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Monday, July 10, 2017
Do Aptitude Tests Accurately Measure Merit, or Privilege?
It may come as a surprise to you that the Scholastic Aptitude Test was first administered all the way back in 1926. Though it didn't transform into its modern structure until the early 1950s, it was widely utilized as a rudimentary tool of meritocracy measurement. The test administrators gained their biggest client in 1960, when the University of California first made it a requirement to entry. Eventually, virtually all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. made the SAT mandatory.
There is no small amount of irony in the test's insidiously racist origins. Its creator, Carl C. Brigham, was an accomplished scholar and unabashed white supremacist, who believed that the "Nordic" descendants in America were fundamentally superior. He declared that aptitude testing scientifically proved that "American Negroes, the Italians and the Jews were genetically ineducable". Utilizing aptitude tests, he reasoned, would ensure that the intelligence of the white race would not be diluted by allowing non-whites into the university environment.
Almost a century later, the SAT and related aptitude tests arguably work just as Brigham intended. Good performance on the SAT does correlate with success in college. But it also tracks visibly along socioeconomic and racial lines. Wealthy students are far more likely to attend better high schools, have college educated parents, academic support at home, and-most significantly-the means for SAT preparation workshops and materials. Those students are overwhelmingly white.
The biases inherent in test scores are recognizable enough to modern universities, that close to a thousand colleges in the U.S. are now "test-optional", meaning that the SAT, ACT and related exams are not a requirement for admission. What's problematic is that most of these schools are smaller, with fewer applicants, giving them the time to make a more holistic assessment of a student's potential. Big universities receive so many applications each year that the SAT is a crucial filter for high volume. Because poverty correlates largely with race in the U.S., the test is effectively a barrier to access for students of color, who are already disproportionately under-represented in third-level educational institutions.
Though Brigham later walked back some of his assertions about the science of racism, the damage was already done; he'd lit the firey rage of anti-immigrant sentiment and zeal for eugenics. The country, apparently, has yet to recover.
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