Colleges are dropping the SAT in admissions

Evidence of a gender gap has existed for decades. Now, an increasing number of schools are making the SAT optional for admission.
Nadra Nittle, The 19th
By Nadra Nittle, The 19th
March 26, 2022

This story was originally published by The 19th.

More than two-thirds of colleges and universities won’t require the SAT for 2022 admission. That includes elite institutions such as Harvard and Stanford as well as the University of California system, which has dropped the test as an admission requirement permanently. 

For SAT critics, test-optional admission at colleges and universities took far too long to become prevalent. The test has been accused of putting students from underrepresented communities of color at a disadvantage for years. Less known is that boys have consistently outscored girls on the test, a pattern that dates back decades, underestimating girls’ future college grades. 

“The SAT test and other standardized tests claim that their value is in predicting college grades,” said Bob Schaeffer, executive director of  FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “Despite the fact that young women get lower scores on the test than young men, they earn higher grades when matched for identical courses in college than the boys.”

Here’s what we know about the test and the gender gap.

What is the SAT?

Princeton University psychology professor Carl C. Brigham invented the SAT. Brigham was a eugenicist who published a 1923 book called “A Study of American Intelligence” that analyzed, by race, the results of IQ tests given to World War I Army recruits. Brigham feared that academic achievement in the United States would decline as the country became more racially diverse. After publishing his book, he developed his own version of the Army IQ test and administered it to first-year students and prospective students at Princeton and Cooper Union, respectively. 

Then, the College Entrance Examination Board, which started in 1900 with 12 presidents of top universities to administer college entrance exams and standardize the admissions process, tapped Brigham to devise an exam that a broader group of schools could use. Now known as the SAT, that test was first administered to high school students in 1926.

It would take until 1952 for the Educational Testing Service to develop the SAT most familiar to the public today. That exam included a verbal section that tested students’ reading comprehension skills, understanding of analogies and antonyms, and aptitude for sentence completion questions. Today’s test also includes a math section made up of questions that draw on students’ ability to solve algebra, geometry and other problems. Scores go up to 1600. 

By the mid-20th century, hundreds of thousands of students were taking the SAT. But the Educational Testing Service did not secure its biggest client — the University of California system — until 1960, after years of courting. Since then, the SAT has become a tradition for college-bound teenagers, but it’s a tradition that has yielded different outcomes for girls than for boys.

Why has the SAT faced accusations of gender bias? 

Evidence of a gender gap surfaced as early as 1985, when Ms. Magazine ran its first article on the topic. Ten years later, a University of California, Berkeley, study found that the SAT underpredicted girls’ academic achievement in college by as much as 140 points. The test’s gender gap has never closed. In 2017, Art Sawyer, founder of Compass Education Group, which trains students for standardized tests, conducted an SAT score analysis to find that “proportionally 45 percent more males are in the 1400-1600 score range” than girls. 

Some have pointed to girls’ historically lower math scores on the test to explain the gap. In their 2009 book “Still Failing at Fairness,” David Sadker and Karen Zittleman note that boys scored 10 points higher on the SAT than girls in mathematics as far back as 1967. In 2020, the gap was 15 points, but it has been as high as 41 points.  

Phyllis Rosser, the researcher who first reported on the gender gap in Ms. Magazine, also pointed out that a disparity exists on the SAT’s reading samples, where girls often score lower than boys. Girls’ main edge on the SAT has long been the writing part of the verbal section, where they sometimes score up to 14 points higher than boys, she found. Rosser, whose work on the subject grew into a book, “The SAT Gender Gap,” discussed her research before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, arguing that girls of color are penalized by college entrance exams. Many girls of color not only contend with a gender gap on the SAT but also a racial gap, one that  remains a problem, with Black and Latinx students scoring lower than their White and Asian American counterparts, particularly in math.  

The overall advantage that boys have on the SAT can also be found on the preliminary scholastic assessment test (PSAT), the shorter, similar test students take ahead of the SAT. PSAT scores determine the winners of the highly competitive National Merit Scholarship and have had similar gender disparities. “For decades, boys scored so much higher than girls that two out of three Merit semifinalists were male,” according to Sadker and Zittleman.

Do test formats and stereotypes contribute to the gender gap?

Some researchers have attributed gender performance disparities on standardized tests to the fact that these tests are timed and have multiple choice formats. Research published in 2018 in the Educational Researcher found that test format accounted for about 25 percent of the gender gaps in state- and district-level achievement tests given to 8 million elementary and middle school students nationwide. 

According to Sadker and Zittleman, boys might have the edge on multiple choice tests because they’re more likely to guess when they don’t know an answer. In contrast, girls tend to skip answering questions they’re unsure are correct and heed test instructions that say they’ll lose points for wrong answers. Comparable data does not exist for trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming students.

The multiple-choice format isn’t the only disadvantage girls face on standardized tests. A 2019 study published in Nature found that the gender gap on math and science tests closes when women are given more time to complete assessments. Timed tests may also increase test anxiety, a problem that has a greater effect on women’s scores on high-stakes assessments.  

Additionally, women test-takers may experience a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” 

“That’s the notion that if you are in a high-stakes kind of situation like the SAT, you are afraid of living up to a stereotype, like women aren’t good at math,” Steven G. Brint, a distinguished professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California, Riverside, told The 19th. “You sort of lose your composure, and the whole idea of stereotype threat kind of hovering above you as you take the test could lead to a lack of confidence, lack of focus, fear of living up to the stereotype.”

What about the actual questions? 

Some SAT critics say there are problems with the SAT’s content, such as reading passages that lack women characters or describe activities stereotypically associated with men. The College Board said it takes measures to prevent gender bias from surfacing on the tests, telling The 19th that its test development process includes “numerous rigorous reviews.” 

“All passages and test questions undergo content and fairness reviews by internal and external experts from diverse backgrounds,” the College Board said in a statement. “As part of the test development process, item statistics are analyzed to identify potential bias based on a number of characteristics of the test-taking population, including gender.”

The College Board said it analyzes any differences in performance that may not be achievement-related among groups of students. 

But these steps don’t necessarily eliminate bias, said Schaeffer, who is concerned about the test including questions that resonate more with boys than with girls. When boys did not perform as well on reading passages, for example, test officials added more references to sports, politics and business, FairTest complained in the 1990s. Yet, comparable moves weren’t made to help girls perform better on the math section. 

Schaeffer argues that systematic discrimination based on race, gender and other factors are baked into the testing process. His main objection, though, is the use of standardized testing to determine students’ futures. Over the past decade, companies such as Google, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs have all asked job applicants for their test scores at some point.

“That your college-going talent is based on answering multiple choice questions in rapid fire is an underlying assumption that has a sexist bias,” Schaeffer said. “In addition, there have been a number of publications that have essentially said, ‘We don’t know why there’s a gender gap, but it’s there and it’s pervasive.’”  

What are the consequences of the SAT gender gap?

Advocates for changes in standardized testing say the SAT gender gap can have long-term effects on girls. It can affect which scholarships they receive and, in some cases, stop them from attending a selective college entirely. Sara Harberson, a former college admissions officer, dean of admissions and director of college counseling, told The 19th that colleges have often set minimum SAT scores for admissions. 

“The SAT has been a great influencer in college admissions because it is a very quick way for an admissions officer to know how competitive a student is in the applicant pool,” said Harberson, now CEO and founder of Application Nation, which helps parents navigate the college admissions process. “Even before I would read an application, I knew that if a student did not have a certain SAT score, they simply were not going to be admitted regardless of what else was in the application.”

Colleges and universities have long recognized that test scores don’t necessarily predict a student’s academic performance. Still, some higher education institutions rely on the SAT to bulk up the number of men in their student body, Harberson said, because more women than men apply.  

“The colleges aren’t going to go out of their way to say, well, ‘This young woman is so incredible, and even though her test scores are a little bit lower, let’s admit her anyway,’” she said. “There are higher expectations for those girls because there are so many of them in the applicant pool.” 

For students interested in pursuing certain careers and graduate school programs, their SAT scores might come into play again, cutting them off from potential opportunities, test critics say. The gender gap might also be used by some to double down on gender stereotypes and suggest that girls and women simply aren’t cut out for STEM careers

What’s the SAT’s future?

A number of colleges have already moved away from requiring the test. Bowdoin College in Maine stands out for going test-optional back in 1969, making it a very early trendsetter.  Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania was also a leader in this trend, establishing a test-optional admissions process for select students in 1992 and then everyone in 2006. 

“This policy was created because, decades ago, F&M recognized that a student’s academic performance in high school was a far better predictor for how they would perform in the college classroom,” said  Jimmie Foster, vice president for enrollment management, in a statement to The 19th.. “Particularly, when compared to their performance on a test on a random Saturday morning.”

A test-optional future for most colleges and universities could reduce the barriers girls experience during the admissions process. But Harberson said that colleges aren’t dropping the admissions requirement for selfless reasons. School officials noticed that scrapping the entrance exam requirements resulted in an increase in applications, especially from underrepresented students, Harberson said. Selective institutions strive to get as many applicants as possible, she added, and the rise in applications can help them diversify their student bodies. 

“I can’t imagine any college that cares about application totals and diversity going back to requiring the test,” Harberson said. “The vast majority are going to be staying test-optional.”

FairTest estimates that 1,800 colleges and universities are currently test-optional, compared with just over 100 three decades ago.. 

Given the gender and other biases associated with the SAT, Harberson has just one question about this shift: “Why did it take this long?”

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Nadra Nittle, The 19th
Nadra Nittle, The 19th

Nadra Nittle is The 19th's education reporter. She was previously a senior reporter for Civil Eats and a staff reporter for Vox Media and the Long Beach Press–Telegram, where she covered K–12 education.

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