When the SAT Feels Like a Lock, Not a Key

EdSurge Podcast

When the SAT Feels Like a Lock, Not a Key

By Eric Hoover and Jeffrey R. Young     Dec 7, 2021

When the SAT Feels Like a Lock, Not a Key

This article is part of the guide: Bootstraps: A Podcast Series .

The SAT test weighs heavily on our collective imagination—and most everyone can picture the nerve-wracking scene of students sitting at desks, bubbling in Scantron forms with a No. 2 pencil, while stern-faced proctors walk around looking for cheaters.

So it’s not surprising that the SAT shows up in lots of Hollywood blockbusters. And often, it’s the stuff of nightmares—as in the opening dream sequence of the 1983 film “Risky Business,” where Tom Cruise's character shows up late for his SAT test and worries that his life is “ruined.”

The SAT is super high stakes, and often the test is depicted as a barrier—a cold, impersonal gatekeeper—that in one three-hour sitting can shape the rest of a person's life. And it turns out it can feel like a very different obstacle for different types of students, depending on things like race and social class.

For this episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we are taking a closer look at the SAT’s impact: Who is it for? And is it fair?

This is part of our Bootstraps podcast series about merit, myths and education, that we’re co-producing with the journalism nonprofit Open Campus. We're unpacking popular narratives around who gets what opportunities in America and wondering how it could all be different. And for this episode, we teamed up with The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Hoover, who has long covered college admissions.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Below is an edited sampling of the conversation.

We wanted to get a perspective that goes beyond the popular notions from Hollywood, so we visited Thurgood Marshall Academy, a non-selective public charter school in Washington, D.C. The school has a proven track record for helping under-represented students get into college. Since 2005, 100 percent of its graduates have received an acceptance from at least one college, and about 85 percent of students who enroll at Thurgood Marshall go on to attend a four-year college.

Now you might think that the guidance counselor who has presided over much of this school’s success would have some special SAT training program for his students. But in fact, that official, Sanjay Mitchell, the school’s director of college and alumni programs, is a well-known, outspoken critic of the SAT.

“I have witnessed meltdowns in the hallways when students get their test scores,” he said. “I have witnessed how bright, talented students have that light just snuffed out of them when that test score comes. I've seen the ways in which students cram, and they have the big SAT prep book and they're reading and they're testing and they're struggling and they're striving, and so much of who they are as a college-bound student is so tied into that test. And when it doesn't land into the score that they think it should, it actually deflates our students, and it prevents them from applying to some of these spaces.”

And Mitchell argues that the SAT has impacts on underrepresented students that even college admissions officials may not realize.

And even when a student at Thurgood Marshall scores high on the SAT, the reaction is not always one of celebration.

“When I really think about my students with high test scores, they're not pumped or excited about applying to super selective schools, because I think deep down, somewhere inside, they just know that it's still not a space that wants them, even with their scores,” says Mitchell. “And it takes a lot of coaching, a lot of coaxing, a lot of conversation, to get them to consider [applying to a selective college.’”

“The test score isn't the thing,” Mitchell points out. “Sure, they're happy, [if they say] I got a 1250. Is that a good score? That's always the question. Is that a good score? … Yeah, that's a pretty solid score. But then there's still disbelief. They don't believe me when I say it's a good score.”

These days something big is happening with college admissions. Since the pandemic, hundreds of colleges have gone test-optional, meaning they're not requiring students to submit an SAT or ACT score. Some of those institutions may go back to requiring standardized tests once the COVID-19 virus fades, but many others say they've made this change for good.

And the students at Thurgood Marshall have noticed.

“When we told students that their favorite schools are now test optional and that's off the table, we saw the earnest ways in which they've approached the process after that—the excited ways they approached the process, and the ways in which they found language to articulate about themselves in the process that make them stand out, outside of the test,” says Mitchell. “If we had always had this as an option, I wonder how many students would have just said... ‘Let me apply and let me apply earnestly versus I'm not going to apply because this score tells me that I'm not college ready.’”

Does Mitchell think this will mean a new era that will make highly selective colleges more welcoming to more types of students?

“I think I've moved from a pessimist to a cautious optimist,” he says. “What I am worried about though, is what other obstacles are going to be put in place to replace the obstacle that the SAT was? And that's the thing that keeps me up.”

“Because if we argue that the SAT and standardized testing was a means to standardize a review process for every applicant, now there needs to be a new thing, right, that standardizes everything,” he adds. “What will this new thing be? And how will it affect students from marginalized backgrounds?”

Will the recent rise in test-optional policies by colleges lead to changes that can improve equity in the nation’s colleges?

The question now is will this moment of turmoil create a space to talk about these questions more openly? Can the broader higher ed system do better at seeing all these students for who they are, not to look for diamonds in the rough, but to see potential in all students and help them craft that potential into something more fully formed?

Listen to the complete episode on the EdSurge Podcast.

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