How to be “Sexy” in a Broken System

by Sarah Cowles ’17
December 4, 2014

Sarah Cowles ’17 is the student coordinator for the Brown SAT/College Prep Program

While recruiting for the Brown SAT Prep Program, my supervisor has told me over and over: “You have to make the SAT sexy, Sarah”.  I know that somehow I must make the SAT “sexy” to show potential volunteers that tutoring for the SAT is fun, exciting and worthwhile. Yet, I have found this quite difficult.

Let’s be honest, we’re talking about the SAT. A test that most Brown students saw as a necessary evil. A test that causes anxiety, tension and heartbreak to thousands of hopeful students. A test that doesn’t achieve what it was created to do. A test that thrives in a broken system. What could possibly be sexy about the SAT?

In the early 1900’s, a few colleges wanted to find a consistent way to accept the best and brightest students into their programs no matter their background or previous education experiences. As Miro Kazakoff explains in his TEDx Talk, these colleges wanted to “design a test that didn’t reflect what you had learned, but one that measured your ability to learn”. Thus, the SAT was born. A test that was supposed to measure your “intelligence”, a quality that they believed was inherent.

But then came Stanley Kaplan. Stanley Kaplan believed that one could improve on the SAT with hard work and practice. After teaching himself and tutoring others, he proved to the test makers that success on the SAT wasn’t just based on intelligence, but also the extent of one’s practice and preparation for the test.  With this notion, the massive SAT preparation industry that we witness today began.

In their 2009 report, Eduventures estimated that about 2 million students spend $2.5 billion a year on test preparation and tutoring. This statistic startles me. It tells me that taking the SAT has become a “rich man’s sport.” With the amount of money spent each year on test prep, I think it is clear that the SAT does not measure aptitude or reasoning. Instead, it measures how much money one spends on the “right” preparation in hopes of succeeding on the SAT. Why do people continue to pay? They know that if they pay to get better scores on the SAT test, their child has a better chance of success with college admissions. They are paying to improve scores on a test that is supposed to give all students an equal opportunity to access education. This is wrong.

And what am I doing about this? I am running yet another SAT test preparation program. I am humored but also dismayed by this hypocrisy. Aren’t I feeding into the system that I just denounced? Aren’t I simply providing a small number of students with that same unfair advantage on the SAT Test? Yes. Yes I am. But I justify my program in a number of ways. First, Brown SAT Prep offers completely free services. All tutoring programs are free and materials are always provided. Also, we advertise our services to schools with low-income students and to programs like Rhode Islander’s Sponsoring Education, an organization that works with the children of incarcerated or formally incarcerated parents, in order to find students in desperate need of a boost in their college admission process. We target students who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to compete with the students whose parents pay thousands of dollars each year towards their success on the SAT.

Does this completely satisfy my need to justify my volunteer work? Certainly not! I wish the system was different. I wish the SAT was not a “rich man’s sport.” There are people working to change the system but change takes time. This is what I do know: Right now, we have a system in the US that bases college admissions off of a standardized test that favors those who have the money to buy the right preparation. We live and operate within a broken system. Through Brown SAT Prep, I choose to work within the broken system to try to equal the playing field and provide a service to disadvantaged students.

Whenever I feel particularly frustrated with the SAT, I think about one final justification for my volunteer work: Brown SAT Prep does make a positive difference for every student involved with our program. Whether that means increasing students’ scores by 200 points, as one of my tutors exclaimed last month, or whether this means providing our students with a supportive, encouraging, and determined mentor, Brown SAT Prep strives to instill the skills and confidence necessary to be successful on the SAT, in college and beyond. This is why the SAT is sexy.

I was working in the classroom last semester at Hope High School. I had about 10 students struggling over a particularly challenging “Long Passage” SAT Critical Reading section. After the initial panic about the long reading, we all worked through the passage together, analyzing the reading, discussing the questions and helping each other understand. And in the end, they got all the questions right. They had gotten a perfect score.

But to me, the score didn’t matter. Yes, the score is important but it was their communication, their teamwork, and their confidence that made the most difference. One of my most struggling students, an English-language learner taking this SAT-level English class, spoke up and said four words to me after class.  Four words that justified my struggle over the broken system. Four words that every teacher and volunteer wants to hear.

“Miss, I feel smart.”