If you’ve applied to college in the past half-century, you’ve almost certainly been through it: the piles of prep books stacked on your desk, the long, aching hours of study, the restless nights filled with frantic dreams of showing up on test day late, or naked, or without a sharpened No. 2 pencil.
For generations, the SAT has tantalized and tortured America’s teenagers, who alternately see it as the key to the college of their dreams and the engine of their demise. But the dreaded rite of admissions may be on its way out.
On Monday, George Washington University announced that it would join more than 125 other American universities in going “test optional,” allowing applicants to forgo the exam some critics say acts as a barrier to disadvantaged students. The school is the largest yet to join the new trend.
“We had concerns that students who could be successful at GW felt discouraged from applying if their scores were not as strong as their high school performance,” said Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton. “We want outstanding students from all over the world and from all different backgrounds – regardless of their standardized scores – to recognize GW as a place where they can thrive.”
The ironic thing is that the test was invented for exactly the same reason that GW is moving away from it: a hope of creating a more meritocratic admissions process, one that evaluated applicants based not on their privileges as children, but on their promise as adults.
At the end of the 19th century, higher education was still very much the purview of the elite. Aristocratic admissions standards required applicants to know Latin, Greek and algebra — subjects rarely taught in the nation’s public schools. Young men (it was always, only men) effortlessly transitioned from elite academies like Andover and Groton to the campuses of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. There they were trained not just in academics but also in the customs of the establishment: playing sports, hobnobbing with their peers, wearing waistcoats.
The introduction of the very first admissions test, the College Board Entrance Exam, in 1901 began to change that, granting any gifted high school senior a shot at a private university education so long as he had the resources to pay for it. The test would still have been beyond the abilities of most Americans — the original 1901 exam included a section asking students to translate a paragraph into Latin, then rewrite it in indirect discourse — but it was marginally more meritocratic than anything that had existed before. In 1908, three years after adopting the exam as its main standard for admission, Harvard saw the composition of its student body shift dramatically: 7 percent was Jewish, 9 percent Catholic and 45 percent from public schools, according to the New Yorker.
Alarmed at the increasing enrollment of Jews and other “undesirables,” schools quickly added other requirements intended to weed out these applicants: letters of reference, assessments of “manliness,” personal essays, evidence of extracurriculars.
That was the status quo when James Conant became Harvard’s president in 1933. Colleges were willing to be more inclusive, but only of certain groups and only to a degree.
But Conant had a different vision. According to Nicholas Lemann, author of “The Big Test,” Conant was frustrated by the white, wealthy, Protestant establishment’s tight grip on power in the U.S., and he had a plan to “unseat them.”
“The idea he had in mind was an idea of Thomas Jefferson’s that Conant had picked up on — the idea of a natural aristocracy,” Lemann told Frontline in 1999. “He believed you would look out across America and you would find just out in the middle of nowhere, springing from the good American soil, these very intelligent, talented people. You would find a way to find them and let them run the country instead. So that was the quiet coup d’etat that he had planned, to engineer this natural aristocracy — identify them, train them, organize things so they got the power instead of this old group of people descended from the original settlers of America.”
The tool that would make this possible was the SAT, created the decade before. Unlike its predecessors, the SAT was modeled on IQ tests that had been popularized by the Army during World War I. Rather than testing knowledge or achievement — qualities that are inevitably tied to past education and upbringing — the exam sought to determine an applicant’s aptitude. Even if a young man had gone to schools where resources were sparse and Latin was nowhere on the curriculum, his test scores would make his potential obvious and his time at Harvard would enable him to fulfill it. Or so Conant’s logic went.
Initially, Conant only used the SAT to select students for scholarships. But the more he learned about the aptitude test, the more convinced he became that it was the mechanism by which he would create “education for a classless society.” He believed that the kinds of people who excelled on the test would be intelligent, hardworking and privilege-averse, that they would be better public servants than their WASP predecessors and would make America more democratic.
So Conant and some of his colleagues, particularly Harvard’s scholarship committee chairman Henry Chauncy, began pushing for large scale testing of the nation’s youth. Chauncy became the first president of the Educational Testing Service, which now owns or operates an alphabet soup of standardized tests — the SAT, the GRE, the TOEFL, as well as others. (Though the College Board owns the SAT, it’s administered and graded by ETS.) By the 1950s, hundreds of schools required SAT scores from their applicants. By the 1990s, nearly every school did.
But Conant’s idealistic vision of a more meritocratic admissions process never really came to fruition. Certainly, higher education is open to a far broader array of Americans than in the 1930s. But students from privileged backgrounds still perform better on tests and are more likely to be admitted to the most selective schools. And despite Conant’s belief that SAT scores wouldn’t be affected by a test-taker’s background, study after study has found that poor and minority students are consistently out-performed on the exam by their white, wealthier peers.
Lemann says that’s because students from families with more education and more resources are able to better equip themselves to take on the exam. SAT prep has become a billion dollar industry.
“The fundamental irony of the American meritocracy, the system that Conant set up, is this: People will start madly manipulating the system to their favor and to the favor of their children,” Lemann told Frontline. “And the people who have more money and more power and more sophistication will be able to manipulate it more successfully.”
The SAT-optional movement began in the second half of the 20th century with Bowdoin and Bates colleges in Maine — back then, the policy change was seen as the kind of zany approach only a tiny liberal arts college could get away with. But when Bates released a study in 2005 showing that its graduation rates were unaffected by whether or not students had taken the test, several other schools followed suit. By the following year, more than a quarter of the country’s top liberal arts colleges had done away with their own requirements.
“We felt the system had gotten out of whack,” Steve Syverson, then the dean of admissions at Lawrence University, told the New York Times in 2006. “Back when kids just got a good night’s sleep and took the SAT, it was a leveler that helped you find the diamond in the rough. Now that most of the great scores are affluent kids with lots of preparation, it just increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots.’’
GW’s announcement Monday makes it the biggest school yet to jump on the test-optional bandwagon. Whether or not the move will help the school recruit more diverse applicants remains to be seen.
But prospective applicants’ response to hearing they could evade the decades-old, dreaded exam is crystal clear:
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