Students Hit The Road To Take A Test
• Throughout elementary, middle and high school, students are constantly reminded of what most of them are working toward: college.
It is stressed from a young age that it is difficult to get accepted into college, and it is important to get good grades and do enough activities to fill one’s application.
Traditionally, as students enter high school, the stress of maintaining decent grades becomes more prominent, and the standardized tests colleges require become a priority as well. The primary tests are the American College Testing (ACT) and the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), and one or both are taken by high school juniors and seniors.
The resulting scores are one of the deciding factors in whether a college accepts or rejects them. This is how the college application process has been in traditional years. But this is anything but a traditional year.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has greatly affected students and their ability to take these standardized tests that were so valued in the past. As test centers are being closed and scheduled SATs and ACTs are being canceled, many colleges across the nation have been changing their policy from requiring these scores to making them optional.
More than 400 American colleges have confirmed that they are going test-optional, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
This test-optional policy is not an outright statement for students to stop attempting to take the SAT and ACT, however. Because of the years of students hearing about the importance of the SAT and ACT, as well as the hope that submitting a score might still create an advantage and help boost their application, many students are attempting to find available tests to take.
California is one of the stricter states in terms of COVID-19-related restrictions, so many students are going to out-of-state test centers, turning a four-hour test into a multiple day trip.
These tests have always been an unfair way to determine academic capabilities. A successful score is greatly determined by the amount of money spent on preparatory courses, tutors and study materials.
The scores students receive are often dictated by privilege and accessibility to the adequate preparation needed for success. Factoring in the new issue that many students are now having to travel out-of-state to find an available test center, it is even more apparent that these tests are designed to benefit the privileged and put the more impoverished at a disadvantage, as traveling is costly and not everybody has the time, money or resources to take a trip simply for a test.
Many who do have the resources to travel, though, are choosing to take the opportunity and find an available test. Peninsula High School junior Airi Sakamoto is facing the stress of applications a year early, for she is graduating with the Class of 2021, so she is well aware of the struggles taking the test during a pandemic. She also recognizes the advantage some have over others when taking these tests, and feels the system is unjust.
“I think the SAT and ACT scores are based on preparation rather than actual intelligence, and preparation is mostly based on privilege, which is really unfair,” Sakamoto said. “I am lucky to be able to travel to take the SAT and prepare for the test beforehand, and I recognize that not everybody has that luxury.”
Students, like Sakamoto, who live in affluent areas such as Palos Verdes, are opting to take the SAT or ACT because they can and the scores are still accepted by a majority of colleges. By doing so, they are facing the frustration of their tests being rescheduled and canceled. They then have to resort to going far distances to find an open test center.
Traveling to other states is not ideal, but it seems to be the only option for those who are applying to colleges that are still accepting or even requiring these scores.
Sakamoto, for example, traveled to Arizona at the beginning of November to take the SAT.
“I have been applying every month since March, and they have all been canceled,” Sakamoto said. “Though the trip to Arizona made the simple task of taking a test into an entire weekend ordeal, it was worth it because I am seeing COVID-19 cases go up again and all of my preparation would have been a complete waste if I could not take it before my applications were due. I need [to submit an] SAT score to apply to certain colleges, and I am grateful to have been able to find an [available] test to meet the application deadline.”
Sakamoto was one of the lucky ones who found success in a nearby state, and she was able to take a road trip and save the hassle of flying.
Other students were not so lucky. Paulina Garmute, a Peninsula senior, took the trip all the way to Colorado in July to take the ACT, only to find out that her test was canceled with last-minute notice. She tried to find available tests in various places throughout California before turning to Colorado as a last-ditch effort, but all attempts were ultimately unsuccessful.
“I never had an opportunity to take the test because every single test center was booked, including [test centers in] Palm Desert, San Diego, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco,” Garmute said.
“The test I signed up for in Colorado got canceled four days before the [scheduled date], but the trip was already booked and it was too late to back out. [The College Board] could have done a much better job at alerting students if their tests were canceled with more than a few days’ notice, she said.
Sakamoto and Garmute were not alone in this, being just two of many students who took to other locations to take the SAT or ACT. The test-optional policies of a majority of colleges make little difference to those who have the advantage of taking the test.
Many students in communities like Palos Verdes feel that if they have the opportunity to add to their application, they should take it. Because these scores are still considered, it is hard for students to believe that not submitting a score would have zero negative effect on admission status.
If a college was to implement a test-blind policy, it would lessen the stress of finding an available test and would create less of a need to travel vast distances. A test-blind policy entails that a college does not even consider an applying student’s SAT or ACT score. However, a test-blind policy it is more rare than the test-optional policy, which simply states there would be no penalty for not submitting a score.
However, many colleges are contradicting the common belief by students that the SAT and ACT are of the upmost importance when being considered for a college. Colleges are making statements addressing students’ concerns that there is a loophole in the term “optional”, stressing that they judge each and every application individually without considering whether a student submitted a score or not.
College admissions teams recognize the uniqueness to this year, and they have been quick to address that the SAT and ACT are not deciding factors in one’s acceptance or rejection.
Steve Bloch, a member of the admissions team at Harvard University, agrees that these scores are simply an additional piece of an application, and there is not as much emphasis on them as students might think.
“I do not think these tests have a lot of value,” Bloch said. “I understand that people can take prep courses for them and those who can afford to do so have a distinct benefit over those who cannot afford to. That being said, many schools are no longer requiring [these scores] at this time, which is an acknowledgement to those students who have difficulty taking it, especially [during COVID-19].”
Whether a college puts emphasis on the SAT and ACT scores submitted or not does not change the fact that so many students are wired to think these scores are make-or-break when trying to get into a college.
The emphasis on test scores in the school system has been ingrained in the minds of students all their lives, and they feel comfort in having these test scores to make them seem more desirable on their college applications. This, combined with the difficulty of finding available tests due to COVID-19, creates a scramble to find open test centers and a need to travel in order to find one.
The reality of these tests is they have always been designed for the privileged, and they have always given some an unfair advantage over others. This year, the traveling aspect adds to the advantage affluence gives. Traveling is not free, and despite efforts made by colleges to minimize the emphasis on these tests, students feel like optional means required.
There is no way to truly know how much impact a score has on an application for a test-optional college, and that is just how the college application process is. It is unpredictable and stressful, and especially amid a pandemic, students just have to work with what they are given and hope they will end up where they need to be.
“The reality is you cannot control the process, and there is so much [about the college admissions process] that is out of your control,” Bloch said. “Where you go to college does not determine who you are, going to be or if you are going to be successful as a person or not.”
Being unable to take the SAT or ACT, regardless of the reason, is not the end of the world. Colleges do understand circumstances are different now, and there are plenty of other parts of an application that are of importance over standardized test scores.
The SAT and ACT are both part of a flawed system, and until there is change made to create a more fair and equal system, all students can do is work hard in other aspects and accept that where they are accepted is out of their control, and it will all fall into place in the end.