My parents immigrated from India to the United States in the early 1970s. We moved around a lot but we settled in California in large part because of its excellent public universities. Like many middle-class immigrant families, getting the kids into a top university was a priority. My parents spent almost $ 10,000 preparing for the standardized tests and tutoring my two siblings and me.
It was a lot of money for us, but it was well spent. Contrary to the stereotype of South Asian students, I was not a good candidate. Despite repeating the practice tests, I never did well on test day. Well, I don’t mean a perfect score. I often marked in the middle, poor in some cases.
My parents and I thought that preparing for the tests was my path to enter the university of my choice. The test was my Achilles heel. I spent much of high school trying to catch up on my grades. I prioritized my weaker classes, took a few AP-type classes, starred in a few plays at school, sang solos off the pitch in a choir, I climbed on the bench of my varsity basketball team and let loose flying balls as a second string outfielder. I volunteered at soup kitchens. I tried the debate. I enjoyed these activities, but my main goal was to refine my application and enter a great university.
I applied to over 20 colleges in my last year. I put in four, including Vassar. I’m lucky that Vassar looked past my test scores and admitted me because of my leadership potential and my whole being.
Countless students are not so fortunate. That’s why the decision by the University of California system, America’s darling of higher education, to phase out the use of SAT and ACT is great news. Standardized tests like the SAT are biased, lead to inequalities, and force students to overcompensate and compromise their high school education.
SAT / ACT scores only predict the grades achieved in a student’s first year. These are worse predictors for black and brown college students, and are good indicators of how much wealth college students are born into. The richer a family, the higher the SAT score. These tests eliminate low-income students with potential instead of creating equitable access for all to attend and perform in college. That is why every university should abandon these standardized tests.
Princeton Review and Kaplan, the test preparation companies I used to prepare for the SAT, have everything to lose with the UC announcement. The money my parents spent is small compared to what others spend. Thousands of students receive some sort of SAT / ACT preparation every year. Three quarters of affluent students receive additional help to prepare for standardized tests. Princeton Review charges over $ 2,600 for SAT tutoring. A Manhattan-based tutor charges at least $ 1,500 an hour, guaranteeing score increases.
College Board, the administrator of the SAT, has partnered with Khan Academy to offer low-cost online tutoring as a response. In addition, he recognized the bias of the SAT; incorporating adversity scores. This effort did not take off. The testing industry is on its heels as more schools phase out the SAT. And more are.
Adding “adversity scores” and preparing for online tests will not launch more fair admissions. Schools should prioritize holistic approaches such as college readiness being assessed alongside other attributes that colleges may consider to constitute their student body. Colleges need to wean marketing from their rankings in US news and the World Report. They must focus on preparing young people for an uncertain world and a difficult economy.
Today’s K-12 education in America is at a critical juncture. As it stands, wealthy children will likely outperform others with existing educational gaps and those with little or no access to high-speed internet, a key component of distance learning. The “COVID-19 slide” is a devastating reality.
We’re not going to rid Jared Kushner’s ability to get his father to buy Harvard overnight. We also won’t be able to dissuade every Lori Laughlin from hiring a singer Rick to lie about her daughter’s request to enter a big school. Still, we can push colleges to look beyond problematic tools for measuring college readiness like Vassar did for me to ensure that schools are more open to socio-economically diverse students or to students who are can just add a lot to a class.
College degrees remain the best route for upward mobility. Admissions are changing for the better. But entering is not enough.
America must continue to advance the means by which students can graduate from public colleges without going into massive debt and having a good life.
Das is a local writer, advocate and senior policy researcher at Data for Progress. He lives in Ocean Beach. Twitter: @vijdas