Standardized or Stigmatized?

Digging deep into whether or not the giants of the academic testing industry are truly for the benefit of college-bound high school students.


Standardized testing has played a large role in my high school career. I remember studying every day for a month on Khan Academy’s SAT prep website to increase my test scores and get a better chance at acceptance to my top schools, and the hours I’ve spent typing away at AP Classroom assignments. This is the reality for many people my age, and although many universities have adopted a test-optional policy due to the difficulties that COVID-19 presented us, standardized testing is still prominent in the experiences of high school students. AP testing season is here, and as another period of stress for many students begins to arise the question has once again come to the forefront of my mind: is standardized testing really for the benefit of all students? Are test mediums like the SAT still effective and relevant to college admissions, and what do the market leaders of the industry do with the money they make? I wanted to delve deep into these queries and do some research of my own.

Carl Brigham, the original creator of SAT and AP tests.

Carl Brigham, an “enthusiastic member of the eugenics movement” and a Princeton University psychology professor would go on to create the SAT and AP exams. He first developed the Army Alpha Test in 1923, which was given to recruits during the first World War. Based upon the findings of this exam, he wrote a book entitled The Study of American Intelligence, in which he organized data from the exam by race and, insisting on lack of bias, asserted that “American education was declining and ‘will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive’” (Americans Instrumental in Establishing Standardized Tests). According to the National Education Association, in 1926 Brigham was commissioned by the College Board, founded in 1900, to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. He would also later create the Advanced Placement (AP) examinations. It appears that the racist and elitist origins of standardized testing create an outdated, cracking foundation for the industry.

Most high school students take either the SAT or the ACT (American College Testing) as a medium of evaluating their academic understanding. These are also the standardized tests that are the most widely accepted and used by universities around the country when reviewing students’ college applications (Solomon). Additionally, a lot of high schools only offer one option or the other (I am fortunate enough to have the SAT offered and covered by my high school, but in order to take the ACT I would have needed to register for another test location and pay out of pocket). Almost 2.2 million students took the SAT in 2020 and 1.7 million chose to take the ACT, with some students even taking both, according to U.S. News. 

The SAT and ACT cost $55 and $63 respectively, and these are only the bare minimum expenses that a student would need to pay if they are not eligible for a fee waiver. There are many other add-on prices of additional services or products that may go along with a test. Furthermore, many students also choose to take both tests and the minimum combined price would be $115 at least. If a student wishes to take the SAT or ACT with writing, change their test center, has registered late, wants to send their scores to universities, or even cancel their registration to take the test, these are additional charges that add up quickly. “…for a student to get the premium package of the SAT with an essay, registered late, called to get scores over the phone and had the essay and multiple-choice looked over twice by hand, it would cost $233 dollars, before sending scores to a single school,” says The Real College Board, a website created by students dedicated to pushing the company for more transparency. The Real College Board and others believe that the standardized testing industry is predatory toward the students it claims to serve. Are these costs fair for students, regardless of what test they choose to take? 

For many, taking a standardized test like the SAT or ACT is not as simple as making a choice; it is more or less a necessity if individuals are to be considered at a competitive postsecondary institution. Scoring high is important for many, and sometimes this results in students having to pay to take the same test multiple times. Additionally, schools also take into account the rigor of high school courses, and this is where Advanced Placement (AP) testing comes in. Crucial to building a rigorous and challenging high school transcript, universities value advanced placement classes and credit when choosing students to admit to their schools. AP examinations are the only tests a student may take to earn advanced credits in a given Advanced Placement course. Because these exams are the only ones of their kind, they are priced considerably higher than College Board’s SAT: the fee in order to take a singular AP exam is a whopping $96 as of 2022. For students enrolled in multiple AP courses who wish to seek advanced placement credit, these costs can seriously add up; additional costs for circumstances such as ordering exams late or canceling them also have the potential to be added to the $96 initial fee.

Because of the way standardized testing expenses can add up rapidly, there are many who claim that the industry favors individuals of the wealthier demographic. Although College Board’s fee waivers can be helpful in lowering or eliminating the cost of exams, according to The Real College Board, “the median SAT score of a student whose family income is between $40,000 and $60,000 a year is 1070, while students whose families make over $200,000 dollars a year have a median SAT score of 1230”. Part of this is due to the College Board’s “super-scoring”, which allows students to take the best scores out of all of the SAT exams they have taken and add them together. This effectively creates a pay-to-succeed system where wealthier students are able to take the SAT over and over, making them a lot more likely to do well compared to students who may only be able to afford to take the test once. Furthermore, families with more income can afford to send students to exam preparation courses and pay for studying materials, which also helps to boost scores. According to Americans for Educational Testing Reform, “It is unethical, and possibly illegal, for a testing company to sell test prep materials because it hands an advantage to wealthier test-takers. Selling study aids tips the balance in favor of individuals that have the disposable income to buy these materials”. This is not exclusive to College Board; ACT and other standardized testing companies also attach fees to study materials. This leaves people to question the ethicality of charging money for test prep and study courses. Is it equitable and fair for all students if studying for standardized tests comes at a price that some may not be able to afford?

Additionally, the educational funding within areas in which students live may impact a student’s preparedness for standardized tests and influence their performance: “…students who enroll in AP courses in low-income areas struggle to be successful in those courses and score lower on the exams. Often, lower-income teachers are unable to get through the dense AP curriculums by the time their students take the exams” (The Real College Board). A good education is essential to all standardized test-taking, and that’s why school funding may play a significant factor. The argument is that wealthier students are able to afford resources to better prepare for tests, and the better funding a school has the more likely students are able to succeed within the AP curriculum.

What is additionally troubling is that standardized testing is more likely to favor the richer, whiter demographic. In 2013, A study called Race, Poverty and SAT Scores: Modeling the Influences of Family Income on Black and White High School Students’ SAT Performance” was conducted by Dixon-Roman et al. It focused upon “the nagging question” of the association of family income with race and SAT performance. The participants of the study were all seniors in high school that had taken the SAT in either their junior or senior year of high school in 2003, and the cohort represents “about 45% of all the high school seniors in the United States” (Dixon-Roman et al.) The data for the study was obtained through College Board’s Student Descriptive Questionnaire, which students fill out upon registering for an account with College Board. The questionnaire asks students about various subjects prevalent to their identities, including family income, race, and ethnicity. To make the investigation more simplistic, the individuals who conducted the study chose to sample data solely from black and white students.

“Race, Poverty and SAT Scores” used a process called structural equation modeling in order to understand if there is a relationship between race, household income, and SAT performance. The results go on to highlight the large difference between the yearly incomes of white and black students, and that the verbal and mathematic SAT scores of black students were approximately 100 points less than white students on average. As family income increased within the data set, so did testing scores. Overall, there was a 218-point difference between black and white students. Obviously, there is nothing College Board can do to raise income levels for different families as it is an equity issue. However, these findings lead many to question the fairness of using a test like the SAT in the college admittance process when data points in the direction of favoring some demographics more than others. This could ultimately mean minority students and students with a lesser family income are left at a competitive disadvantage when applying to postsecondary institutions.

College Board and ACT are both categorized as nonprofit organizations, and College Board even refers to itself as “a dynamic, member-led, mission-driven, not-for-profit organization governed by an elected Board of Trustees”. However, there is significant evidence to suggest that some of the giants of the standardized testing industry engage in financially dishonest and exploitive behavior. Americans for Educational Testing Reform, an organization that claims the “Big Three”, refers to College Board, the Educational Testing Service which administers the SAT and AP exams for College Board, and ACT, Inc. According to their website, “ETS [Educational Testing Service], College Board, and ACT, Inc consistently and shamelessly take advantage of American students and aspiring professionals for financial gain, and have been doing so for many years.” and claim that they have monopolized the standardized testing industry. The website states that these organizations use their non-profit status and “exploitation of powerless American Students” as a means of unethical financial gain. AETR’s website claims that the Big Three have a history of engaging in practices such as possessing profit margins that are “162% higher than the 5 largest American nonprofits” and lobbying legislation in order to continue operating their alleged monopolies.

The claims about profit margins and revenue were particularly interesting to me. Just how much do College Board’s executives make? What does the company do with its money? Since every nonprofit must fill out the 990 tax exemption form at the end of each year, I decided to look at the amount of money the College Board paid its CEO. According to the College Board’s 990, CEO David Coleman made a total of $1,667,781 in the year 2019 (the 2019 form was the most recent document I could find). The organization’s highest-paid employees made anywhere from $413,598 to over one million dollars. Many believe that these salaries are extremely high for a non-profit, tax-exempt organization.

Additionally, I feel it is notable to mention that The Real College Board, Forbes, and other sources have asserted that the College Board has invested and continues to invest money into various funds in the Caribbean, allegedly to take advantage of tax loopholes. Upon doing my best to look into these allegations by looking through the organization’s 990 forms, I found that they had invested $149,337,792 in 2019 alone into what the form states is “Central America and the Caribbean”. It should also be noted that these investments are not formally listed as such on the 990—the section for investments that are “program-related” is blank. These investments are only listed as “activities outside of the United States” under the “Additional Data” section of the form. The purpose of this hefty investment is not stated. When asked to directly comment on these investments by The Real College Board in a phone interview, a College Board executive provided only an email statement, saying “…being a self-sustaining organization means we have the capacity to make big investments when we see an opportunity to serve students.”

Starting from its 20th-century creation rooted in privilege and white supremacy in combination with present-day issues with bias, social and economic advantage, accountability, and transparency, it is entirely reasonable for Americans to question the effectiveness and integrity of the standardized testing industry. Even the original creator of the SAT and AP tests, Carl Brigham, would later regret his creation of the exams, saying that test scores are only “a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant” (Fussell). Various groups like The Real College Board and Americans for Educational Testing Reform are actively working to contact and petition the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to revoke the tax-exempt, nonprofit status of the College Board and other companies like it. But for now, it looks as if standardized testing is here to stay.