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How the SAT became a golden ticket to college — and the source of societal ills

March 16, 2019

GREENWICH — The case of the crooked college counselor, who was caught bribing test proctors to change students’ answers on the SAT and SAT to boost their scores, is a lurid anecdote revealing the core problem with college-entrance exams — classicism.

So says Nicholas Lemann, author of “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” the definitive book on the SAT published in 1999.

“The real scandal isn’t what is illegal; it’s what is legal,” said Lemann, a professor of journalism and dean emeritus of Columbia University. “You don’t need bribes for the system to be extremely advantageous to people who come from a certain class.”

When the SAT was first administered in 1926, writers had engineered it to be a purely scientific, unbiased predictor of a student’s ability to do the work at a given university. It was not about mastery over the curriculum.

Before he died, one test founder told Lemann that he had hoped the test would identify people who are indifferent to money and success, and who would dedicate their lives to public service and sacrifice.

But now the SAT replicates the class system it was written to overturn, and those who succeed end up working for Google or Goldman Sachs, Lemann said.

“It’s an interesting story of idealism gone awry,” he said.

Falsifying scores on the SATs is at the center of a college-admissions scandal that came to light this past week with the arrest of ringleader William “Rick” Singer, who pleaded guilty federal charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice. Singer accepted payments from wealthy parents to bribe test proctors to inflate the SAT and ACT scores of their children in an effort to gain admission to elite colleges.

Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and high-powered attorney Gordon Caplan of Greenwich were among the parents arrested in the scheme. Caplan, who paid $75,000 for the illegal service, according to prosecutors, was placed on leave from his position as a partner in his Manhattan-based international law firm.

The test-taking firms of the College Board, which administers the SAT, and the ACT Inc. have defended their policies after 50 people, including wealthy executives, were charged in the scheme.

For the first three decades of the SAT, students did not learn their scores and could not retake it. Instead, guidance counselors used the scores to suggest schools to students, who would apply and attend one of their suggestions.

Then, in 1938, Stanley Kaplan debuted his test prep business. The test founders thought it was impossible that students could prepare for a test that measures aptitude. They held out even as test prep became ubiquitous, and money started influencing hard data.

“(The SAT) favors people with money,” he said. “And certainly people with money behave that way.”

Decades later, prominent social scientists and activists started critiquing the SAT for being racially imbalanced and for its lack of transparency. Political activist Ralph Nader’s criticisms spurred a series of reforms, including the ability to see scores, retake tests, and review old tests, as well as changes to the content, eliminating culturally biased questions.

Now, with the proliferation of test prep, college counselors and abuses of requests of extra time, universities are running an open contest to be successful, and the way competitors win is by getting the highest SAT scores, Lemann said.

“If you announce that anything ... is going to be the key to putting you on the track to where you end up socioeconomically, parents will go to great lengths to confer that quality on their children,” he said. “That’s human nature.”

The bigger question, for Lemann, is why Americans focus on the SAT at all. Americans need to ask themselves, “What are we trying to accomplish with these tests, socially speaking?” he said.

If the aim is to provide meaningful opportunity to as many people as possible through higher education, the emphasis should be on going to college, but the location and pedigree should not matter, he said.

In other words, the SAT should not be treated as the golden ticket that sets some teenagers up for life and keeps others out of higher education.

The real injustice, he said, is that while the vast majority of Americans have some interaction with higher education, more than half of people who start college do not earn a bachelor’s degree, when obtaining the degree makes the biggest difference.

“To make a fair society, the focus should be on figuring out why people who start college do not graduate,” he said. “Instead, the focus is on a handful of slots at elite schools and who gets them.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com