by Ellyssa Jeong and Anya Lefkowitz, Centerfold Editors
graphic by Emily Zhang
Between the PSAT, the SAT and six AP exams, graduating senior Dan Sivachenko has spent about 24 hours of his high school career sitting through College Board exams, not including the dozens of practice tests he’s taken to prepare. Sivachenko said that these exams don’t accurately reflect his academic ability.
“Usually what the scores imply is how well you can take a standardized test, rather than how good you are at understanding various things,” he said.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the College Board canceled the May and June SAT and SAT II administration. Most testing centers were also closed on the March 14 exam date.
Junior Stephanie Tian said she signed up and paid for multiple SATs, all of which ended up being canceled.
“I was signed up for the March, May and June SATs, and I paid for all of them, which was around $200 with the essays and whatnot, and I haven’t taken a single SAT yet,” she said. “I understand that it’s difficult right now and nobody knows what’s going on, but I feel like [the College Board’s] response to the situation [was] not that great.”
In response to the lack of testing access, colleges and universities began to move away from requiring standardized testing. On May 21, the University of California (UC), the largest public university system in the U.S., announced its plans to adopt a test-optional policy through 2024 and develop their own standardized entrance exam by 2025. If they aren’t able to develop an entrance exam by 2025, the UC system might drop standardized testing altogether.
The UC decision has become a landmark for the future of what standardized testing will look like for college applicants. In total, over 1,240 colleges and universities opted to become test-optional for 2021 fall applicants, with many schools planning to extend this policy for one or two more years, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
After briefly entertaining the possibility of an at-home SAT, the College Board concluded that tests will happen in-person, if at all. The College Board announced this decision on June 2. The next scheduled SAT exam will be in August. The College Board also provided guidelines to college admissions officers of how scores may be evaluated in determining college admission come fall.
“Equally [consider] students for admission who are unable to take the exam due to COVID-19 as those who submitted scores,” the notice read. “[Recognize] that students who do submit scores may not have been able to take the test more than once. (e.g., taking into account that students who tested as high school juniors but who could not as seniors would have likely achieved score gains).”
Sophomore Cheri Lookner said she views colleges’ decisions to transition to a test-optional admissions approach as a step forward in breaking down discriminatory barriers between applicants.
“I completely support this movement,” she said. “The SAT is not only a poor measure of intelligence or college preparedness, but it has racist and sexist origins and perpetuates the economic divide in America.”
CRASH COURSE IN COLLEGE BOARD HISTORY
The College Board was originally founded in 1900 as the “College Entrance Examination Board” to bring order to the then-chaotic college application process. Between 1900 and 1915, the College Board offered tests in nine subjects including English, Latin, Greek, French, German, history, mathematics, physics and chemistry, although many private colleges used their own admissions tests instead.
Private colleges stopped using their own admissions tests during WWI when the military adapted “psychological” or “intelligence” tests for soldiers, which sparked a conversation among university admissions officers about testing their applicants. As a result, the College Board came out with their first test to measure intellect in 1926, working closely with psychologist Carl Brigham, who had helped develop the military tests.
An advisor of the American Eugenics Society, Brigham wrote about the results of the military tests in his book, “A Study of American Intelligence.” The test was built to disadvantage African Americans.
“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro,” Brigham wrote. “These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”
This was the first version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now retitled the Scholastic Assessment Test and more commonly known as the SAT. According to the National Education Association, the initial SAT was administered to 8,000 students, 40% of whom were female. The SAT was commonly used for decades.
On June 16, 1989, sociologist James Loewen made a statement during a consultation against the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers many of the College Board exams. Loewen said that the SAT was designed to favor men over women.
“On the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, the smallest difference –– the 57 point gap separating women from men –– causes two-thirds of all National Merit Scholarships to go to boys. This gender gap also determines who gets state merit scholarships, who participates in programs for gifted high school students and who is admitted to some prestigious colleges,” Loewen said. “Test scores are biased. One-third of the gender gap on the math exam, all of the gender gap on the verbal exam, and perhaps 40 percent of the black-white gap on the verbal exam, is due to test bias.”
Despite the discriminatory issues that come with the test, the SAT has remained widely used. Following the success of the SAT, the College Board created the Advanced Placement (AP) program in 1955, resulting in the College Board’s growing influence over college admissions over the past decades.
ECONOMIC ACCESS ANCHORS ADVANTAGES
Test taking has become an intrinsic norm in the Newton teen community, Tian said.
“Since around middle school, SATs have been such a big thing. I’ve heard kids going, ‘Oh, I have to go to SAT camp and take SAT classes and buy all of my College Board Barons books,’” she said.
With students scoring an average of 647 on the evidence-based reading and writing section and 661 on the math section, South’s SAT scores are notably higher than the national average, which came in at 531 for reading and 528 for math for the class of 2019.
Sivachenko said that there have been patterns correlated with school districts so that standardized testing favors certain demographics.
“What we can see, empirically, is that standardized testing overwhelmingly benefits wealthier students and communities like Newton while punishing people from lower-income communities and less academically successful public schools than Newton,” he said.
Though statistics for South are unavailable, the Wall Street Journal found that 33% of Newton North students received access to extra time on exams, which is a strikingly high percentage in comparison to 1.6% of students at low-income schools who receive such accommodations.
Private college counselor Dan Wu said that though a student’s performance is not determined by their wealth, students from higher-income families are able to access resources that other students can’t.
“Wealthier families are able to afford the high-priced tutors and the multiple registrations to take the test. There is definitely an advantage over low-income students,” he said. “I hope that through this year’s trial of test-optional or test-blind practices, colleges and universities will realize there are other ways to measure students’ qualifications.”
Although fee waivers are available to students in need, there are many elements to standardized testing that don’t cater equally to all students, college and career counselor Kathleen Sabet wrote in a May 31 email.
“They have made some changes to help such as increasing fee waivers for financially disadvantaged students and collaborating with Khan Academy to create free, personal study plans for students who took a PSAT. These are positive steps,” Sabet wrote. “However, the structure, length of the test, cost and when-where a student is tested are a few examples of why it is less favorable to a variety of students. These include those who have learning differences, those who have a gap in learning and achievement and those who do not have the financial means to access test support. … Also, certain groups of students (racial minorities, economically disadvantaged, etc.) have significantly less access to test preparation than others.”
Today, with each AP exam costing $94 and each SAT with a base price of $52 dollars, the nonprofit status of the College Board masks their millions of dollars in profit, Lookner said.
“Most nonprofits are organizations that want to help others and provide services not for the goal of making money. If this were true about the College Board, why would they make millions every year from the fees students pay to take AP tests and SATs?” she said.
The College Board’s net income was close to $140 million in 2017 after considering the expenses on the test, the highest year of profit the College Board has seen so far.
However, changes are underway. The past couple of months have seen a wave of colleges and universities going test-flexible.
Sophomore Jake Levy said that students are looking forward to the increase in test-optional schools for upcoming college admissions cycles.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, this upcoming college admissions cycle will be new and challenging for some schools more than others, Sabet wrote.
“[It will be] interesting for those colleges who relied on testing as an additional important measure after the high school transcript and challenging particularly for colleges receiving large amounts of applications,” she said.
Schools like Brandeis University have already been offering alternatives to standardized testing. Brandeis University Admissions Counselor Alexis Schneider wrote in a June 10 email that while standardized testing can level the playing field among applicants, many students are put at a disadvantage.
“We recognize that students across the country do not all have access to valuable resources like testing prep. We hope that our test-flexible policy provides more of an equal opportunity for all students,” she said.
Sabet wrote that colleges will be forced to adopt a more holistic evaluation approach as they distance themselves from SAT and ACT testings.
“Students’ college applications will be more of a portfolio of their educational journeys and personal development,” she said. “This is so much better than having a score that is supposed to predict a student’s potential in college.”