused of abusing their nonprofit status by holding a monopoly on college testing and, thus, admission. However, in recent years, more colleges and universities have been deeming these entrance tests optional or entirely unnecessary, often in order to promote a more diverse applicant pool — and to weed out unfair advantages. Even without a crime ring, “Well-to-do people buy their kids all kinds of advantages,” Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “These so-called objective numbers are very easily manipulated in a way that creates a tilted playing field.”
Schools going test-optional, or eliminating them altogether, could mean a huge blow to the big business of testing. Or it could just drastically change the way the system is gamed.
Why the SAT and ACT exist
It’s not difficult to understand how the SAT and ACT became part of America’s college admissions process in the first place. At the turn of the 20th century, when college was effectively just for white men, many schools had their own exams. These had to be taken at the colleges themselves. This would shut out any student who didn’t have the means to travel and result in wildly different tests that were probably inconvenient to prepare for. It also meant that the nearly uniformly white, rich, and male students at elite prep schools basically had a lock on the top universities (yes, that’s still a problem, but we’ll get to it later).
The College Board, founded in 1899, was a group of a dozen colleges (all on the east coast) and a few prep schools that wanted to create one test everyone could use, regardless of background. The group also aimed to standardize what sorts of things high schools would teach to get their students ready for university. The SAT debuted in 1926 out of their efforts. However, the SAT started as an aptitude test, and was criticized for only showing whether students were good at taking the SAT. Enter the ACT, which was developed in 1959 at the University of Iowa, and designed to see if a student had actually learned what they were supposed to learn in 12 years of school. The SAT began to follow suit, and over the decades both tests have gone through overhauls with the goal of being an objective representation of a student’s readiness for college.
It’s an appealing thought, especially given how uneven K-12 education is in America. We know public school funding is based on property tax value, meaning schools in wealthier areas get better funding. We know the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to send your kid to a private school (where grade inflation is more prevalent), or to have access to treatments for learning disabilities, or to be able to afford outside test prep and tutoring, or all the other things that give you a leg up when applying to college. But the SAT/ACT, ideally, could be a great equalizer. “It’s not dependent on how lenient or how harsh the grading standards are in a given high school,” says Professor Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade. “You don’t have the risk that high school teachers are giving inferior grades to certain groups based on bias.” It’s the one thing all admissions officers have that, in theory, means the same thing.
Of course, in practice, that’s not how it works. “The reality that there has been a long-standing and clear racial, gender, and economic bias in both tests is the larger problem,” says one private school teacher in Manhattan (who asked that he not be identified). Some argue that the test itself is inherently biased in terms of how it’s written. Others, like Koretz, say that because the way our public education system is set up, it’s just more likely that poorer and underprivileged kids won’t have the resources to do well. Either way, we wind up with white and Asian students routinely outperforming black and Latinx students on both tests.
Who’s in charge of the SAT and ACT?
The SAT is administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS) on behalf of College Board, while the ACT is administered by ACT Inc. All three companies are nonprofits, though as Koretz explains, that doesn’t mean they’re altruistic, and many have accused these companies of only caring about their bottom line. According to their last tax return, ETS had a total revenue of $1.4 billion, with their president making $1.1 million. ACT Inc. had a total revenue of just over $353 million, with their CEO/director making $800k. College Board is also in charge of AP curriculum, another large consideration for any college applicant. Both College Board and ACT Inc. also offer test prep materials, from $99 live-streaming study sessions to official study guides. College Board has recently teamed with Khan Academy to provide a lot of free online lessons, but it still stands that this is a business. The SAT and ACT have a stake in remaining a necessary part of any college application.
ETS and ACT Inc. can also impact how colleges see their applicants. “I get literally at least a call a day from some working-class student who busted their butt to increase their SAT or ACT scores, and then have ETS or ACT suspend their scores and accuse them of cheating,” says Andre Green, the executive director of FairTest. “Meanwhile, we find out that rich people are literally buying off proctors and ETS.” ETS claims it’s not a monopoly, saying “there are competitors for most of the testing programs and related products and services we develop,” but the fact is that students can’t get into most schools without taking these tests, and the entire landscape for that test-taking is unfair.
Some argue that, because of this unfairness, college degrees in general are a scam and should not be held in such high regard. But that point of view is easier to hold the more advantages you have. Studies largely show that the more privileged you are, the better off you’re going to be with or without a college degree. According to one study, if you’re black or a woman, regardless of your financial background, getting a college degree ups your chances to earn more, whereas “the differential college earnings premium by family-income background is more evident among men and whites.” Shifting the goalposts from “everyone should have a college degree” to “college is a scam” just keeps the same people in power and privilege. When experts, administrators, and parents argue over testing and admissions, it’s because the stakes are still high.
This is why it’s not necessarily a problem that ETS and ACT Inc. have a hold on the tests, but more that the tests have a hold on admissions. “Let’s say there’s a government-run test. It’s not the manager of the test, it’s the stakes. ... When a test is this important, people are going to game the system,” says Green. Students are always looking for ways to prove their competence, so as long as there’s a test that claims to do that, regardless of who runs it, students will take it.
Can these tests be made more equal?
In an effort to combat all the above-board ways students can gain unfair advantages in the SAT and ACT, more than 1,000 colleges are making the tests either optional or entirely not required. Ironically, some of those schools, like Bryn Mawr College and Union College, are the ones that developed the SAT with College Board nearly 100 years ago. It’s a trend many educators are in favor of. “While I do not believe there is any magic fix, I feel that moving to a more portfolio-style admissions process would help the process become more equitable,” says the private school teacher in Manhattan. “Certainly there needs to be academic metrics used to evaluate students; however, we are all more than our scores on tests.”
There are also various efforts to help students navigate the costs of these tests, from teachers and parents starting GoFundMes for test prep, to free test prep offerings from Khan Academy. But the fee waivers offered by College Board, ACT Inc., and the National Association for College Admission Counseling are mostly available to students on government assistance (with the latter allowing for school counselors to argue for students who aren’t). But plenty of students have a hard time paying, regardless. On Reddit, many students have complained about the costs; one was shocked at how much it cost just to register for the SAT subject tests, while another mentioned the cost of taking it internationally (which is almost as much as the test itself) is as much as some teachers in their country make in a month.
Green argues “the best way to measure someone’s work ... is to look at their prior work. ... So rather than trying to establish some crazy predictive which we know is a little biased, we should look at a students prior performance.” However, Koretz says transcripts can be just as biased as test scores, and that most universities just don’t have the staff to keep track of which schools have less funding, inflated grades, more AP offerings, and all the other things that influence what a student’s B+ average or 3.4 GPA actually means.
There probably could stand to be more attention paid to actual high school transcripts and histories. That way, admissions officers may have seen that the students involved in the Singer scandal were not actually star athletes. But the troubling fact behind college admissions, ETS, and College Board or not, is that no one really knows how to predict how high school students will do in college. Though one study, sponsored by College Board, says SAT scores are an important predictor of college performance, other studies say SAT scores aren’t a good predictor of freshman GPAs. And freshman GPAs aren’t necessarily a good predictor of college performance or adult success or happiness or fulfillment or likelihood that a graduate will give back to the school. And no matter what, admissions officers just can’t get to know every single applicant.
Right now, college admissions depend a lot on two somewhat pricey tests controlled by two nonprofits. But doing away with their stronghold on the tests won’t do away with biased teachers, uneven public school funding, privilege, or class. But a hard truth for many students and parents to absorb is that there are no guarantees.
Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no use in trying to make things as equitable as possible. If colleges are going to require the SAT/ACT, perhaps they’d like to think of paying for them, or making them free, or hell, making college free. $64.50 is a little easier to bear when you’re not going to be in debt for the rest of your life.
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