How fair are the SATs?
Money and privilege are known to play a role in student scores, and the College Board is making changes. Will they be enough?
February 22, 2015
Juniors’ eyes are glued to heavy Compass books as they fidget in the hallways, enveloped in insurmountable stress. There is only one explanation: SATs are coming up.
This occurs every few months or so when a student anticipates taking either the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the American College Test, standardized tests the majority of upperclassmen take in order to apply to most colleges.
The SAT and ACTs can determine a student’s likely tier of college application possibilities, as they are regarded as among the most important qualifications looked at in the admission process, just behind the student’s grades, according to USAToday. The reason is that the SAT is said to give an objective score rather than the GPA, which is subject to grade inflation and different standards at different schools.
But how objective is the SAT? Do Shalhevet students have a level playing field with students in public schools – or with each other? Although the administrator of the SATs, the non-profit organization called the College Board, claims that it objectively scales a student’s likely ability to succeed in college-level courses, for decade Americans have complained that the tests are neither objective nor equitable, but rather give wealthier students obvious and significant advantages in both time allotted to take the test and in preparation for it.
Shalhevet seems to be a case in point. According to a Boiling Point survey some students study on their own, while others spend upwards of $2,000 on private tutoring. Two students currently receive extra time on the exams – time they proved they needed, but proof they had to pay for with extensive private testing.
A generation ago, people took the test without studying for it, and those who were more widely read, for example, would naturally get better scores on vocabulary sections. A decade ago, most Shalhevet students took SAT prep classes, as many still do today. Nationwide, even SAT classes are out of reach of the less affluent.
“I have seen more and more kids move away from classes and more towards [individual] test prep because parents want to give the best to their kids and there is a pressure to spend more money,” said Ms. Aviva Walls, Shalhevet’s Director of College Counseling and Academic Guidance, in an interview.
College Board felt like there was too much emphasis on test prep, which gives an advantage to those kids with more money.
— Ms. Aviva Walls, Director of College Counseling
Another way wealth comes into play is in obtaining diagnoses that give some students up to 50 percent more time to answer the tests’ hundreds of questions.
Students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or dyslexia are allowed by the College Board to qualify for extra time and also a private room during the test.
The diagnoses require psychological testing which can run into the thousands of dollars.
Cost aside, Mrs. Katherine Levin, the College Board’s Associate Director of Communications, said that accommodations are necessary to make it fair for students with disabilities.
“The College Board is committed to making sure that students with disabilities can take the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, PSAT/NMSQT, and AP Exams with the accommodations they need,” Mrs. Levin said in an interview. “…Students whose disability impacts their participation in College Board exams receive testing accommodations.”
She said there are safeguards to be sure the accommodations are given only to those who need them, including that students must be tested and approved by a psychologist with a Ph.D. to get extra time.
But because of the cost of testing – which is sometimes but only rarely provided by the school — those very safeguards ensure that the majority of people approved to receive the benefits are raised in high-income families, according to the New York Times.
“A 2000 audit of California test takers showed a disproportionate number of white, affluent students receiving accommodations, igniting suspicions of exaggerated or nonexistent disabilities,” wrote the Times in November 2010. “Three years later, in the wake of a lawsuit, ACT and the College Board stopped flagging scores of accommodated students for admissions offices; with the stigma gone, the incentive grew to game the system.”
Some of these families — including some at Shalhevet — invest as much as $3,000 to help their children to score as high as possible.
The Boiling Point poll, conducted Jan. 29,. examined how many Shalhevet students receive professional tutoring, and of those, how many actually saw their scores significantly rise as a result. Twenty-three seniors and 18 juniors were polled.
The majority of students had spent more than $1,000 on the test prep. Thirty-seven percent claimed that they spent less than that, while 22 percent said they spent over $2,000; the remaining 41 percent reported that they invested somewhere in between $1,000 to $2,000 getting ready for the SAT or ACT.
Eighty percent had received tutoring either through a class or individual sessions, in hope of enhancing their SAT scores.
Private tutors charge between $100 and $300 a session to show students what to look for during the exam and offer tips like plugging in variables for some math questions or annotating long reading passages. They also help students with any content material they do not feel confident about.
“They will save you a lot of time that you would normally spend reading an SAT prep book by giving you the most important information that you need to know in a clear way,” junior Mark Miller said. “They will also be able to explain the tips for the test in a better and answer your questions and practice examples with you.”
Although Ms. Walls would not weigh in on how much a person should spend towards the test, she did state when the amount of money spent becomes excessive.
“I can’t say how much money they should spend because it all depends on the person and the financial situation,” Mrs. Walls said. “I think that is a family decision where I can’t be involved. But students shouldn’t spend more than $3,000 on it.”
Most students said they’d found the tutoring very effective. Two of last year’s seniors claimed to have bumped up their scores by 350 points after tutoring, and 13 out of the 17 seniors who answered this year said their scores had increased by 50 points or more.
Ms. Walls said that a major benefit of tutoring is that tutors motivate students to study for the test.
“A student who is self-motivated could definitely prepare for the test himself, but I don’t know that many 17-years-olds who can motivate themselves and do practice tests without incentives,” Mrs. Walls said.
And she noted that Shalhevet students have other advantages as well. For example, with the addition of the new Counseling Associate, Ms. Lisa Gruenbaum, the school’s counselor to student ratio 1:125, lower than the ratio at YULA, Hamilton High School, Beverly High School and even Harvard-Westlake. (See related story here.)
“Even just being in Shalhevet and having an easier access to a college counselor is an advantage over students in public schools,” Ms. Walls said.
This kind of unevenness was not lost on the College Board, which is in the process of making major changes to the exam’s format – changes that will take effect for this year’s sophomores.
“The road to college success has always been excellent work in the classroom,” said the College Board’s Mrs. Levin. “This is why more than ever, we are linking the SAT to the best of classroom learning. Students who engage in challenging daily course work have the best chance at success — on the SAT and in college and career. The work of many researchers shows that focused daily practice helps enhance performance.”
Right now, the SAT is divided into three sections: Math, Reading Comprehension, and Writing, which contains an essay. Each section is worth 800 points and aims to rate a student’s ability to reason quantitatively and analyze information, among many other skills.
The new system brings the SAT back to the 1600-point format used until 2005, while offering students the option to take an essay test as a separate score. The two remaining sections will be math and a combination of reading comprehension and writing.
“The redesigned SAT is part of a commitment by the College Board and our members to move beyond delivering assessments to delivering opportunity, “ said Mrs. Levin.
“Our goal is to support college readiness and success for more students and to make sure that those who are prepared take full advantage of the opportunities they’ve earned. The redesigned SAT will be focused on the few things that evidence shows matter most for success in college and career – presumably not things that a savvy tutor could teach a student to game, like lists of vocabulary words the student would not otherwise know.”
I’ve been stressed about it because colleges look at your SAT scores, sometimes it feels like a score will determine whether or not you get in.
— Ariella Vaakil, 12th grade
Another change is that test will no longer take off points for wrong answers, so students will have more of an incentive to guess – another opportunity to learn strategy from a good tutor, some might say. But Ms. Walls said the aim was the opposite.
“College Board felt like there was too much emphasis on test prep, which gives an advantage to those kids with more money,” Ms. Walls said. “They are making it less tricky, and will be providing free test prep online through Kahn Academy, so there is a huge point of discussion nationally in the field.”
Ms. Walls agrees that stress is high surrounding standardized exams – and maybe even higher at Shalhevet than elsewhere. She has worked in the field for 12 years, including as a college admissions officer at Barnard College and NYU, and most recently served as college counselor at New Jewish Community High School in West Hills.
“The students here are more stressed out about the SATs,” She said. “More students are doing tutors and less classes. On the upside, fewer students are going in cold. In general, I am impressed with the scores overall. Students are clearly putting in effort, which is paying off.”
Ms. Walls said a sufficient amount of time to study would be at least four hours a week for the two months before the test, which amounts to a minimum of 16 hours. If it was all tutoring, it would $3,200 at the average rate of $200 an hCounting studying time, Shalhevet students polled were doing much more than that. Eleven said they spent less than 20 hours studying for the SATs or ACTs. Fifteen put it between 20 and 50 hours of studying, and another 14 stated that they even studied for more than 50 hours.
If prepaparation is getting in the way of your grades, sleep and co-curricular activities that you can’t be a human being, than it’s too much.
— Ms. Aviva Walls, Director of College Counseling
Twenty-one of the 23 seniors polled had taken the exam at least twice. One senior had taken the SATs threes times and then the ACT once for a total of four attempts, though Ms. Walls advises to stop after taking it a third time.
Taking the test multiple times does seem to benefit most people, as 36 percent of the students who answered this question scored at least 100 points higher on their best than on their worst score. Only 21 percent, on the other hand, had less than a 50-point increase.
Alumna Sarah Soroudi studied well above 50 hours for the test. She had been tutored a few times a week for seven months prior to the exam date, and she studied outside of her tutoring sessions as well. After all the preparation, Sarah’s score went up by 350 points.
“Some college counselors say that the SATs aren’t so important and students try to convince themselves that the SATs are not a crucial part of the admission process,” said Sarah, who is currently spending a gap year in Jerusalem and is signed up to enroll at UCLA next year. “but I don’t think that is true. The SATs are a stepping stone you need to have as well as other things to get in.”
Sophomore Sarah Yadegari said that even though the SATs may become easier, she does not plan on studying less than she would have studied for the current test.
“I think that once I begin studying it doesn’t really matter if the test became easier or not,” Sarah said. “I’m still going to put my best foot forward and study as hard as I can.”
So is there any hope for less stress, less studying or less tutoring down the road, or will counselors’ advice and the newly designed test have no effect at all?
Sara Dalhed, the Managing Director of Compass Beverly Hills, a tutoring company, said that the redesigned SAT format will make it harder for students taking the SAT to attain those extra resources and practice tests. She predicted more students would switch to the ACT, to take advantage of professional help.
“We are definitely going to use a different strategy” Sara said. “If you are a junior now you can try the current versions of the SAT and ACT and we have an equal amount of practice material for you.
“For 10th-graders, the College Board is only planning on releasing one or two practice tests for the new SATs,” she continued, “so the preparation does not become impossible, but it does make it more difficult. “
Stress and pressure, according to Mrs. Walls, can lead to misplaced priorities.
“If preparation is getting in the way of your grades, sleep and co-curricular activities that you can’t be a human being, than it’s too much,” Ms. Walls said. “The application process is a wholistic process, and if you’re doing one thing while the other things are suffering, than it is not beneficial.”
But fair or not fair, a good use of time or not, standardized tests seem likely to stay a vital component of the college admission process, perhaps to the dismay of the upperclassmen of today – and tomorrow.
“I’ve been stressed about it because colleges look at your SAT scores, sometimes it feels like a score will determine whether or not you get in,” Ariella said. “Also, people get stressed because no one wants to take it more than once.”