In 1926, the SAT was created to give talented students, regardless of income, the chance to compete for college admission and scholarships. Nearly 100 years later, it often excludes the lower-income students it was created to help. Although the original exam was primarily aimed at economic diversity, part of its stated modern mission is to help increase racial diversity, too.
But Black and Hispanic or Latino students routinely score lower on the math section of the SAT — a likely result of generations of exclusionary housing, education, and economic policy — which too often means that, rather than reducing existing race gaps, using the test in college admissions reinforces them.
Mind the gap: SAT math scores
We investigate SAT scores by race using the College Board’s publicly available data for over 2.1 million 2020 high school graduates, with a particular focus on the math section. (This analysis builds on our earlier work on this issue from 2017, “Race gaps in SAT scores highlight inequality and hinder upward mobility.”)
The class of 2020 averaged a score of 523 of 800 on the math section of the SAT, slightly below the College Board’s college-readiness benchmark score of 530. (The College Board predicts that the average SAT test taker will earn less than a C in their first-year math course.) The average scores for Black (454) and Latino or Hispanic students (478) are significantly lower than those of white (547) and Asian students (632). The proportion of students reaching college-readiness benchmarks also differs by race. Over half (59%) of white and four-fifths of Asian test takers met the college readiness math benchmark, compared to less than a quarter of Black students and under a third of Hispanic or Latino students. As we show, there are similar patterns for English, but the gaps are not as stark.
Many colleges use SAT scores for admissions and financial aid decisions. More selective institutions require high SAT scores for entry—and there are even bigger race gaps at the top of the score distribution. Of those scoring above 700, 43% are Asian and 45% are white, compared to 6% Hispanic or Latino and 1% Black. Meanwhile, among those scoring between 300-390, 2% are Asian and 23% white, compared to 43% Hispanic or Latino and 26% Black.
The concentration of white and Asian students at the top end of the score distribution and Black and Hispanic or Latino students at the bottom of the score distribution influences the extent and type of college enrollment by race. Several studies find that Black and Hispanic or Latino students are significantly underrepresented at selective universities.
A stubborn race gap in SAT scores
The race gap in test scores is far from a new phenomenon; Asian and white students consistently outperform their Black and Hispanic or Latino peers on the math section of the SAT. In 1996, the gap between the mean Black score and the mean white score was 0.91 standard deviations; by 2020, the gap had narrowed to 0.79 standard deviations. Despite a wide range of efforts to reduce inequality, the racial gap in SAT scores has scarcely narrowed during the lifetimes of the class of 2020. In 2002, the average white student’s SAT math score was 106 points higher than the average Black student’s (533 compared to 427); by 2020, the gap narrowed to 93 points. Still, nearly a third (31%) of white test takers scored above 600 on the math portion of the SAT, compared to just 7% of Black test takers.
As SAT participation gaps have shrunk, so have enrollment gaps. But significant gaps in graduation rates and test scores remain; representation is increasing, but success rates have yet to catch up. Half of Asian students and 45% of white students graduate college in 4 years compared to 21% of Black students, and 32% of Latino or Hispanic students. Default rates on student loans tell a similar story; Black and Latino or Hispanic students are much more likely to default within 12 years of graduation.
Beyond the score: effects of racial math score gaps
As our colleague Andre Perry has written, “Standardized tests are better proxies for how many opportunities a student has been afforded than they are predictors for students’ potential.” This is right. While attempting to measure college-readiness, the SAT both mirrors and maintains racial inequity. There is also evidence that test scores are a less accurate predictor of subsequent Black and Hispanic or Latino performance.
Nonetheless, SAT scores clearly capture important information about the academic position of the test taker; it is also clear that many fewer Black and Latino or Hispanic students are college ready, especially in math.
In 2018, Black and Latino or Hispanic workers made up 27% of U.S. workforce, but only 16% of the STEM workforce. When asked why so few Black and Hispanic workers are in STEM jobs, 52% of STEM workers reported that they were “less likely to have access to quality education to prepare them for these fields.”
In response to COVID-19, over 1,300 colleges moved to test-optional or test-flexible polices for admission, amplifying calls to ditch the tests from the application process altogether. Given the role of tests in magnifying inequality, some hope that this will accelerate the trend away from tests.
In 2019, the SAT developed an adversity score to contextualize students’ scores to their school and neighborhood. Under pressure, the College Board then abandoned the single statistic in favor of an Environmental Context Dashboard, which provides information like the portion of students at a high school receiving free and reduced lunch, median family income, and advanced placement enrollment.