April 11, 2016 by poverty2professional
Test anxiety’s culminating and perhaps most highly profiled form for many high school students is none other than the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT. Known to induce nail-biting, teeth-grinding, and pencil chewing, the SAT is less the monster in your closet and more La Llorona. Because for the former you can keep that door closed, you can put a chair against it or nail it shut. La Llorona – the howling ghost woman in Southwestern and Mexican folklore – you just hear her getting closer with each wailing cry until right when you think you’re safe in bed and she reaches through the window and drags you out by your feet.
That’s the SAT.
Why so much anxiety over a multiple-choice question marathon? Let me explain. An overwhelming number of campuses – especially the Ivies, other prestigious and highly selective, private campuses, and public flagship institutes – require the SAT or ACT (American College Testing) exam in order to be admitted as a freshman applicant (in other words, you’re applying straight from high school and not as a community college student). The SAT is generally the more popular of the two exams. Overall, taking either exam and doing well demonstrate that you are able to complete (and compete with) the academic rigor of your colleges of choice. Now, this exam is only a portion of your actual college application profile. You still have a personal statement to write, high school classes to complete, volunteer activities to manage, yadda, yadda, yadda. In other words, there’s more to you as a person that the schools would like to know about. …or that was the attitude before college rankings became a big deal.
College rankings are what make Harvard Harvard and my local state campus my local state campus. The broadest way to determine prestige is usually through academic rigor and selectivity. This means looking at which campuses have the higher average GPA for the entering class and – of course – the average SAT score. The higher that score, the better and more selective the campus appears. In the infamous U.S. News and World Report rankings, the average SAT score accounts for 65% of the school’s “selectivity score.” The U.S. News and World Report has been driving its grandstanding achievement awards for over thirty years when, in 1983, it issued its first rankings of universities and colleges. The impact is visible; “one-rank improvement leads to a 0.9% increase in number of applicants” (Luca, 2011). There have been reports of universities misreporting data on surveys just to gain an upper hand in rankings. Basically, these rankings are consumer report. Not only did the schools eat this up, so did the applicants – or rather, and more importantly, their families who would pay that tuition bill.
College ranking reports are utilized primarily by students from upper-middle class or high-income families as these students have better financial resources for more education related tools in general. Furthermore, when freshmen students in 2013 were asked about the influence of rankings in national magazines on their choice of institution, the percentage of students indicating that rankings were “very important” ranges from 15% to 24%, with a 9% gap between low- and lower-middle income students and that of higher-income students (Espinosa, 2014). For students of low socioeconomic status, the ranking of a college is not their top concern. Rather, students of low-income backgrounds base their college decision making around the affordability of the school and how far it is from their immediate family. Ultimately college rankings are consumed by “status maximizers,” or those who wish to assure themselves that the colleges they can gain access to are of an “acceptable” ranking and likely to positive them for future opportunities, such as employment, livable income, and/or minimal debt (McDonough, 1998). “Students who are the most likely to be spending the $250 per student on college-prep products are the most sensitive to the intangible nature of the college purchase decision, and therefore the most in need of quality assurance” (McDonough, 2014). Essentially, researchers are saying that rankings are more important and available to those who can afford it. Me? I just knew that I needed a good score on my SAT. Whatever that number was.
When I took the SAT, the exam had 3 mandatory categories that were all equally weighted: math, reading, and writing. The first two categories were multiple choice and the last was an essay. All were scored out of a possible 800 points. A perfect SAT composite score was that coveted, golden 2400. The advantage of a stellar score for admission to a selective campus (the Ivies, the MITs, Michigans) could not be underestimated. In 2007, 48% of admissions officers at selective colleges reported placing “considerable importance” on SAT/ACT scores, and seven years later in 2014 that figure spiked to 59%. I had my eyes on one of my state’s most selective public flagship school: UCLA. The stakes weren’t much different. In 2008, over 54% of the students who had applied to UCLA the previous fall had a score of 1800 or better. Of those who got at least that score, 82% were admitted. The bar set by the previous year was high.
I took my first SAT in fall of my junior year (2007), so I could have that much cleared out of the way. I got an 1870. Not bad, but I wanted better. If you’re shooting for a shiny Ivy or a prestigious, highly-selective school like Stanford, you want to break that 2000. I took the SAT three times. The maximum number of times you can take it with a waiver is twice. On one of my rounds, a mentor stepped up and paid the $46 fee. And I swear my second round must have been jinxed because Murphy’s Law almost won out.
My second exam took place on a sunny Saturday in early May. I had just arrived at my exam site, the rival high school across town from my own. I brandished my No. 2 pencils Wolverine-style. I got to my testing site forty minutes early. We had blue skies, bright green trees, and a soft sunny warmth like you only get in Southern California. Then I was asked to present my student ID. And, when I reached into my empty back pocket, I wanted to throw up. You absolutely must present a student photo ID in order to sit for the exam. If you do not have an ID, you cannot take the SAT.
“One second,” I told the woman checking in SAT-takers. I sprinted into the parking lot, hunting down my dad just as he was approaching Old Betsy to leave. “I don’t have my student ID!”
He looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. “What don’t you have, three-year-old?”
The Pound was another city over. We didn’t have time to race back and have me look for it. I needed a solid student ID now.
While my dad drove off, I tried to stay attentive to when the actual cut-off time for entry was. I had thirty-five minutes. How could this even be happening? I berated myself for the whole situation. What had I done wrong? I had studied with what resources were available. I ate a full breakfast and brought a snack. I had my trusty scientific calculator that had lived with me since eighth-grade. My heart skipped double-dutch. How else could I have been more ready?
Of course, one critical element was missing from my arsenal. And I didn’t want to acknowledge it. Can you guess it? We talked about it a few weeks ago. Yes, sleep! Catching those z’s is no small feat at the Pound. At least I had had the sense to go to bed at curfew. I’d still had interrupted sleep and woken up by six. My memory was hazy. But damn, I should have at least been able to remember my ID. I could have sworn that I was wearing the same jeans as I was the day before, so really it should have been there!
This was one of those scenarios where triumph and tragedy is dependent upon a single moment. And since I was a homeless student I didn’t even know if I would be at the same shelter in a month or whenever I got to sign-up to take the SAT again. Could I take the SAT again? What if other events came up and I just never got to do it again? Was 1870 good enough? At this point, I had my heart set on UCLA not just because of its top-tier status but because it was local. Yes, I was one of those “distance is a bigger factor” kids. If my dad was still homeless after I was admitted, I wanted to get to him. And if I wasn’t admitted to UCLA, did that limit me to just other local community colleges? Small private campuses like Occidental and that other school (USC) seemed too expensive when you didn’t know far a scholarship could go. In my reflection bubble, I was getting pummeled by my own lack of college knowledge. And, without stable housing or the right information, the stakes were that much higher. Every single shot counts. No do-overs.
Then I heard my dad call out to me.
I never said it was flattering. And I didn’t care. I raced over to where he waved an old copy of my student ID from last year. “Where did you get this?”
“I ran to our storage unit, dug through your old school records, and found it.” He said it like I was a really, really slow kid. Admittedly, I wasn’t in the position to argue. “Now go take your test!”
I had five minutes to find my room, but that was all I needed. I had my ID! And I sat for my exam.
The SAT is an endurance test. Weighing in at four hours and five sections – a thirty-minute quick-write essay followed by alternating math and read comprehension questions. And an area that has now mercifully been done away with, is the dreaded penalty quarter point. This means that for every question you got wrong on the exam, you lost one quarter of a whole point. So, if you get four questions wrong you not only lose those four points you are also punished one ADDITIONAL point simply because you were wrong. Yeah, no encouraging “don’t be afraid to make mistakes” here. The point was to discourage guessing on the SAT, which any sane exam coach will tell you is your best bet next to getting a question wrong all together. That morning in May, I might have been tired, but the adrenaline juicing through my veins carried me through a solid two-thirds of the exam. When I was done, I was done.
…of course, I would wind up sitting for the SAT one more time in December later that year. My final push to break 2000.
As of spring 2016, the SAT has been revised to encompass material more aligned with the Common Core rather than focus on material that students may or may not have seen based upon their current grade level. My best score on record was 1910 and my best overall score (taking from the best of previous exams’ sections) was 1960, which was good enough. This is me not having the time, money, or knowledge of any SAT prep classes (paid, subsidized, or por gratis). The SAT prep course offered by Kaplan Premier is $5400! Low-income students are half as likely as wealthier peers to take SAT prep classes even though these classes are shown to increase test scores. In fact, like many low-income students, I took this test cold, relying on College Board’s SAT Question of the Day (which doesn’t exist anymore) and my general high school curriculum as sufficient preparation. Good thing I went to a high school in a middle-income area! My classes and therefore chances were probably better than most test-takers. I did my best to get used to the questions, the practice essay format, and just make sure my math score didn’t go any lower than its comfortable mediocre level.
You aren’t your test score, but the college never really had time for an interview in the first place. And the college rankings report still likes to publicize that SAT score. College rankings have the ability to skew the perceived quality of education at institutions. Some organizations have taken it upon themselves to offer an alternative. Recently, College Net has ranked colleges along a Social Mobility Index. Posted online for everyone to see, among the factors that the SMI considers are universities’ endowments, population of students who are low-income, and median early career salary. In other words, the full quality of the school as it relates to your education pulling you beyond your current socioeconomic class. Hopefully, even though my progress was one blindfolded step forward after another, more tools like the SMI will make the path from homelessness to higher education just a little clearer.
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Sources for this article:
Espinosa, L. L., Crandall, J. R., & Tukibayeva, M. (2014). Rankings, Institutional Behavior, and College and University Choice: Framing the National Dialogue on Obama’s Ratings Plan. Washington: American Council on Education.
Luca, M., & Smith, J. (September 27, 2011). Salience in Quality Disclosure: Evidence from the U.S. News College Rankings. Leadership and Management. Retrieved from http://leadershiparticles.info/shop/
McDonough, P. M., Antonio, A. L., Walpole, M., Perez, L. X. (1998). College Rankings: Democratized College Knowledge for Whom? Research in Higher Education, 39(5), 513-533.
I just want to say that I enjoy reading all of your posts and look forward to reading more each time.
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Thank you, Gabriela! Your comment is appreciated!