My brain is filled with a complicated knot made from different fragments of information. Over the past week, I have been rapidly acquiring pieces of knowledge about charter schools, magnet schools, the Philly public school system, racial quotas, Supreme Court cases, the college application process, integration vs. equal opportunity, subtle forms of discrimination, and the consequences of funding issues in education. I’m still generating opinions about, forming connections between, and digesting the facts involved in all of these things. In the middle of this disorganized pile is a really simple fact that seems to tie a lot of it together.
Last Sunday, I attended the orientation for my placement, Mentor for Philly. I gathered a lot of new information, but there was one thing that really stuck out. I learned that SAT scores are most strongly associated with income. My first thought was, “well, that’s not fair” and the more I considered it, the more it upset me. We live in a society where socioeconomic mobility is dependent on social networks and status connections. Our cities and the surrounding suburbs are becoming increasingly polarized in terms of income inequality, which means that the majority of people grow up surrounded by people of a similar socioeconomic status. This is a major complication for anyone who still believes in the classic American Dream scenario, and it’s one of the many reasons I think that notion is completely obsolete. So, here’s the thing: if you don’t know anyone in your community who can help you find a job better than the one your parents have (or don’t have), then where are you supposed to go? College. College is a goldmine of social capital, but you have to be able to get there. And it’s pretty difficult to get in to college, let alone one that will give you the support you need to not drop out, when the top SAT score in your high school is a 1500.
Once I compounded the fact that students with lower income are more likely to have lower SAT scores with all of the other usual complaints about standardized testing, I realized that it was a far worse system for evaluation than I thought it was (and I didn’t really have a high opinion of the SAT to begin with). Millions of kids every year spend 5 hours on a Saturday taking a test that will give them a NUMBER with more impact on their future than many other aspects of their lives. The fact that we use the SAT and other standardized tests to evaluate the quality of students and schools denies access to kids who can’t afford tutors, who are short-changed by a broke public school system, who grew up in a non-English-speaking household, who grew up in a poor community, and who simply struggle with sitting in a chair answering trick multiple choice questions for 5 hours. These kids don’t have access to college and other educational advantages, not because they’re not intelligent, but because the system literally works against anyone who isn’t middle to upper class, [in most cases] white, and a good test-taker. Standardized testing is an institution that subtly perpetuates a system of segregation between white people and people of color, rich people and poor people where the former have opportunity and the latter have to hope they get lucky. And that’s why I’m upset.