From tutor to skeptic: Testing isn't answer
Technically, I never should have been a college entrance exam prep tutor to begin with.
During the latter half of 2014, I made a living tutoring high school kids who needed help — or whose parents had decided they needed help — with the critical reading and writing portions of the SAT and ACT, the two standardized tests that have historically served as defining criteria in the college application process.
To qualify to teach at the private tutoring center, an applicant had to take their subject sections of the SAT, and score at least 760 points out of 800. When applying, I scored just below that on the critical reading portion. But the woman in charge of hiring told me that because one of the questions I had missed was, in her opinion, highly subjective, she would give me the job anyway.
I agreed that the question — like dozens of questions on any given version of the SAT and ACT — was subjective, as literary interpretation often is. And I, recently out of college and eager to ditch my green barista apron, was grateful that my soon-to-be boss was willing to give me a break.
But here's the thing: If I deserved that benefit of the doubt, then so do the millions of American high school seniors who apply to college every year. Whether they have a learning disability, are part of a demographic that college entrance exams have been historically biased against, can't afford the pricey exam prep courses that their wealthier counterparts take, or just aren't very strong standardized test takers, those kids deserve to be judged as more than just the numbers that appear on their college applications.
That's why I'm glad to see that more and more colleges are reevaluating how important the SAT and ACT really are (see story, Page A2). Bypassing standardized test scores might require more work and creativity on the part of admissions officers, but there are plenty of reasons for them to at least try.
SAT and ACT prep courses aren't cheap, and many of the students I tutored came from private schools where they already had access to college-focused counseling departments and college-preparatory classes.
Judging by data from College Board, the company that administers the SAT, those resources bought them better scores: in the 2016 testing cycle, students who lived in households that made $20,000 to $40,000 per year score a mean of 465 points on the critical reading portion, and 477 in mathematics. For students in households that made more than $200,000, those scores jumped by more than 100 points: 569 in critical reading, and 586 for math.
I also tutored some students with learning disabilities or severe anxiety disorders that prevented them from doing their best. Kids with recognized disabilities, or who speak English as a second language, do qualify for extra time on both the SAT and ACT, which is a good thing. But the process of applying for extra time is long and arduous, and if a kid doesn't have an adult with the time and goodwill to help them — or worse, has a learning disability that has gone undiagnosed due to family and teacher neglect — then they probably won't get that helpful resource.
Due to these factors and others (including the well-documented fact that the SAT and ACT have historically favored white students), it's not a stretch to say that college entrance exams themselves are heavily biased. Just as my boss understood that fact when I was applying for the tutoring gig, aspiring college students deserve to have admissions offices that get it as well.
We might never find a way to completely rid ourselves of the coming-of-age ritual that are college entrance exams. But more schools can follow the lead nearby Lewis & Clark started in 1991, and offer their prospective students a way to apply without those test scores.
Receiving the benefit of the doubt gave me a chance to quit a minimum-wage job and move onto something better. I want the same for this year's group of high school seniors, and every class after.
Blair Stenvick is a Times reporter.