by Lila Schwartzberg
Rakiyah Akins has a strong vocabulary. She’s a stand-out student at Central High School, a magnet school in Philadelphia. But she still remembers taking the SAT and staring down at a word she didn’t recognize. She later learned it was a type of decorative furniture she’d never heard of before.
“Some words wouldn’t be familiar if you’re not from the upper or middle class,” said Akins, a senior who lives in Mt. Airy.
Increasingly, schools are moving away from requiring the SAT and ACT and education experts say this will increase opportunities across economic lines and remove barriers that fall disproportionately on lower-income students and students of color. In the past few years, there has been a gradual shift away from requiring standardized testing, which became even more common after the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies and interviews with students and teachers show this has lowered stress and anxiety that comes with taking these tests and it evens the bar for everyone given the systemic racism inherent in standardized tests.
The SAT’s, ACT’s and other standardized tests for college admissions have proven to be inaccurate and discriminatory ways of determining academic abilities. Gail Cervantes, a Spanish teacher at Central High School located in the Logan section of Philadelphia, said “not every kid at Central has a tutor, but the wealthier kids do.” Resources for test prep are even harder to find at some other city schools.
Cervantes said her students “express annoyance at how the process is hard, the tests are long, and the content is irrelevant.”
Several of Cervantes’ students said they are just bad test takers, but do great in their classes and get excellent grades.
When Cervantes surveyed her class of nine seniors, only one said they’d received tutoring. Two students said they hadn’t studied at all before taking the SAT/ACT and one said she only started a month before.
Central’s student population is closely split between Asian, Black and caucasian students, with a smaller Latino population. Many will be the first in their generation to go to college – or the first in their families to attend school in the United States. Cervantes said that parents trying to support their children don’t always have the background on how the testing or college application process works. This leaves students to have to be independent. Cervantes said a lack of counselors at Central means students often have to advocate for themselves.
But students who are more laid back or shy about asking for help can struggle, she said. The counselors and teachers at Central and many other Philadelphia schools do not hold students’ hands all throughout the application process, she said.
While there’s a lack of SAT prep resources at Central, some wealthier districts like Lower Merion have such an abundance of SAT help that test prep courses weren’t filling.
Becky Bowlby, a college access counselor at Lower Merion High School said that they used to teach test prep courses at Lower Merion as half-semester electives but not many students took the class, so it ended. Many Lower Merion students, Bowlby said, are able to receive tutors outside of school and have access to a multitude of other resources in order to ace their SAT/ACT’s.
“I was able to access tutoring,” said Victoria Bermudez, a senior at LM. “I think that it helped me improve my scores because they provided me with worksheets with questions I wouldn’t have seen otherwise aside from the practice tests.”
But Bermudez acknowledged that while the test measures some level of intelligence, the grades don’t reveal whether those scores are due to a student’s “natural intelligence or their previous preparation as a result of their environment.”
Aside from students, many teachers and educators are supportive of schools going test optional or not requiring test scores altogether. Marsha Rosen, a School Counselor and Department Chair at LM thinks that SAT’s and ACT’s were never the most important thing to a college application. She believes that a student’s extracurriculars, courses, and college essays are much more useful than a simple test score.
Rosen said that focusing on current classwork should be the main priority of high school students rather than studying for the SAT’s or ACT’s and finding time in their already busy schedules to cram in test prep. Not requiring SAT’s or ACT’s for college admissions relieves stress from students’ lives, Rosen said, and allows them time to spend with their friends, play sports, and be a teen, instead of worrying about studying and preparing for a meaningless test.
Testing at all levels can have a bias toward wealthier upbringings. Rosen said one question on a standardized reading test for elementary school students mentions pastures which some kids living in urban areas might be unfamiliar with.
Cervantes agreed: “Test scores are just a number,” she said and shouldn’t have a bearing on a students’ ability to continue their education.
Akins, from Central, has committed to the University of Pennsylvania and will be studying biology. Bermudez, from Lower Merion, is underway with the application process. Both are relieved future seniors may not be asked to take the SAT/ACT.
“I’m glad that colleges are now giving students the option,” Bermudez said. “Because as an applicant, I think that colleges are relying less on this singular score, and more on other aspects of my application that relate more to what I want to study in the future as opposed to a standardized test.”