The U.S. school system is broken. The privatization of student assessment systems has dismantled public education’s intent to deliver an equal education to each student in the country. The lamentable educational monopoly of the College Board has smeared the role of education as the great equalizer. I was raised in Germany, and I have experienced a vastly different school system which, while not perfect by any means, offers me a different perspective on this situation.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, 95% of colleges mandated the SAT or ACT as an entry requirement. The SAT, a multiple-choice test administered by the College Board, is scored out of 1600 with the subsections of mathematics and English each accounting for a possible 800 points. It is a structurally flawed measurement of academic capacity, as it does not account for one important variable: background.

Editor’s Note

About this series

For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Cedric Brinkmann is the seventh in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

Firstly, the SAT discriminates against students from low-income families; it charges $49.50 for the test itself, an additional $12 for the score report, and an extra $20 for the essay portion (which was required by competitive colleges before it was recently dropped by College Board). SAT workbooks cost anywhere from $20 to $50 (I counted, and I bought a total of seven books), but they are outclassed by tutoring, which sits at anywhere from $45 to $100 per hour. Students whose families are able to potentially pour thousands of dollars into tutoring find themselves at an incontrovertible advantage. Naturally, families have exploited this process, as recent scandals across the country revealed how test proctors would accept bribes to doctor students’ scores. While I am not saying that such bribes are a common recurrence, it is evident that the SAT favors the affluent and discriminates against low-income students by the very nature of its cost structure. It also creates racial inequities. Test score data show Asian and White students consistently outperform Black and Hispanic students on the SAT.

Secondly, standardized testing does not accurately supply an objective, reliable assessment of a child’s intellectual capacity and potential. How could it? It is a multiple-choice test. Cultural and socioeconomic factors, unfamiliarity with testing methods, test anxiety, and other unaccounted factors can be detrimental to a student’s score. The SAT does not measure one’s intelligence; it measures one’s ability to master the SAT.

While many colleges, such as the University of Washington, have now adopted a temporary test-optional policy — meaning they do not regard the SAT as a deciding factor for applicants — the SAT is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to inequality within the education system. A recent study has shown that the enrollment of Black, Latino and Native American students increased by only 1% at about 100 colleges and universities that adopted a test-optional policy between 2005-06 and 2015-16.

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Students from low-income backgrounds, who are disproportionately African American and Latino, have worse access to educational resources, period. While adopting a test-optional policy may certainly help, it is only a drop in the bucket. With worse educational access comes worse access to counselors, extracurricular activities, internet and most relevant Advanced Placement exams. AP Exams are subject tests, also administered by the College Board, which cost at least $95 a piece. These tests are so popular because a high score often allows students to obtain college credits, thus potentially decreasing the cost of college. In order to teach AP subjects schools need certified AP instructors, and students, in College Board fashion, need to pay for the tests (for reference I have taken 10 AP exams). 

I fully support access to AP tests. While AP exams accurately test one’s intricate knowledge of a subject area unlike the SAT, from microeconomics to art history, it is a pay-to-win system. 

I grew up in the German education system where students spend three years preparing for a series of examinations about each subject offered in school. They focus on up to two subjects in particular — physical education, history, geography biology — which then account for a higher percentage of their cumulative grade-point average. Under the national Department of Education, the student does not pay a single penny, and each student going to any given high school has equal access to the same materials and testing subjects. Outside factors such as where the student lives and family wealth matter less than how one performs in school. 

One thing is clear: The current U.S. pay-to-win system is unfair and inequitable. It is easy to think that we mustn’t change the current system because alternatives are futile and expensive, nonetheless we must constantly attempt to improve the odds for America’s left-behind students.