Around 5 times a year, a pall of anxiety falls over Andover. Students rush about campus at 6:30 a.m., trying to get breakfast. The whirr of pencil sharpeners buzzes through the morning air, and through the high-ceilinged spaces converted into testing halls, pristine test booklets lie in tidy piles, in wait. A flurry of SAT, AP, and ACT stress, a frenzied search for pencils, and last-minute dashes back to the dorm because you forgot a calculator (we’ve all been there) all usher in that familiar sense of dread, that same smell in the air—testing season.
Once hailed as a way to more effectively judge a high school student’s performance during the college admissions process, criticism of standardized testing has been mounting over the past few years. And it’s no surprise as to why. Students are under immense pressure to score higher and higher, parents are asked to pay exorbitant fees for sometimes multiple rounds of testing, and many schools are ill-equipped to teach or to provide foundations for material on standardized exams. The illusion that standardized tests are somehow more equal and meritocratic than other aspects of the college admissions process is a lie—and a dangerous one, at that.
Privilege plays a pivotal role in determining standardized testing scores. The Brookings Institution, a public policy research group, has reported that scores on the SAT are disproportionately related to race. University of Washington Bothell Assistant Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Steve Syverson has noted that ACT scores connect almost directly to household income. In addition, Bates College has reported that test-optional schools have increased enrollment of marginalized groups by up to 18%. Moreover, Brookings recalled that White and Asian students overwhelmingly score higher than their Black and Latine counterparts, at a rate that reveals telling insights into how racial and class inequities shape test scores.
In an attempt to present a level playing field, standardized tests have only widened the gap, all the while covering the divide with a pretty tarp labeled “meritocracy.” Test preparation, to no one’s surprise, is a booming industry, priced at immensely high rates. Popular test prep options, such as PrepScholar, Kaplan, or Princeton Review, offer their services for hundreds of dollars (the cheapest option among the three starts at $399 dollars). The price of textbooks, if students are taking multiple exams (ex. APs), add up quite quickly. The time test prep requires, whether that be studying over the summer, during the school year, or on weekends, puts lower-income students, who may have jobs or take care of their families, at a disadvantage.
At a school like Andover, standardized tests inhabit a sticky role. While financial aid often covers exam registration costs for those who need it, other aspects of testing that disproportionately affect low-income students fly under the radar. Overwhelmingly, many students take the SAT. However, when it comes to APs, there tends to be a lack of consensus over whether students should take the exams or not. Common refrains include: “Will it be beneficial to my college career? How will the AP tests affect admissions? Which schools accept AP credits? How many APs do students need for international applications?” This confusion means that students themselves may feel less encouraged to sit through AP exams, but external pressure, such as parents, may compel their children to take the exams. Due to the economic barriers typically associated with AP exams, mose socioeconomically privileged students tend to be the ones encouraged to take APs. This tends to be because these students can spend more money on preparation, and can afford to retake the tests as needed.
But we do not have to be beholden to the grip of standardized testing. In 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Andover shifted to a test-optional format, no longer requiring SSAT or ISEE scores for incoming students. Andover has kept this format since then. Likewise, more and more colleges are moving to test-optional as Covid-19 pandemic begins to shed light on the inequities of standardized testing. Speaking to a larger conversation surrounding grades, academic access, and increasing resistance to ways schools and admissions offices classify students’ academic abilities, the discourse surrounding testing grows ever more urgent.
This editorial represents the views of The Phillipian, Vol. CXLV.