What the SAT's waning relevance really tells us

In this photo of 2016, a student looks at questions during a college test preparation class at a school in Bethesda, MD. The SAT exam will move from paper and pencil to a digital format, administrators announced Tuesday, saying the shift will boost its relevancy as more colleges make standardized tests optional for admission.

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcasts "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History" and is co-producer of the podcast "Welcome To Your Fantasy." The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)The SAT is going digital.

The end of the paper test, once a rite of passage for students clinging to freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils as they settled in for the three-hour exam, comes as the SAT itself is losing its place of prominence in college admissions. As the test came under fire in recent years for favoring skilled test-takers as well as White and wealthy students, more and more colleges moved to test-optional admissions. The pandemic accelerated that shift, with Ivy League colleges joining the move away from mandatory testing.
    Nicole Hemmer
    The College Board, which oversees the SAT, has said the test will not only be digital but shorter — two hours rather than three — with a wider range of questions. But in focusing on form rather than function, how the SAT is taken rather than what it reveals about the test-takers, the College Board has yet to solve the broader problem of the test's shrinking relevance to college admissions.
      That waning relevance is not just about the SAT, but the broader struggles that universities face as they attempt to admit and prepare a more diverse student body for a more precarious economy. It is a challenge that universities themselves have struggled with just as much as the College Board.
        Some argue that now is the time to do away with the SAT completely. A seemingly neutral measure of college preparedness, the test has long been embedded with all sorts of biases based on class, race and culture. Part of that was tied to the history of the test itself. The SAT emerged from the new IQ tests developed for the military during World War I. Those tests, though implemented as an objective assessment of intelligence, were freighted with racial, cultural and nativist biases.
        These intelligence tests migrated to the College Board and universities in the 1920s and 1930s as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and during World War II, became the sole test used by the College Board as a measure of college potential. They were seen at the time as a progressive initiative, to allow the Midwestern farm boy with raw natural intelligence to gain entry into the WASPish establishment of higher education. But the meritocratic idea was strongly influenced by race and sex: a young White native-born man. Even as the test was refined in the decades that followed, test developers repeatedly chose questions that performed well with White test-takers, reinscribing a set of racial and cultural norms into the exam.
          Another kind of inequity in the SAT stemmed from the culture that had sprung up around SAT prep. Wealthy parents have poured thousands into test prep courses that many families never knew existed (much less had the funds to pay for). As a result, the purportedly meritocratic SAT continued to select for a particular kind of student, one that was on average Whiter and wealthier than the average high schooler.
          Getting rid of it is a fine idea, but while bracketing (or eliminating) the SAT addresses one possible form of inequality, it is minor compared to the other ways access to higher education remains inaccessible for many Americans. First, the SAT-optional admissions process still relies on a number of subjective and manipulatable measures, including personal essays and extracurriculars. And college education itself comes with a number of burdens. Most significant among these is the high sticker price of a college degree, a price that is disproportionately borne by students of color, whose debt burden tends to be higher and longer-lasting than White students. While a number of universities have moved away from loans and embraced need-based grants, the average student loan debt remains $30,000, according to data from US News and World Report, with many students facing a much steeper burden.
          But there is a bigger challenge facing universities as well: a college degree is no longer a guarantee of middle-class stability. College degrees matter; overall, students who attend college are better off than those who don't. But college graduates now enter a workforce rife with precarity and low wages, which, when compounded by heavy debt, pushes many graduates into a state of economic instability, with meager paychecks going to service their punishing debt loads. (These are circumstances made worse by certain degree programs, for-profit colleges, and predatory lenders.)
          The digital SAT is not an answer to these problems, any more than MOOCs were (the Massive Open Online Courses that were all the rage in the 2000s). What is needed for more equitable higher education goes far beyond the SAT.
          Yes, universities need different assessment tools that help inform universities what support students will need to succeed. But they also need policy-based solutions for the challenges facing higher ed: more support for community colleges and state universities to drive down costs, less interference from conservative policymakers opposed to the liberal arts, more flexibility for admissions policies that result in a diverse student body, and -- above all -- a fairer economy in which all workers, even those without a college degree, can secure a living wage. That, more than any change to the SAT, will create the atmosphere for more equitable education across the United States.
          At the moment, however, the prospect of such changes seems out of reach. Though some level of student debt relief has broad support among the public, and loan forgiveness can be achieved through executive action, the Biden administration so far has been reluctant to act. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has just announced it will consider a challenge to affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. That leaves the conservative justices, who control two-thirds of the Court, in a position to make it even more difficult to achieve equity in higher education.
          It is particularly disappointing that these two barriers would arise now, as so many universities have been seriously contemplating how to make access more equitable and diverse. It has been a long road to this moment: Universities in the United States were once places of deep formal inequality, with admissions often limited to White male students of means.
          Cracking open the doors of higher ed took well over a century, as people of color, women and Jews fought for access and an end to quotas. Though a handful of colleges began to allow both men and women in the mid-19th century, it wasn't until the late 1960s and 1970s that Ivy League schools allowed women. Racial integration likewise took more than a century, and in some schools required armed intervention to protect Black students trying to enroll.
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            That long fight to win admissions into universities was not just about educational equality. By the 1960s and 1970s, higher education was increasingly the path to middle-class stability. If that stability was to be equally (or at least more broadly) shared, then higher education had to welcome a far more diverse student body. Yet even as that student body became less segregated, inequalities — in access, student loan debt burdens and job opportunities -- all persisted.
            The SAT both reflected and reinforced those inequalities. A change to its format now will not undo that bias toward wealthy students. Instead, it's time to rethink the test's function in relation to what America's system of higher education should strive for: how it can provide useful information to universities about how best to help their students succeed, particularly at a moment when policymakers and the courts are arrayed against them, determined to limit what tools educators have to make higher education -- and the economy -- more fair.