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Testing Shortage Impacts Equity: Who Is Taking All the BHS SAT Spots?


Last Saturday, the SAT was offered at Berkeley High School (BHS). However, only six percent of the students taking the exam were actually from BHS. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a shortage of SAT exam spots at testing sites in the Bay Area, leading many students to register months in advance to secure a spot. 

As a result, BHS students have been forced to compete for these scarce spots with students from other schools, who often possess more information and resources. While the lack of access has increased the inequity of the SAT for some BHS students, it has alleviated the inequity for others. Some schools are addressing the scarcity by providing their students with a school day SAT exam, which enables schools to only open registration to their own students, but BHS chose not to offer this option.

In past years, BHS has offered 350 to 400 SAT testing spots. This year, the school reduced the number to 200 spots, according to Benette Williams, SAT coordinator at BHS.

“There is a shortage of SAT testing at BHS,” said Harrison Blatt, Berkeley International High School (BIHS) Vice Principal. “Our non-school day tests are open to everyone, including people who do not attend BHS, so BHS students are competing with non-BHS students for limited spaces.” 

Williams attributed the SAT shortage primarily to COVID-19 physical distancing requirements, as well as a loss of proctors, who are worried about the risks of COVID-19 from large groups of people. She also said that the College Board eliminated waitlists this year, so students could not fill any empty seats.

Williams added that most of the 2021 SAT exam spots at BHS were seized by students from highly ranked public schools or private schools. BHS students made up only three percent of registered students in October, and seven percent and six percent in November and December, respectively. More than half of the students registered to take the exam on all three of the dates came from private schools or elite public high schools.

As a result, BHS students who wanted to take the SAT at that time were compelled to travel as far as other states to find a seat, according to Williams. Among those students are Chaya Haugland and Maclain Pagenhart, who are both seniors in Academic Choice (AC). 

Haugland said that even months in advance, the closest testing site she could find was in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She drove there with her friend and her friend’s mother the night before the exam, and they stayed at a hotel. She characterized her testing circumstances as stressful, saying that she had been forced to find information about the SAT herself.

“I could have done with a little more support from [BHS],” Haugland said. “If you actively seek it out, you can find it, but it’s not offered or automatic.”

In October, Pagenhart took the SAT in Live Oak, California, a couple of hours away from Berkeley. She was also driven by her parents, and she made the decision to stay at a motel the night before.

“If I hadn’t been able to stay overnight and had gotten up really early, which I’m sure some people were forced to do, I would have been sleep deprived,” Pagenhart said. “I’m very lucky to have my parents, who could drive me there, even though it was so far away.”

Jennifer Hammond, AC and Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) college counselor, described the disproportionate impact of the SAT shortage on different groups of students. 

“Taking time out to drive or fly somewhere far away is not accessible to many students, specifically students who come from low income households,” Hammond said. “Those are the students who were already disadvantaged by standardized tests in general… and the shortage just perpetuates inequities.”

Williams described the backgrounds of the students who were able to take the exam at Berkeley High.

“Frankly, most of the people we served were from very elite schools in the Bay Area, whose college advisors tell them ‘as soon as that window opens, you go and sign up,’” Williams said.

Jed Fogelson, a student at Bentley Upper School, a private school in Lafayette, was able to secure one of the coveted SAT spots at BHS in December. He registered for the exam months in advance, on July 1st, because of an SAT webinar suggested by his school.

“We were thinking, ‘First you think about the prep, and then you think about the test,’” said Jodi Short, Fogelson’s mother. “They were like, ‘No, you first get your test date, and then you work backwards because you don’t even know what test date you’re going to be able to get.’”

Bentley strongly emphasizes college counseling. In December, the school pairs up juniors with college counselors, who give one on one advice about registering for and taking the test. 

In the spring, Bentley offered the SAT onsite to its own students. BHS also had the option of offering a school day SAT exam, which would have allowed all seniors to take the SAT during a school day in October. According to Blatt, the school ultimately decided not to do so because of “logistical challenges and safety concerns.”

This decision may be part of a movement towards equity. Although Hammond acknowledged that the SAT shortage exacerbates inequities, she added that “The whole college admissions process is inequitable. If the test were gone, it’s just one more way that we could make it a little bit closer to equitable.”

She enumerated the benefits of reducing reliance on the SAT.

“Instead of studying for the test and taking and retaking the test, students are investing more time into looking up the best colleges for them, and that’s paying off because then they have much better nuanced essays to write,” Hammond said. “The SAT takes up so much of their time in this college application process, so it’s actually kind of beneficial in another way to not have it be accessible.”

Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) senior Dwayne Clay echoed these sentiments, describing how his decision to not take the SAT freed up time for him to work on college applications and keep up with school.

He added that no one in his family has graduated from college, and that he is a part of the BHS Bridge program, which addresses the racial achievement gap.

“I took the PSAT, and going through the whole process was terrible,” Clay said. “We were just thrown into a bubble to take the test… I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. If I don’t have to use up time that I don’t really have [on the SAT], then I choose not to.”

Hammond said that many universities have transitioned to test-optional applications. Currently, over 76 percent of all bachelor-degree granting institutions in the US are either test-optional or test-blind, according to the National Center For Fair and Open Testing.

“Any program or school that’s insisting on [the SAT] I lose respect for,” Hammond said. “I don’t think that they’re aware of the bigger picture, especially in light of COVID. It just doesn’t make sense for them to demand it.”

“The fact that I was able to be aware of and take and study for the SAT was very much because I have the privilege to know what’s going on,” Haugland said. “Berkeley High should try to make that a bit more clear, and talk to the sophomores about the SAT because a lot of people have no clue.”