Stating the Obvious about SATs

by Jane S. Shaw

A leading attack on the SAT is the claim that it can’t be a legitimate test because high SAT scores are closely correlated with family income—even with neighborhoods carrying certain zip codes. So the SAT is just a measure of family success, and thus unfair to those brought up without so many advantages.

Earlier this month on Real Clear Politics, Robert VerBruggen stated what should be obvious: “[R]icher kids, fairly or unfairly, actually do have higher academic capabilities.” If the goal is to find and measure academic aptitude, the well-off are always going to score higher, on average.

Why? (Apparently we need to spell this out.) The people who live in affluent neighborhoods are usually high achievers—otherwise, most of them would not be there. As Robert points out, those achievers tend to pass on to their children the factors behind their success, whether through their genes, by setting an example, or by providing benefits that lead to academic preparation.

Of course, there are smart and motivated young people in adverse circumstances—families in poverty, welfare, or struggling to get by. By the nature of their environment, however, they inevitably represent a smaller portion of their neighborhood. Their zip codes would never correlate with high-scoring SAT test-takers.

Because this undeniable reality looks bad to liberals, the nation is engaging in a debate over whether to make the SAT more “fair” (i.e., easier) or to throw it out altogether in favor of “holistic” assessment. The hunt is on to find those students who 1) don’t do well on such tests, but 2) have sufficient aptitude for college, and 3) don’t live in the affluent districts. It’s not an easy task and certainly it isn’t “fair” to those who are academically prepared but surrounded by others who are, too.