The SAT & ACT: Measurements Of Affluence, Not Aptitude

by Ryan M. Banning

How would you feel if you had to work twice as hard as your peers? What would it be like, knowing that others could afford the shortcut while you were stuck, working away without the benefit of an easy way out? Fortunately, I never had to experience such a burden. I was born and raised in a wealthy family.

Growing up, my parents could afford to supply me with the resources I would need to succeed academically. Many of my peers weren’t as lucky. I had an inherent advantage, and nowhere was this more apparent than when it came to standardized testing. With multiple preparatory courses under my belt, countless practice tests at my disposal, and a private tutor on hand, all I had to do was listen and learn. This advantage, this competitive edge, made all the difference. I believe my high ACT score remains the single most important reason for my acceptance to Boston College. It’s likely why I am where I am today.

That doesn’t mean I’m where I should be, though. In many ways, this score was skewed by wealth, and that’s the fundamental flaw with standardized testing. Colleges, and other institutions of higher learning, are influenced by SAT and ACT scores more than anything else when it comes to undergraduate admission, and because of this, they place an emphasis on affluence rather than academic aptitude.

I’m writing this essay out of sympathy for my peers. I’m confident that many of them, had they been placed in my position, would have been able to achieve the same level of success as I, if not greater than mine. This wasn’t always the case, though, and things turned out the way they did for a reason. That reason is money.

When families have wealth, their offspring often enjoy privileges others aren’t fortunate enough to have. Children from these families have been given the upper hand since the day they were born. An example of this is the schools they attend. Students who come from affluent backgrounds often attend private schools through high school. Those who don’t take the private route go to the most prominent, well-respected public schools. Parents will either pay the cost of tuition to go private or buy and live in a top school district to stay public. Both come at a premium, and neither are options for the vast majority of students and their families.

Education is often administered, and acquired, on an unequal playing field. The more fortunate students receive a better education and are more prepared to take the SAT or ACT, depending on which they prefer. Everyone else is left in the dust. Students desperately try to catch up to their privileged peers, yet they tend to fall further and further behind.  In a recent New York Times article, Sabrina Tavernise recently reported, “Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects” (Tavernise 1). If equal opportunity to succeed is gone, for many, every fight becomes an uphill battle.

Nowhere is inequality of opportunity more poignantly portrayed than in the practice of standardized testing. According Tavernise, recent research by Stanford University sociologist Professor Sean F. Reardon has “found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s” (Tavernise 2). Prosperous parents have the means to provide their children with an abundance of resources that are unavailable to the rest of the general population. With all of these significant advantages, like private tutors or personal test prep courses, how can the less fortunate even have the slightest chance of catching up, much less competing?

The definition of standardized test is “a test (as of intelligence, achievement, or personality) whose reliability has been established by obtaining an average score of a significantly large number of individuals for use as a standard of comparison” (Merriam-Webster). The SAT and ACT were intended as measurements of comparison through which colleges could evaluate students based on their scores. The idea was for every high school student to take at least one or other, if not both, in an effort to display his or her intelligence and ability to succeed at the next level. The tests are not a requirement for high school graduation, but are deemed as mandatory for college admission. The tests are stressed to such a degree because of the weight they carry in determining a high school graduate’s future. As standardized tests of such magnitude and importance, you would expect that scores would be carefully considered; yet that is not the case. Colleges might advertise that they take everything into account, but ask any college counselor and they’ll tell you otherwise. In fact, the general consensus is that most colleges won’t even look at an application unless the student got above a certain score.   Even if that view is overly cynical, there’s no doubt that these scores can make or break a student.

An argument can be made that there are programs and initiatives in place to reach out to those who don’t have the same economic opportunity to succeed. In an effort to create a diverse socioeconomic environment on campus, colleges across the country are taking things like income, ethnicity, and nationality into account. Financial aid is awarded, and scholarships are available, for those who qualify. Although all of these are significant steps in the right direction, inequality and lack of opportunity are still prevailing for too many in society. Look at any college campus and you’ll see quite a diverse student body. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll realize the appearance is nothing more than a façade. At colleges and universities across the United States, wealthy white students are a dime a dozen, and make up a majority of the enrollees.

How can such an emphasis be placed on standardized testing of such a non-standardized education? The tests are a culmination of everything that’s wrong with the way we view scholastic success in this country. Our society has conditioned us to believe that we’re all equal, yet a vast majority of students literally can’t “afford” the same education or opportunity as those of their more fortunate peers. If this pattern of perpetual inequality continues, the consequences will be severe. Alexandra Katz, a college student at Columbia University, recently put it best in an article in the  Columbia Spectator: “The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor, and the American dream of rising to the top through hard work fades away” (Katz 3).

The SAT and ACT tests are two of the most unequal measurements of academic aptitude in US education, but as of now, they remain the single most important determinants in whether a student is accepted to a universities or other institution of higher learning. Too many students have become disenfranchised by the system and disillusioned with the process. As a result, the practice of standardized testing and the way we evaluate academic achievement needs to change. Although I have benefitted from the biased nature of our current educational system, I just can’t accept this success without guilt. Shouldn’t our most prestigious institutions be saved for the best and brightest, not the lucky and wealthiest?


Work Cited

Alexandra, Katz “Testing Inequality” Columbia Spectator. Columbia Spectator, 27 Sep 2010. Web. 27 Mar 2013.

“Standard Test” Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica, Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <>.

Tavernise, Sabrina. “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Sep 2010. Web.