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First Come, First Served System for PSATs and SATs Fails BUSD’s Mission

With only the resources to give the PSAT to 70 students, BHS offered spots to the first who signed up, creating unfair advantages for some.

Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has long strived for equity and diverse opportunities for all students, seeking to create environments free of discrimination and injustices. Their Mission, Vision, Values statement reads: “Our diverse community is passionate about equitable educational outcomes for all students.” However, the system chosen this year to register students for the PSATs – and if the conditions of the shelter-in-place laws are consistent, the SATs – has fallen disappointingly short of that goal. In order to maintain safe community guidelines, only 70 students are allowed to take the PSAT this year. The problem is with who gets one of those 70 spots. Berkeley High School (BHS) staff decided to use a first come, first served system to distribute the practice tests. This method is problematic and should not be used for SAT registration because it gives privileged students a better chance at a spot. 

The SAT itself may not be an accurate form of assessing intelligence or predicting success, and there is evidence that it is stacked against students of color, but it is unfortunately still a requirement on many college applications. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last school year’s SATs and PSATs were cancelled at BHS. This year, however, 70 students will be permitted to take the test in either one of the three gymnasiums, the College and Career Center (CCC), or one of the classrooms on the campus of BHS. 

While this plan effectively allows as many students to safely fit indoors as BHS staff could manage, the first come, first served method should not have been chosen to decide who gets the spots. On Wednesday, January 6 at exactly 7 AM, students flooded Total Registration, BHS’s selected software that was used to register for the test. The system ultimately ended up crashing, registering more students than there were spots for. Eventually, BHS staff had to run a lottery system to distribute the spots. However, a lottery system should have been more than just the backup plan. 

The issue is that the first come, first served system – like the test itself – is more likely to cater to privileged students who may not be facing the responsibility of childcare, jobs, or Wi-Fi issues. Instead, the BHS administration should switch to a fairer system rooted in its goal of “equitable educational outcomes,” such as a modified lottery where a portion of the spots go to each Small Learning Community (SLC), which could then utilize a more grassroots method for distributing the slots fairly when the time comes for SAT registration.

After all, the first come, first served system is not how any of us got into this district in the first place. When picking which elementary school in BUSD to send one’s child to, parents must enter the name into an advanced lottery system. The first come, first served method was deemed ineffective because it would create segregated schools. 

In that case, the district’s administration took many important measures to ensure diversity and equity. Why is this ideal lost when it comes to the SATs? It is actively hypocritical to claim they are passionate about “equitable educational outcomes” when it comes to one registration system, and then abandon that goal when it comes to another. The first come, first served system for determining elementary school access was discarded for a better, more just one – a lottery system that isn’t reliant on split-second timing and the possibility of tenacious parents gaming the system on behalf of their children. Why then, was it chosen to be the primary setup for the PSAT and soon-to-be the SAT registration? 

Holding the registration competition on a Wednesday morning only added to the complications. Wednesdays are when most students have no Zoom classes, which makes them a likely day for taking on extra responsibilities such as working or childcare. In addition, students with fewer resources, such as unreliable Wi-Fi networks or parents who may not have time to track the emails from the College Board will have extra obstacles to overcome just to get a shot at one of the 70 spots. If the administration switches the method to an adapted lottery system, or a system that distributes the spots evenly among the SLCs, it would help to reduce this inequity, and create a fairer outcome.

The pandemic has affected the way our schools are set up drastically, and in some ways, possibly permanently. However, we should remain true to the beliefs of our district by making sure everyone gets equitable opportunities within our community and beyond. BUSD claims that its goals are for everyone to have equal opportunities, and this should be reflected in the PSAT and SAT registration. So, in late March and early May when the SATs roll around, how will we determine who gets the opportunity to take such a historically important test? What system can we use that will present the sought after “equitable educational outcomes for all students”? It’s important that we thoroughly think through systems that could determine someone’s entire future, so that we can ensure that everyone has what they need in order to at least get a chance.