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Racially Biased SAT Speaks to a Broken Education System

David Love: Is the SAT racially biased? The College Board says score disparities are due to educational inequities but the Harvard Educational Review disagrees.

An interesting study was just released by the Harvard Educational Review on racial bias in the SAT Reasoning Test, that well-known college entrance exam that so many educational institutions swear by in the admissions process. Well, according to the study, not only does the SAT discriminate against economically disadvantaged students, but it also results in different scores based on race, even when the students are of equal academic ability.


This study finds, curiously, that more difficult questions on the college entrance test favor black students (yes, favor), while easier questions favor white test takers. As a whole, however, the exam is skewed towards white students—not because of their skills or aptitude, but because many questions reflect cultural expressions that are prevalent in white society. In other words, and I smell a lawsuit somewhere, some questions are hurting African-American students. On the reading section of the SAT, blacks score an average of 429, 99 points below their white classmates.

The College Board has reacted to the score disparities based on income and race by saying hey, society is unfair, but the test is fair, and the gap is attributable to educational inequities. But somehow, that explanation just isn’t good enough.

On one level, the Harvard study reinforces what many have known for quite some time. The SAT has received scrutiny over the years, and standardized testing as a whole has its origins in IQ testing and the racist eugenics movement. High-stakes testing has forced students to learn the test rather than to learn something valuable. Colleges and universities have over-relied on these standardized exam scores in the admissions process. However, a growing number of schools have decided to no longer require the SAT, and this report is another good reason for other colleges to follow suit.

Although the SAT is a big problem facing American education that needs addressing, it is not the only problem. Rather, it is merely the tip of the iceberg. After all, many young people are not even in a position to take an SAT test or go to college. The cradle-to-prison pipeline in poorer and disproportionately black and brown communities provides children with a poor excuse for an education in crumbling, crappy, subpar schools. They are programmed for a life with few options other than to go behind bars. The communities that provide the prisoners are predictable: North Philly, East New York, East L.A., Chicago’s South Side. In Brooklyn, some blocks in predominantly black neighborhoods are known as “million-dollar blocks”: the state pays $1 million or more to imprison residents of that block. At a cost of $30,000 per prisoner, that’s at least 33 prisoners per block. In 2003, there were 35 such blocks in Brooklyn, and even a $5 million block—at least 167 prisoners from a single city block.

Prisons are a big business, it cannot be denied. And the majority of the prisoners in the U.S. are people of color. But sometimes green trumps any other color. The “kids for cash” scandal in mostly white, rural Luzerne County, Pennsylvania—in which judges were paid by prison companies to throw good kids into jail—shows that any of our children might be for sale, no matter their complexion. Might as well lock them up and throw away the key, the saying goes, in order to decrease the surplus population.

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Education is regarded as a tool for upward mobility and personal success. Many jobs that once required only a high school diploma now require a college degree. And in any case, many of those jobs are being outsourced or otherwise shipped offshore to a cheaper labor source. Although college might not be for everyone, there are relatively few options for those who wish to pursue training and acquire skills outside of a college setting.

And for those who do make it to college, many are saddled from the start with a mortgage-sized debt—due to the exponential rise in tuition costs, and the cozy deals made over the years between unscrupulous lending institutions and equally unscrupulous institutions of higher education.

Meanwhile, to be frank, the Great Recession has cast serious doubt on the value of education as a tool for success in capitalist America. Education is important for personal enrichment and fulfillment, building character and creating better individuals, to be sure, but there are no jobs. A generation of young people is graduating with degrees, doing everything that society told them to do, and yet there is no work for millions of them. And their $100,000 to $200,000 in school loans is sticking around like baggage. Five of them are chasing one job. Extension of their unemployment benefits is precarious because Congress would rather throw the money into sinkholes for the military and Wall Street bankers.

This is a lost generation of people who start their career in chronic, long-term unemployment, unable to make it out of the gate because they cannot find a job to get a career off the ground. Now, the black community never was a stranger to unemployment, due to institutional racism. And the black unemployment tends to be double that of whites, in good times and bad. Nevertheless, these days, with massive layoffs and millions of jobs disappearing, never to return in this lifetime, far more Americans are having a “black experience,” if you will, than they would care to admit.

If we do not act now to solve the education crisis in our nation, and the related problems of inequality and deprivation, surely we will all sink together.

David A. Love

In the end, the real question is whether we want the Dred Scott court and the Plessy court, or the court that gave us the Brown decision. It’s for the people with power or its power for the people. And that’s what these hearings are all about.

David A. Love

This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.