Why Take the SAT? Pushing for Student Growth in Standardized Testing

by Rachel Leiken ‘16
March 30, 2015

Rachel Leiken is a former Community Fellow and a current volunteer with Brown SAT Prep, through which she has worked at Hope High School and Breakthrough Providence.

Through Brown SAT Prep, I work with students who are exhausted by the constant examination required in this culture of standardized testing. Some of these students—the majority of whom have been given yearly standardized tests since third grade—see the SAT as just another tedious set of bubbles, while others view it as the final hurdle in a gauntlet thrown down many years ago. For both of these groups, the question that underlies all of their work deserves a closer look: Why take the SAT?

Against the backdrop of recurring standardized tests like the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) and its new replacement the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the SAT is supposed to be different. Hypothetically, it is up to students to decide if they would like to take it. The CollegeBoard even has a page dedicated to convincing students of its usefulness, entitled “Why Take the SAT: Find out how the SAT can benefit you.” So, what does this organization say? It tells high school students that they should take this exam because, “It’s fair to everyone.” It provides a level playing field to “students from all backgrounds” and, because it tests what they already know, its structure means that the highest performing students will similarly perform well on the SAT.

The perceived simplicity of the answer above represents the deep problems with this system on multiple levels. First, the notion that the SAT is fair for all students is absurd. Copious amounts of data—some collected by the CollegeBoard itself—show strong correlations between ethnicity, family income, parental education, and scores. The SAT is absolutely not a level playing field.

Second, it is clear that for most students the SAT is not optional. In addition to its necessity for most college applications, the Providence Public School District’s policies seem to eliminate much of students’ choice in taking the exam. Before the moratorium on high-stakes testing, which temporarily halted the use of the NECAP as a graduation requirement, the only way for students to graduate after failing the NECAP was by submitting SAT scores high enough to prove subject mastery. High-stakes testing is set to return in Providence in 2017 using the PARCC, and it remains to be seen if SAT scores will once again be used in this way.

During the height of high-stakes testing, Hope High School created SAT Prep English and Math courses required for some students in their junior year. It was in one of these classes that I tutored last spring. Along with four other tutors, I taught a group of students - including a few who had no plans to take the SAT- how to tackle a test that supposedly measures what they have already demonstrated. In many ways, our work reifies a broken system: we trained students to bubble answers to yet another test that we know is biased against them. We even began the semester with a lecture on why the SAT is important, repeating many of the other answers the CollegeBoard supplies.

At the same time, however, the power of our work seems to lie in how we can change these answers. For me, the best moment of teaching that semester came when one of the students was able to see past the exam and understand how the material might be relevant to his future, independent of entrance into college. My co-teachers and I had asked students to brainstorm responses to an essay prompt about the qualities of a good leader. This student, who was planning on joining the army immediately upon graduation, refused to participate. As we talked through the prompt, however, he started describing examples of leaders in his own life—his father, his coach—and their qualities he would like to emulate as an officer in the army. After talking about the question in these terms, he wrote a thesis statement and outline that transformed an externally-dictated and graded essay into a piece of work that could mean something for his own life.

If school is meant to develop people as individuals, thinkers, and leaders, any kind of metric used should reflect those goals. Standardized tests should help students critically evaluate what they know and contribute to their process of growth, rather than simply creating another hurdle separating them from a shining, idealized future. By tutoring with Brown SAT Prep, I hope I can level the playing field for at least some students. I also hope that I can support them in using the time and space of preparing for and taking the exam to develop skills that really will help them in their lives, to assist them in transforming a poorly disguised requirement into a real opportunity for reflection and growth.