Breaking the SAT's Choke Hold on American Education

Jaime Dalbke

Did you know that the first Scholastic Aptitude Test was administered way back in 1901?

Fewer than 1,000 students took it that year. Over the years, the SAT grown from a psychological experiment into a test that is taken by between 1.5 and 2 million students every year, at $45 a pop. Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that administers the SAT, doesn't like to tell how many students line up to take the test annually.

The SAT has become a staggering money-maker for ETS, and for dozens of other businesses that swim alongside it like those remora fish that swim next to sharks, scavenging the dollars that ETS has somehow let slip through its jagged teeth. These hangers-on include tutoring companies that charge jumbo fees to coach students to take the test. Also, publishers that churn out new manuals every year on how to ace the test. Plus, software companies that sell packages designed to help kids boost their scores.

And let's not forget there is another test, the ACT, has entered the field of battle too. The ACT is administered by a nonprofit organization. It was planned as a rational alternative to the SAT. Good idea! But the bottom line is, students still have to pay $32 to take it - or $47 if they opt for the longer version that includes a writing section. And many students today are taking both tests, just to see how they do.

Just how much money are students feeding into this educational meat grinder every year? Again, it's anybody's guess. But even if only 1.5 million kids are paying $45 apiece to take the SAT, that alone is stuffing $67.5 million into ETS's coffers. And that's just the foundation under all the SAT-spawned businesses. In total, the profits generated from this one test probably come close to the GNP of a third-world country.

It all begs the question, why is the SAT test still in business? There are many justifications for it - it helps students gain access to competitive colleges, and so on. But let's face it. The SAT is mostly a service provided to colleges and universities, not to students. For colleges and universities, the SAT offers a quick way to discourage under-qualified students from choking their admissions offices with applications. Also, the SAT serves as a down-and-dirty tool for eliminating under-qualified students from consideration after they have applied. Into the dumpster go the applications from students with SAT scores that fall below a cut-off point that the college has determined. In an admissions office with applications piling high, that's a valuable tool to have.

So, if the colleges and universities are the entities that benefit from the SAT, why don't they pay for students to take it, instead of forcing the student to pay? It's just another one of the cruel ironies about the SAT.

In light of the fact that the SAT generally benefits the schools instead of the students, why aren't more ethical educators speaking up against the test? Actually, many are. A growing number of institutions are no longer requiring their applicants to submit scores from either the SAT or the ACT. They include specialized schools (such as the Beth Yehuda Yeshiva in Pennsylvania, the Baptist Bible College in Missouri, and a number of fine arts schools), but also more prestigious institutions that include Drew University in New Jersey, Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and the schools in the University of California system.

Fighting Back . . .

How can you avoid feeding bushels full of dollars into the standardized testing monster?

  • You could apply for an SAT fee waiver, which ETS makes available to some needy students.
  • You could apply only to colleges that no longer require standardized tests.
  • Another way? Start out at StraigherLine, and start earning college credits with no standardized testing requirements whatsoever. Then consider transferring your StraighterLine credits to Potomac College or one of StraighterLine's other affiliated, accredited colleges.

Yes, there is a better way. And do you know what? You just found it.

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