Reflecting on Equity Issues within Standardized Testing

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Reflecting on Equity Issues within Standardized Testing

Surya Gowda and Lynne Sipprelle

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If applying to college wasn’t already stressful enough, pressure to use expensive tutors to prepare for standardized testing can add a new layer of anxiety for students.

60 percent of 342 high school students said they believe standardized test tutoring is an unfair advantage, but 50 percent have used a standardized test tutor anyway, according to an anonymous Record poll.

The standardized testing system is a glaring inequity issue, ICIE Associate Sharina Gordon said.

Dakota Stennett-Neris (11) believes that people of a lower socioeconomic status are often at a disadvantage when it comes to standardized testing, she said. Students who are less wealthy and cannot afford $300 tutors have to study out of books and teach themselves, Stennett-Neris said.

“When you’re taking that test are you really showing your abilities and what you’ve been taught or the strategies you’ve been taught by someone because of your economic class and how well-off you are?” Stennett-Neris said.

Of the 175 students polled by The Record who have used tutors to prepare for standardized tests, 61 said their tutor was paid $0-100 per hour, 66 said $100-200, 18 said $200-300, 15 said $300-400, and 15 said over $400.

Advantage Testing, a popular tutoring company at the school, has private tutoring rates start at $275 per 50-minute session in New York City. Advantage also offer less costly small group options as well as extensive financial aid to families in need, Advantage Testing Director of Communications Charles Loxton said.

“I think people that have the means to afford a tutor almost get looked down upon because it’s thought to be an unfair advantage, but I don’t think it’s unfair. If you have the means to further your knowledge you should,” Cameron Levy (12) said.

In the past year, the school secured testing support for students over the summer, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly said.

“With Mr. Oxelson’s help, we were able to bring a practice SAT to HM, complete with personalized feedback, and with Ms. Bartels’ help, we saw one of the top SAT/ACT prep companies in the USA take over our summer test prep offering,” Kelly said.

Students could sign up for a free SAT or ACT summer prep course with Advantage Testing at the school that focused on test-taking strategy, Director of Summer School Caroline Bartels said.

“It was really helpful,” Nader Granmayeh (11), who took the summer course, said. Students worked with a tutor from Advantage and completed many practice tests, he said.

The school has also contracted with TestRocker, one of the top online providers of standardized tests, Oxelson said. “Even for students who aren’t receiving financial aid from HM but are looking for low cost, quality test prep, there are ways that we can help.”

“We wanted to level the playing field and allow some people to take test prep who might not necessarily be able to afford it,” Bartels said. “My plan is that we’ll continue to offer this every summer.”

“If test prep is going to remain a reality, the school will work to increase the number of low cost or no cost opportunities for its students,” Kelly said.

Bartels and Kelly have discussed the possibility of offering standardized test prep courses during the school year as well as the summer, Bartels said.

“While I’m happy to provide the opportunities, the fact that test prep for standardized tests is rampant and actually makes a difference should call into question how these tests are being used across the board,” Kelly said.

“I think there’s just something a little unsettling about a system, of which I’m part, that, when you reduce it, essentially rewards those who are able to pay the most money for the best tutors,” Ben Metzner (11) said.

Many standardized tests don’t test students’ knowledge, but rather their understanding of test questions and strategies, Cameron Chavers (12) said.

“Test tutoring is a sort of pay-to-play scheme, and it’s unfair that the people who have the most money to burn on tutors will likely do better on a test that purports to fairly measure student aptitude on a level playing field,” Metzner said.

“Tutoring can be very expensive and if you have access to the financial resources to afford it, you’re positioned to do better on these type of tests,” Gordon said.

As SAT prep has become a big business, the performance of students on the test has changed, Director of ICIE Patricia Zuroski said. The gap has widened between students who may be smart and good test takers but don’t have access to individual tutoring, and students who do, she said.

“If test preparations did not help students, a company like Bespoke would not exist,” founder of Bespoke Education Tim Levin ‘90 said. “Students have a lot of different ways to do it. Test prep is not necessarily one-one but could be done in group sessions or with friends,” Levin said.

Bliss Beyer (12) does not know why she had a tutor for the ACT, she said. “I felt like everyone was doing it. I felt peer pressured into getting an ACT tutor,” she said.

Jason Oh (12) initially attended an SAT class, but he found it unhelpful and switched to a tutor, which he found unhelpful as well, he said.

“I don’t think SAT tutors are that effective because basically what you’re doing is taking a practice test at home and then going over the questions that you got wrong. You could do that by yourself. Spending an hour explaining why you got a question wrong is not worth the money you’re spending,” Oh said.

Richard Hausman (11) believes that taking practice tests is the most effective way to prepare, he said. However, a tutoring agency he used to prepare for the Biology and Chemistry SAT 2’s gave him an advantage by providing extra practice tests and diagnostic tools not normally available, he said.

Chavers chose to receive individual tutoring outside of school because she is a slow test taker and wanted more individualized attention, she said.

“For me, I’m someone who’s not great at test-taking, so I think it did give me an advantage over people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” Chavers said. “But I don’t know if it necessarily gave me the same advantages of some of my classmates, if that makes sense. I didn’t do it as much and I still don’t think I’m as good as they are.”

According to Loxton, “colleges do moderate their expectations based on a student’s background and perceived opportunities. Students hailing from a privileged background with many outstanding educational opportunities available to them are indeed expected to perform exceptionally well on tests and in school. Meanwhile, colleges seem to be more flexible with students who have faced adversity, come from under-resourced communities, and have had limited educational opportunities.”

Executive Director of College Counseling Canh Oxelson cautioned against overestimating the importance of standardized tests.

“My fear is that because students believe that testing is so important, families will do whatever they can to get the best possible test prep. I don’t think students and families know this until the end of the process, but standardized testing isn’t as important as people think it is,” Oxelson said.

“If you know at the beginning of the process what you will know at the end, you probably wouldn’t stress about it so much and you might not even pay as much as people are willingly to pay,” Oxelson said.

“As with any concern regarding anyone’s time at HM, if a student or student’s parent(s) believe additional support is necessary and are struggling to secure said support, they should reach out to either their child’s advisor or grade dean, and when in doubt, Dr. Levenstein and I are always happy to weigh in,” Kelly said.