For most students, applying to college means taking a standardized test. But, an investigation by the Tattler staff found that getting a good score is not standard across the board. Education has become a business, and generally those who are socioeconomically privileged are the ones who succeed.
According to the College Board, in 2017, 1.7 million students participated in SAT testing and 2 million students took the ACT. In other words, over 3 million students took the same two tests intended to represent their academic prowess and intellectual abilities. However, statistics are emerging that reveal that these tests may not be as straightforward as they seem. According to author Sean F. Reardon, between 1974 to 2001, the academic achievement gap, based on income, had widened by roughly 50%. As these gaps become more prevalent between students of different socioeconomic statuses, the academic world is left to question the effectiveness and validity of mass standardized testing.
There is a clear bias towards those who can afford expensive courses to prepare them to take the SAT and ACT. According to PBS, in 1926, when the first SAT was administered in high schools, students were provided with a practice booklet containing sample tests and questions one week prior to taking the test. Now, however, students are on their own with harder tests, longer preparation time, and higher prices. Two juniors, who wish to remain unnamed, discussed their perspectives on the true price of a good score. One of these juniors claims that his test prep tutor costs around $120 an hour, and another says that she has spent around $3,000 total on her testing experience. However, these students claim that the high prices pay off, as they teach the strategies best used to “cheat the system” when taking the test.
“There’s no intelligence whatsoever. If you know basic math and reading and get a good tutor to teach you all the strategies and tricks, you can do well,” said one junior.
Although there may be more affordable test prep options, such as Khan Academy, many students choose private tutors or participate in other tutoring services.
“In general, I think that many high school students aren’t motivated to do the work by themselves, which is why so many students use outside services to prepare,” said Capital Educators’ Sai Panguluri.
But what about students who can’t afford the price tag? According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, over 49% of students live in poverty, meaning that around half of students in the U.S do not have the same access to test-taking strategies as many of those who live in Bethesda. Ned Johnson, the president and founder of academic tutoring service PrepMatters, recognizes the role of socioeconomic status in testing success, not only due to unequal access to test prep courses, but also as a result of the preexisting achievement gap between students in different areas.
“Pretty much everything in education is tied to money,” said Johnson. “These tests tend to correlate almost perfectly with income, because of all the things income provides: access to a good school system, stable housing arrangements, and so on.”
Even without SAT/ACT tutoring prep courses as a factor, students attending an affluent high school like B-CC or Whitman are already on track to a better score on a standardized test than students at lower income schools. Higher income schools often have greater access to sophisticated resources and well-trained teachers in contrast to those of lower income.
The good news is, steps are being taken to help students of all backgrounds reach their full potential. For the SAT, Panguluri explained that a recent sociological study has shown that an extensive vocabulary is reflective of socioeconomic privilege rather than intellect, so the current test tends to evaluate reading skills to a greater degree than vocabulary. On the prep side, College Tracks, a program designed to help students navigate college admissions and the financial aid process, has paired with Khan Academy to provide free resources to help prepare students for SAT & ACT testing. Khan Academy acts similarly to a private tutor by analyzing a student’s practice test results and providing online tutoring in subjects that a student is struggling in. College Tracks has also partnered with B-CC to give students who demonstrate financial need test prep and tutoring at little to no cost.
“At the end of the day, talent is so much more widely distributed than advantage. Anyone who works with students needs to be doing everything they can to level the playing field,” said Johnson.
However, testing may not be present in the college process for much longer. In fact, a study by the Washington Post reveals that of the 5,300 colleges in the U.S, over 900 of them are now test-optional. This means that the colleges make admission decisions without using ACT or SAT scores and instead focus more on a student’s transcript, essays, and letters of recommendation.
“Your high school transcript is a much bigger story than standardized test scores,” said Leigh Weisenberger, Dean of Admissions at test-optional Bates College.
Going test-optional allows colleges to focus on how students perform in the classroom as a whole, as opposed to a single five-hour period when taking a standardized test. This may not close the education gap between different socioeconomic statuses completely, but it is the first step to making college more accessible to all students.
While it may sound progressive, senior Cory Powell shows that the test-free college process is a double-edged sword. While applying to Temple University, a test-optional school in Philadelphia, she observed that, while the the school claims to use different factors in the admission process, “if you don’t send in your scores, you’re not going to get in.” In addition, college advisor Patricia Parmelee explained how some test-optional schools are happy to admit students without scores, but are more hesitant to award them merit scholarships. Even if sending in SAT or ACT scores is becoming “optional” at an increasing rate, it’s going to take colleges a while to break the habit of using test scores as a predominant factor in the application process.