Akil Bello has spent most of his adult life involved in testing students. He started as a tutor at The Princeton Review, helping students prepare for the SAT, but he has become highly critical of standardized testing and of “highly rejective” universities, a term he coined to identify those universities who have made their reputation on the number of students they reject every year but who also have outsized influence on our culture.Highly rejective universities and their over reliance on standardized tests has been Bello’s focus since as far back as 2016. Because of his experience, Akil has come to the conclusion that the SAT does not work. At least not for what we use it for.

As Akil sees it, using standardized testing to understand the educational status of a population as a whole can be useful. Results like the National Report Card (NAEP Scores) or the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are primarily used to get a feel for educational performance across a school or within a country as a whole, tracking educational gains and losses between years and under different economic and political conditions. The SAT, however, is usually used to rank individual students.

And that is what led him to FairTest, an organization which, in its own words “works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing”.

“The uses to which we put the SAT… are problematic”

The SAT is not unique in being put to problematic uses. Whether, as Akil pointed out, it is a New Jersey rapist being given leniency because he got “good test scores” or Zillow adding test score performance to real estate search sites, this kind of numerical grading can really warp the reality of the situation and entrench some existing power structures.

“It creates multiple problematic outcomes when… real estate search sites incorporates measures of school performance based entirely on test scores…We’re going encourage the community to punish the schools by pushing down real estate values”

The ACT, though it has a slightly lower profile nationally, has all of the same issues. In general, both the SAT and ACT are used to apply to colleges, but in recent years the ACT has become a High School exit exam for many states.

But in spite of some of these issues, test defenders remain ever present.

“There is definitely a segment of the population… who firmly believe in the test for whatever reason. [They believe that] as long as you numerically quantify things, it’s objective and fair.”

The simple fact that some form of quantification is happening makes some people believe in the importance of the quantification. The SAT themselves says that the scores have an error range of ± 40 points meaning that a student who earned a 1430 by their own metrics cannot be judged differently than a student who earned 1390.

But this nuance is lost because that information is buried in an online document. Most of the population believes that someone who earns a 1430 is demonstrably smarter than someone who earns a 1390, and it is unlikely that most admission algorithms take that into consideration.

The belief that SAT scores represent a true measure of someone’s intelligence is pervasive, and in fact, as Akil points out, it is one of the pieces of evidence that Edward Blum is using in his cases at the Supreme Court; because Harvard is not accepting every student with a high SAT score, they must be biased against white and asian students. 

There is definitely a segment of the population … who firmly believe … as long as you numerically quantify things, it’s objective and fair

One of the ways that standardized test fairness can be examined is by comparing GPA and expected test scores of a given group with the actual test scores of that group. GPA and SAT score are correlated because anyone who can do well in classes is likely to do better on the SAT. So if all you have is a GPA, there is a correlated range that the SAT score is likely to fall in. However, for certain groups, those numbers are very different from the expectation.

In a talk that Akil gave to Marco Learning, he highlights this, with one slide in particular showing just how many more wealthy, white, and especially male students have higher than expected SAT scores.

“[There’s] Lots of research around women being more thoughtful, more careful” But SAT and ACT are designed to take most students more than the allotted time. They reward speed which puts women at a disadvantage.

And with all these issues surrounding testing, it makes a lot of sense that so many schools went test free or test optional during the pandemic. It became harder to access and harder to continue to defend the inclusion of the test as a prerequisite for college admissions.

But after some progress in removing testing requirements, some colleges have reinstated the requirement. Akil wrote a great article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about MIT’s decision to reinstate the SAT. While the claim that the SAT gives MIT better information about who will do well in their first year, or their “13th grade” as Akil calls it.

“I would be happy with MIT saying ‘We’re MIT, we get to do what we want’… MIT has a super special ‘13th grade’ and I get that, I am fully on board with MIT requiring whatever they want to.” But because of MIT’s place in the broader educational landscape, a lot of schools look to their example and follow suit. If you look at how quickly other school’s followed Yale Law’s move to pull out of US News and World Reports rankings it becomes evident that these prestigious institutions wield a lot of influence that they don’t acknowledge.

“The problem is that the college conversation … about 4,000 colleges, is driven by … about 70 schools that admit less than 30% of their applicant pool.”

And those “highly rejective” schools rarely make it clear that something like the SAT, which might work for MIT, shouldn’t always be copied by a local state school. They don’t admit that they set expectations for a lot of higher ed, in spite of educating a very small portion of all college students.

Finally it is important to remember that even though both ACT, Inc. and College Board, are non-profits, there is still a lot of money in the testing industry. Fees associated with individual tests add up, especially if a student takes the ACT, SAT, and a couple of SAT subject tests. ACT, inc. will even sell you a test prep course to improve your score on their own test, while College Board seems to realize that is a bad look, so they will only sell you an official study guide.

Certainly they are trying to maintain relevancy, whether it is through think pieces on grade inflation or direct lobbying, it is hard to see that they want what is best for students

When asked whether College Board was a villain Akil responded by saying “In this story probably, or at best they are a villain enabler.”

If you’re interested in reading more by Akil Bello check out his most recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Ed discussing another falsely objective grading system, the US News and World Reports College Rankings.

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