New SAT: A Biased Exam In A Biased World

06/02/2015 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Today, the long-awaited redesign of the SAT exam takes a step forward with the debut of Khan Academy's online SAT preparation program. The redesign responds, in part, to some harrowing shortcomings of the current iteration of the exam. As reported at a session I attended at last fall's College Board Forum, roughly 15 percent of African-American students earned scores indicating that they are "college ready." Overall 43 percent of students reach that benchmark.

Critics of the SAT have long contended it disfavors some minorities, especially African-Americans. In the broadest strokes, that disparity of 28 percentage points means that the test must be biased, or so the logic goes. The new test, to debut in April 2016 with the slogan "delivering opportunity," is supposedly more fair. Khan Academy's free preparation is meant to contribute to this cause.

In the age before online tutorials, the 2005 redesign of the SAT was also advertised as more "fair." We know how that turned out: disadvantaged students did no better on the new exam. At least one academic study that made careful efforts to control for exogenous factors actually did find bias. Students affected by intrinsic biases have every reason to be upset, and the College Board must make every effort to make the test fair.

However significant those study's results may have been, you don't need a Ph.D. to appreciate the crushing disadvantages with which many African-American students cope. African-Americans are scarcely performing better in school today than they ever did. The social and economic pressures that depress their achievement have not abated.

Disparities in test scores can scarcely be distinguished from the disparities in American education, the American economy, American culture, criminal justice system, urban policies, and education policies that have disadvantaged African-Americans for centuries. Jonathan Kozol described best -- 24 years ago -- calling them "savage inequalities." When the scales finally tip in favor of social justice, they will do so through a national commitment to equity and not through a different set of questions and a different set of bubbles.

Analogies are magnificent tests of logic and verbal ability. Yet their elimination, along with that of the old SAT's antonym questions, was a big part of the 2005 redesign. Some critics contended that the use of certain words carried inherent biases. The word "regatta" came up often in these discussions: How, critics asked, could a teenager who's never been out of Watts possibly recall its definition as readily as could a counterpart from East Hampton?

That's easy. He could have have learned it. If he'd been taught properly.

I don't know "regatta" because I sail. I know it because I probably read it somewhere. I know the word like "jackin'" and "homie" for much the same reason. As a child of the early 1990s, I listened to gangsta rap. We pick up words, some of them culturally foreign (and politically freighted), in all sorts of ways.

The best source of new words is, of course, school. The whole point of school is for kids to learn things they don't already know and wouldn't naturally encounter. High school students, of all backgrounds, should know obscure vocabulary words for the same reasons that they should know about algebra, the Supreme Court, or Romantic poetry. (One knock on the SAT is that it doesn't test academic material; last time I checked, schools were supposed to teach reading, grammar, math, and vocabulary.)

Of course, for many kids, school doesn't work as it should. The 85 percent of African-American students who struggle on the SAT do so not because they are African-American, or even because they may be poor. They struggle because they don't have the teachers, lessons, and learning environments that others do.

SAT scores : American education :: sore throat : influenza epidemic.

If disadvantaged kids are to succeed in college, and, yes, on standardized exams they first need what every other kid needs: structure, guidance, and encouragement. They need good schools, good teachers, equitable funding, and supportive environments. They need educators to care about more than SAT scores and organizations to do more than provide free test prep at the 11th hour. I suppose we fixate on the SAT's purported bias because it's easier to change an exam than to change our social fabric.

The College Board, whose members I found oddly mute on the topic of academic freedom, is far from deaf to the cause of education reform. It admirably promotes universal access to college and, not uncontroversially, it is involved with the implementation of the Common Core. It must, however, pay as much attention to the cause of social justice as it does to the esteem of its signature product.