In an educational arena where teaching to the test has become universally deplored, have SAT tests become just another glaring example of relics which continue to litter the education landscape? Doesn’t a test taken after twelve years of public education that determines which university—and hence, life-path—will be possible, mold the entire education toward teaching to it?
Advocates of the SAT continue to talk about the broad range of knowledge that it measures. Point taken. But the conversation that we should be having, perhaps, is whether an intimate knowledge of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s earlier works is a meaningful example of student potential or intelligence. A perfect SAT score may be a good indicator of a Renaissance-man-in-the-making. It may be an indicator of an excellent school with dedicated teachers too.
But applying a universal testing tool to students regardless of their educational advantages doesn’t seem entirely fair. All too often, the SAT functions to exclude students from educational opportunities after they’ve already been failed by an unevenly and unfairly funded school system.
The SAT tends to reward students who’ve inherited cultural capital. I was one of those students. I grew up in a home with a library where books lined the walls. Literally. And they weren’t for decoration. I knew the works of Hemingway intimately—before entering middle school. I did very, very well on the SAT.
But the problem with rewarding the acquisition of cultural capital is that it tends to perpetuate the gulf that separates the privileged from the large segment of students whose parents were too busy with subsistence to provide book-lined libraries. You can’t, after all, feed your children with leather-lined first editions and the growing popularity of online university options highlights the fact that high SAT scores don’t reflect true student potential.
The way society has grown to expect and reward specialization—in the workplace and in general—means that the broad knowledge base that the SAT rewards is increasingly less relevant in the real world. Am I against the Renaissance-man model? Absolutely not. My favorite professor of all time could answer a complicated physics or astronomy question with the same ease with which he talked about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And he was an art professor.
I still try to emulate him. But I had a lot of students during my time as a high school English teacher that were very intelligent but had been denied access to whole areas of academic interest because of environment. A lot of knowledge just wasn’t even on their radar. Much of what they needed for brilliant SAT scores hadn’t been supplied to them by any cultural capital inheritance from their parents.
If broad knowledge base is what we want to encourage in students, we may want to take a look at how education is happening across a broad swath of school districts. When the zip code you live in has a huge bearing on the education your child can expect, we have not just an education problem but also a spreading social ill.
And if a ticket out of the lower classes—into the middle and upper classes to which most Americans aspire—is most likely to result from admittance into a good university, we need to examine whether the SAT has become a stumbling block for social mobility. And maybe a testing mechanism before high school graduation should be used to measure the effectiveness of schools, not just the students who attend them.
This is a guest post from Jesse L. who is a recent college graduate looking to make his mark on the world. Currently he is a blogger and a contributor at the Professional Intern. You can follow the Professional Intern on Twitter @TheProIntern.
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