The PSAT, or preliminary SAT, scheduled for October 17, would have been one of the first in-person events held by Berkeley High School (BHS) since its shutdown in March, and somewhat of a trial run for the school’s COVID-19 precautions. Alameda County would have allowed the test, but BHS made the difficult decision to cancel it anyway.
Alameda County’s health guidance did not permit in-person schooling or standardized testing until September, so the October 17 PSAT was the first test legally allowed to be held at BHS. Despite the administration’s desire to make the test work for students, they “could not secure the necessary number of staff members to run the PSAT,” according to Principal Juan Raygoza.
“We wanted to make it happen. We know that families were looking forward to it and planning on it,” said Interim Vice Principal Leah Katz. “But there were so many specifics this year that just have never been part of the equation before. There were ways in which our experience didn’t add up to knowing how to best handle this situation.”
Besides the primary concern of bringing together a large number of students and staff indoors, other factors contributed to the decision to cancel the test, Katz explained. With smoke from wildfires across California frequently spreading to the Bay Area, the school had to consider what would happen if the test were to take place on a smoky day, and whether they should close windows to protect against smoke or leave them open as a COVID-19 precaution.
It was also challenging to find staff for the test, as the school needed not only proctors, but hall monitors, custodians, and safety officers. All staff who work in person right now do so voluntarily, according to Katz, and it was difficult to find people who were both willing and able to work in person.
The PSAT, which is usually open to both sophomores and juniors, is intended to be a practice test for the SAT and a way to qualify for scholarships such as the National Merit Scholarship. Thea Davies, a junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), was looking forward to taking the test to prepare for the SAT, especially because she did not take the PSAT last year. “It can be really helpful to know what it will be like before the test is more high-stakes,” said Davies.
The PSAT’s role in determining National Merit Scholarship is less crucial because there are other ways to qualify for the scholarships this year. This includes submitting SAT scores rather than the usual PSAT scores, among other requirements.
Another uncertain aspect of the testing process this year is that, although the SAT or ACT is usually mandatory in the college application process, many colleges have recently become test-optional. This change is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent criticisms that the tests are discriminatory. While many students have experienced the benefits of this new policy, others are still counting on taking and preparing for the standardized tests.
Amid the uncertainty with testing and the college admission process, Katz emphasized the importance of relying on the college counselors at BHS.
“We also know that our college advisors are going to be able to support you through it however this turns out,” said Katz. “Whether it is a very different process next year or not, they will be the people that we rely on to usher you through, and that’s a pretty great feeling that we have such good people doing that.”
There is still hope for future standardized tests at BHS, possibly as soon as December. According to Raygoza, the SAT is scheduled to be administered in December, and an alternate PSAT is scheduled for January. These tests will present new logistical challenges — the SAT is open to students who do not attend BHS and the PSAT is on a school day.
To plan for future tests, Raygoza said he will continue to be in communication with local public health experts and work on securing the “personnel, facilities, and resources required to hold the test safely.”