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Harming Students in the Name of Fairness
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Harming Students in the Name of Fairness

Dropping the SAT for the sake of ‘equity’ forces colleges to rely on admissions standards that benefit wealthy and privileged applicants.

(Stock photo by Getty Images.)

On an SAT answer bubble, a single vertical mark through a letter counts as a response. Why does that matter? Because drawing a short line requires two fewer seconds than shading a full bubble. Across dozens of questions, that’s precious minutes saved.

I absorbed this piece of testing arcana during years spent obsessing about the SAT. I didn’t just casually study for the nation’s college entrance exam—I became consumed by it, seeing it as my ticket to top schools and a vital totem of academic excellence.

Which is why I’ve been surprised at the growing number of colleges that—in the name of “fairness” or “equity”—have either abandoned standardized tests or dubbed them optional, including, in recent days, Columbia University. By reducing the emphasis placed on such tests, these institutions actually render the admissions process less fair and equitable—and devalue a key opportunity for students to demonstrate excellence and grit. 

For me, the SAT was the rare component of collegiate admissions that I could meaningfully control—and a contrast to the other, concerningly fuzzy parts of that process. My parents were Indian immigrants who didn’t attend college in the United States. They didn’t know what an Eagle Scout was or why a university would care that you’d aided the destitute during your summers off. They couldn’t easily afford expensive sports programs or pricey musical instruments. At some level, they were perplexed that the admissions process was so dependent on hazy “extracurriculars” or a word cloud of “well-roundedness.”

The SAT, however, was refreshingly clear and accessible—and learnable. In my sophomore year, I had earned a modest score on a practice test, one that I knew wouldn’t cut it for my preferred schools. My parents weren’t about to spring for tutors, so I had to crack this on my own, and on the cheap. I checked out every public library prep book available and photocopied all the included tests. (Sorry Kaplan!) I also printed out every free test available on the then-primitive World Wide Web and mainlined online forums on test-taking strategy.

In the process, I picked up time-saving techniques like the line-through-the-letter trick. I’d also learned that with enough focus, it’s possible to finish a section in a fraction of the allotted time. At my speediest, I could zoom through a section twice or even three times before the timer went off.

Pace wasn’t the only trainable skill. Because English wasn’t my first language, many of the complicated words in the verbal section were unfamiliar to me. So I created roughly 14,000 digital flashcards, keying them in word by polysyllabic word, and doggedly memorized every last one. Take that, “prestidigitation”!

My training was both physical and mental. To prepare for the possibility of a chilly testing room, I trained myself to take the exam in the cold by throwing open my window in the Chicago winter and letting the chill permeate my bedroom. To steel myself against noise, I took practice tests with music blaring through my stereo. 

In the end, I earned the high score I wanted, but I’d earned something else, too: The SAT proved a powerful adolescent exercise in self-improvement. To ace the test, I had to make a plan, overcome setbacks, and discipline my attention. When it was over, I enjoyed the deep satisfaction that comes from sacrificing for something meaningful—or at least, something that felt meaningful to me at the time.

This is what the SAT represents to legions of students and parents: a meaningful and objective marker of achievement, open to all, with high scores attainable irrespective of income or background.

To listen to the critics tell it, though, the SAT is irredeemably biased and has been for decades. But the academic research on that debate is inconclusive at best and often mistakes correlation for causation. If anything, recent studies about standardized testing paint a radically different portrait. A compelling 2016 study demonstrated that testing won out over teacher referrals for the number of poor and minority students accurately identified as “gifted.” 

In 2022, preliminary research on admissions officers showed that abandoning standardized testing left those officers “worried that their colleges were replacing standardized tests with metrics that were even more biased toward wealthier and white students.” What concerning metrics might those be? Letters of recommendation, grades, and extracurriculars—all of which are vastly more subjective and far more easily polished for those with the means and wherewithal to do so. 

Or to put it differently: The SAT may indeed be the least fair dimension of the admissions process—except for all the others.

I hope universities continue to see the SAT as an imperfect but rigorous benchmark, one through which students can showcase not just a single morning’s test-taking prowess but a wider set of character traits. I also hope those colleges that require the test now keep it that way. Labeling the test optional isn’t a courageous blow for equity—it’s a cop out. When something is optional, it comes with a question mark: Is this important, or isn’t it? Indeed, the research study on test-optional colleges revealed admissions officers’ inability to confidently tell students whether they ought or ought not to submit a score. If they can’t be sure, how can anyone else?

For students facing that option, think of the SAT as a test of discipline and drive, to which you can bring an entrepreneurial desire to crack the system—all qualities that will hold you in good stead, whether your future alma mater deems that test optional or not.

Jimmy Soni is the author of The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley.