On Saturday March 10th, 2012 CollegeSpring Director of Programs Julie Bachur and Bay Area Programs Manager Tory Kauer voluntarily relived a high school memory that most adults would prefer to repress. At 7:30 AM, they joined a gaggle of bleary-eyed high school juniors and seniors and waited in line to retake the SAT.
Retaking the SAT was, according to Bachur, “a joke that turned into a serious idea.” While initially intended as a light-hearted personal challenge, retaking the test took on a greater significance in the context of CollegeSpring’s work to provide SAT test-prep and college-readiness programs for low-income high school students.
As Kauer explains, “Any good teacher backwards plans from the assessment, so we realized we hadn’t been doing our full due diligence.” Bachur and Kauer hoped that this experience would give them insight into how better to help students prepare for the test. The pair registered online and chose a testing site with a student demographic similar to that which CollegeSpring serves.
Inside the testing center, students milled around in the hallway for over an hour until everyone had assembled. Many students sat against the walls studying vocabulary flash cards in a last-ditch effort to cram. Bachur, who wore a hoodie and sneakers, remembered thinking to herself, “Try to look 16, Try to look 16!” Kauer, who took initiative to close a window that was causing a draft, was mistaken for a proctor.
Compared to their new peers, Bachur and Kauer were both exceptionally well-prepared for the SAT. They had just revised CollegeSpring’s Student Handbook which includes test-taking strategies, practice SAT questions, and significant review of core academic concepts. Despite their advantages, Bachur and Kauer were surprised to find some aspects of the test more difficult than they had expected.
Bubbling in your name should be the simplest part of the SAT but for Kauer’s classroom, even this was a challenge. Kauer’s proctor was late so a substitute read the initial instructions. Kauer describes that instead of giving students time to fill in their names, this person “just read the instructions for all 10 sections at once. The kids were confused and asking questions.” Kauer remembered thinking, “Of course they don’t understand. You just rattled off all these instructions– exactly what you’re not supposed to do.” Kauer and Bachur realized that in addition to understanding the academic concepts behind the test, students also need a firm grasp of test logistics in case, for whatever reason, they miss key instructions.
For Bachur, the biggest obstacle was fatigue. Bachur recounted, “Our test center was near Tory’s house…but it took me an hour to get there on public transit. I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, so I had to wake up early, and then I was tired during the test.” According to Bachur, many of the students CollegeSpring serves may face similar situations. She recommends that students register early so that they can reserve spaces at testing centers near their homes and avoid a long journey on test day.
Hunger was also an issue for Bachur, affecting her ability to focus. Bachur thought that by bringing snacks she would be well-prepared but she underestimated. “I brought two snacks and ate them both, but by the time the test got out it was 1:00 and I was starving.” Even finding time to eat the snacks she did have was difficult. Bachur recalls, “I couldn’t use the bathroom and eat a whole granola bar in the allotted five minute break time, so I would eat a half a granola bar per break.” Kauer is already taking steps to make sure that this year’s Bay Area students come to the test well-provisioned; the team hopes to find ways to tackle this issue more broadly.
Despite these challenges, Bachur and Kauer both scored perfect 800s in Critical Reading. While they did well across the board, their math scores demonstrated the power of the basic test-taking strategies that CollegeSpring teaches students. The SAT is graded with a quarter-point penalty for wrong answers, so CollegeSpring, like other test-prep groups, encourages students to skip questions they are unsure about. Bachur and Kauer were a perfect case study. Kauer explains, “I didn’t follow the advice…I came back and answered every single question on the test. That was ok for reading and writing, but for math I missed five questions. Julie also missed five questions, but she left them unanswered, so my score was lower because of the quarter-point deductions.”
Implications of SAT Scores
Bachur believes that living out the SAT-prep advice that CollegeSpring gives students lends it additional credibility. “Being able to speak about the new test and what it feels like is good for legitimating what we tell our partners, our staff, and our kids. It is not something that is cobbled together from books and a ten year old memory–it is something we’ve experienced first-hand.”
Both Bachur and Kauer believe that adequate preparation for the SAT is a key pivot point for low-income students interested in pursuing college. Bachur noted, “I think probably for the people who grow up in college-educated, middle and upper-class families, the SAT is about where they go to college. But for our kids, it can literally be the difference between being a high school graduate and a college graduate.
“In California, to qualify for the California State University system, you find your GPA and your SAT score on a matrix, and if they don’t match the minimum requirements, you’re not getting in. The SAT, for a lot of our students, is the mechanism that allows them to go to a four-year college.”
Kauer agreed, “If you look at the number of kids who are going to school, we can agree that there has to be some sort of metric for comparing the applicants. We are just trying to level the playing field so that people’s potential can be more accurately displayed.” While CollegeSpring’s SAT curriculum focuses mainly on solidifying key academic concepts, Kauer and Bachur hope that by giving students and instructors a better understanding of test day, they will eliminate obstacles that could keep students from performing to their potential.