College entrance exams are good in theory. If a school wishes to maintain a certain standard, there must be a way to qualify and quantify this. Exam scores are, by their nature, a simple and effective way of doing this.
Unfortunately, one standard exam (such as the SAT) is only useful if the knowledge base of all test takers is the same. The knowledge base of a student in the Bronx is different from that of a student in Memphis or Anchorage or Silicon Valley or Flint, Michigan. Testing all students on the same material is both irresponsible and misleading.
Standardized tests can be consciously created in order to favor one group over another, whatever that group may be. Test questions can be so constructed as to all but ensure that one socioeconomic group or demographic will miss them. An example often used is the definition of a “lark.” When asked what a lark is, some students answered “bird” while some students answered “cigarette.” Technically, both are correct, but standardized testing allows for only one correct answer. It is not for the company who creates tests to say that the experiences of one student are worth more than another.
A society that claims to value cultural pluralism cannot logically also require standardization. The two simply do not mix. Comparing the United States’ educational accomplishments to those of other countries (like Japan, which is so often the chosen comparison) is fundamentally flawed. Other countries are orders of magnitude more homogeneous than the United States. Standardized testing works much better in homogeneous societies because the subject matter taught in schools is nearly identical, regardless of location. The United States is quite unique in that the only common theme that runs through everyone in the country is simply the fact that they are in the same country.
Simply put, the SATs, ACTs, and any tests like them, are only useful if the culture is standardized, as well. Some students are poor test takes but excel at their chosen vocations. Some students are phenomenal test takers but lack organizational skills or any sort of self-motivation. College entrance criteria should be a myriad of options, the least of which a standardized test.