SAT's: Reproducing Social Stratification

by Michel Cazary

Last summer I was helping to teach an SAT preparation course at Crawford High School, located in southeast San Diego, an area where many immigrants and refugees reside. The TEST was coming up in the fall, and the small group of students from Crawford who had decided to apply to college, enrolled in the course two week long course. The first day of the class, the students took a practice SAT and the scores were around 500-800 cumulative. In a test whose perfect combined score is 1600 (800 for math and 800 for English vocabulary and comprehension), these scores were not "making the cut". Universities like the UC system were looking for scores upwards of 1200 when I graduated high school five years ago. When students found out their scores the following day, I recalled my dismay at my 1030 score on my practice SAT. I began to question how the low scores of my friends and I five years ago were the optimal scores for the students that I was working with. If only the college board could have seen the fear and determination on these kids' faces when they tried to break one thousand on their tests, they would understand that that score would mean just as much as the ones I was seeing in high school that were comfortably above 1200, unfortunately this is not the case.

I started to look around me, looking at the kids, the community and the school in order to see what was going on. We were in a low socio-economic part of town that consisted of almost entirely second language students. The class itself had the usual goof-offs who were just not that into being in school during the summertime, but there were also had a large group of students who were recent immigrants, who had not mastered English and had not reached the math level tested on the SAT. How were these students expected to do well on any standardized test? The reading comprehension portions were like a slow death for them, requiring them to drudge through long excerpts taken from books over one hundred years ago, using bizarre words and non-conventional phrasing. 

What made this whole situation even worse, was knowing that somewhere, far away in La Jolla (the upper class part of San Diego), students were paying $1000 or more for a lovely little SAT class that teaches them how to cheat the test in order to raise their 1250 score to a 1400. It is extremely difficult to explain to the students at Crawford High School that they have such limited opportunities because of simply who they are. It made it even harder to watch how hard they tried, knowing that they still have so many extra obstacles that lay ahead of them. One girl was eight months pregnant in the class and only sixteen years old. She dragged herself to that class everyday and sat in that hot room for four hours at a time, in my mind that kind of determination is what I would want to look for in a prospective student at my university, rather than a meaningless number on a piece of paper.

So as you can imagine, I was ecstatic when I heard the wonderful news regarding the possibility of the UC system doing away with using the SAT I scores as a criteria for admission. However, my happiness was quickly shattered by a comment that a peer of mind had made. It went something like this: "I do not think that doing away with the SAT's will be any good. It just tests on basic skills and if they do away with it, then all those underprivileged kids would get into colleges and then just flunk out." Wow. Repressing my desire to go into a fit of rage and begin yelling, I tried my best to nicely explain to her that she was not looking at the full picture and it was attitudes like hers that prevent change and progress. The way that the SAT's reproduce social stratification was so obvious to me, that I had taken for granted the many people who had not had my experiences. Was she suggesting that "those" kids not be admitted to college, as if they don't deserve to go at all? She quickly clarified her naive statement and said that the system was a mess and would not support such kids without the proper background knowledge to enter college. "Well, I said, if all 'those' kids were to get into college, they would be a force to be reckoned with and they would be accommodated as they should be", which is true.

That discussion made me realize once again, the attitudes of the people around me. Caring about the world seems like something that is so amazingly hard for many young people to do. It is difficult when a safety net is constructed for many people, to understand that that which gives you comfort is that which you must remove. Being uncomfortable is the first step to realizing the viruses hidden in what seems to be the comfortable life many seem to live. This is the same exact problem that is happening with the SAT's, the eradication of the use of the test for UC admissions is making people uncomfortable, it is an existing safety net, or more like a filter, that people have become scared of removing, especially people like the girl with whom I discussed the issue, who for the most part, in her mind, is safe right now. 

So what do we do now? Change minds would probably be the best answer. A school is something that should be able to give intellectual capital to every student so that they may be somewhat equal by the end of schooling, instead, we have a system whose main purpose is to reinforce social stratification by promoting very specific ideals within our schools. However, these are not the ideals that have to exist in my classroom or yours and that is where the power of educators step in. Every day I work with a student I am consciously fighting a battle and given the power to that student to then choose their own battles to fight. The eradication of SAT's as an admission criteria for the UC system would be an amazing start to actually seeing some positive change in standardized testing, but it is such a small part of what is really going on. It is constantly important for me to remember the un-informed people that surround you who make rash judgments and to make decisions on how to deal with them. It is necessary to be constantly aware of the academic situation in my classroom as well as the political one, because they are really no different. 


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