Sharpened pencils? Check. A picture ID? Check. A test that disadvantages students of color, of lower socioeconomic classes or females? Check.
That was our thought process as we entered the Smith Center on Wednesday, October 14 with several Lowers and Uppers to take the PSAT, a test that supposedly prepares students for the SAT, an exam that tests for college readiness. This form of standardized testing, however, has proven to be more harmful than helpful for those who do not identify as white, female or middle to upper class. Questions of racial identification and the questions themselves on standardized tests have continued to create an education gap among the rich and the poor, female and male students and underrepresented minorities.
The PSAT disadvantages non-American students because one of the prerequisites for the National Merit Scholarship (a scholarship opportunity determined by one’s grades on the PSAT) is U.S. citizenship. In other words, if one is not a U.S. citizen, all possibility of qualifying for an extremely beneficial and prestigious scholarship is lost. Thus, the PSAT prohibits non-Americans from receiving the same educational opportunities as U.S. citizens by preventing many capable students from partaking in the program.
Furthermore, the PSAT and other standardized tests disadvantage students when they ask them to indicate various aspects of their identities. In 1995, psychologists Steele & Aronson conducted a study that shows that being aware of a stereotype or a general statistic can discourage students. Two mixed groups of white and Asian men were given a test. One group was told that Asian men outperformed white men on the test. The Asian men outperformed the white men in that group, but in the other group, the Asian men and white men had similar results.
Similarly, females who are asked to check a box indicating gender prior to a test are outperformed by females who are not, because of the stereotype that males are better at math. On the SAT in 2013, for example, the mean male score for mathematics was 32 points better than that of females.
This is known as the stereotype threat effect, and it applies to various factors of identity such as race, gender and socioeconomic class. Regardless of whether it is a stereotype or a statistic, by asking students to identify themselves as disadvantaged, tests are further obstructing these students from attaining high scores. The effects of this self-identification are subconscious and implicit, creating an insidious sense of doubt in students who identify with groups that “don’t do well on standardized tests.”
While the ramifications of the stereotype threat effect are great, they are not the only variables that have an effect on standardized testing results. Numerous studies have proven that the PSAT/SAT scores of students are directly correlated to their family’s income levels. This is largely because students from lower income families are usually unable to afford expensive SAT tutors and camps, or to attend rigorous private schools like Andover.
The educational backgrounds of the parents also have an impact on how well a student performs on the PSAT or SAT. Data gathered by the College Board shows that having highly educated parents allows students to perform better on sections involving vocabulary, reading comprehension and grammar than those who have parents who did not receive any education or very little education. Tests like this perpetuate the notion that students who come from underprivileged backgrounds are bound to inhabit the same socioeconomic and educational spaces as their parents.
We understand that the statistics that the College Board gathers are used to help them understand students so that they can create a more fair test for students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. We also acknowledge that many of the recent changes made to the SAT and PSAT were implemented to even out the playing field, such as collaborating with Khan Academy to provide free test prep and limiting the number of high level vocabulary words on the test. This is far from enough, though. The College Board must make more changes.
There are measures as simple and effective as allowing both domestic and international students to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship or moving the Personal Information section of the test to the end. That way, reminders of discouraging stereotypes and statistical facts will not hinder students during the test. There are also more complicated measures that the College Board needs to undertake. We suggest that the College Board research and try to understand how different questions favor students of certain backgrounds. By putting in this effort, College Board will be more likely to create and use questions that all test takers have an equal chance of answering correctly.
Even with the most recent changes, the College Board is still far from creating a test that provides all students with an equal chance of performing well. While the PSAT is only a preliminary exam, it still means a lot for students who are about to enter the college application process. Changing the questions and set up of the PSAT to be more fair would allow more students to have a chance at outperforming the status quo and would help to lessen the achievement gap between the privileged and the underprivileged.