The Hidden Costs of Standardized Tests During a Pandemic

Claire Kozma (’22) writes that standardized testing during the COVID-19 pandemic instigates student anxiety much beyond the test material


By: Claire Kozma (’22)
First-Year Tutor

I remember dusting off my brother’s old SAT prep book from the basement in the beginning of my months-long SAT slog. I felt an overwhelming rush of intimidation: this thing must be 10 pounds. Inside were already a plethora of folded pages, red and black pen markings, and math scribbles.

It was the winter of 2021, in the midst of a large COVID-19 spike, SAT test center closings, and a full year of virtual school–for me, it was my junior year. At that point, not only did I have to navigate scheduling an SAT test as the seats filled quickly, but I had to keep myself safe, especially since the vaccine hadn’t yet been approved for people my age. Through isolation, the nudging of deadlines and scores, and AP coursework, the stress of life was debilitating. The SAT only added to the mess.

A number of universities announced a “test optional” option for students applying for admission, however, I had a nagging worry: am I hindering my chances of being admitted without a score? A large number of students shared the same concern; many felt that they couldn’t “compete at their best” without an SAT score as “proof” of qualification. I felt unsure.

Regardless of any independent college’s decision, for the millions still taking the test, why has – even amidst a global pandemic–the testing process that students are coerced to endure remained almost completely unchanged? Think about this for a moment.

Through worldwide school shutdowns, deaths, and millions out of work, what I found most startling was how unaltered the SAT process was. Sign-ups for tests were in full swing. Like I mentioned before, seats were still being taken rapidly. Social media continued to be filled with ads for classes: “We guarantee a 1500+!” or “Get into college with a perfect score!”. People paid for private tutors, signed up for the ACT and/or SAT several times, and bought every prep book available online. The students who chose to post their scores online–most of which were nearly perfect–seemed to have these resources. As a student existing in isolation, the world of standardized testing seemed to hurdle forward faster than I could keep up.

Particularly in a time when we’re completely shifted digitally, viewing these numbers, ads, and posts frequently on social media created a tremendous amount of pressure to perform and invest. As a person who didn’t spend money on prep, I felt unsettled, as if I were doing something wrong or missing something. I’m definitely not alone: many students feel that they can’t achieve a “good enough score” if they don’t throw $1,000 into a “premium” prep class. I also didn’t feel safe going to in-person prep classes, not to mention sit for a real SAT test. It was a stretch for me, as I was in contact with at-risk people in my home.

Here’s the catch about pricey SAT prep classes: they teach students how to memorize the test mechanics, not improve on their academic skills. They show students how to see through the questions, not actually understand a passage. Students, then, spend money to “train” how to beat the test, not how to grow as a critical thinker. What does this say about the SAT metrics itself, then? Exactly – it’s a game.

On the day of my first SAT in the spring of 2021, I drove 45 minutes to the nearest testing center. I was jittery. I was required to bring an ID, TI-84, No. 2 pencils, and a mask (which I had brought 4, just in case). This was the first time I’d gone out publicly for a year – to the day. Taking the test put me in a high-risk situation: I had never been to the location, nor knew any of the people there. At seven in the morning, I found myself clumped with over a hundred people. I was then placed in a room of 30 others for over five hours. My glasses were fogging up, my head was spinning–some of which was induced by the test, yes, but much of it was the fact I was surrounded by strangers during a major spike of the pandemic. I put a lot of trust into my mask.

I’m unsettled to know that millions of other kids are also impacted negatively by the standardized testing process, on top of the pandemic we continue to battle. Similar to what I felt on my test day, students are anxious about a multitude of things. And the cost? We can acknowledge the financial burden of test taking and prep (which, by the way, is unreasonable for many families), but I’m referring to the less discussed cost: self esteem.

Amidst the noise, my self confidence became tangled with these numbers and scores floating around, which although arbitrary, had been pushed into my head so many times that I slowly began to feel behind. On top of my schoolwork, expectations at home, and COVID-19, standardized testing only added to my isolation. My mental and physical health suffered tremendously.

Unfortunately, my experience is an extremely common one.

What we continue to dig through is no easy feat. I want to emphasize checking in with those around you as we maneuver the pandemic; it’s incredibly important to give ourselves space to process emotions. I hope my experience sheds light on the deeper harm of standardized testing, especially to students simultaneously facing the uncertainty of COVID-19. What students continue to endure cannot go unspoken.

Through the Looking Glass: Gaining a Fresh Perspective on Education Through Writing Center Work

The competition for grades and scores is contributing to student anxiety and an increase in opportunity gaps.

UnschoolingBy: Savanna Cowley (’20)
Second-Year Tutor

Out of the several formative tutoring experiences I’ve had over the past year and a half, one particular classroom visit sticks out to me as representative of something much greater than Writing Center work. After a rather loud conference with the teacher, they pointed me in the direction of one student who was struggling to start the assignment due at the end of the hour. I gingerly walked over and started a conversation with the student, who was obviously embarrassed to be called out in front of their peers, and together we decided to scrap the topic of their paper that didn’t particularly interest them. A few days of rigorous work and great connection went by before we turned in the essay. Needless to say, for the first time in a while, I felt like I had done my job very well. 

A year ago, I would have never tutored any one of my peers like that. Being your typical AP student, I was used to muscling through papers and projects that didn’t engage my interests, my only focus on what my teacher wanted to see from me and the steps it took to get to an A. My mindset would influence the kind of work I did with the kids I tutored, who were oftentimes lowerclassmen who had more creative leeway than AP courses did. I would work to get the assignment done and perfect-score worthy, not to connect with the student and build their confidence as writers. 

Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald describe the writing center as a “third space”, an objective place within a school that is supposed to be completely separated from the school faculty and students, both in function and practice. Over a year of sitting in this glass room and observing the values that American schooling enforces onto kids and you start to view this objectivity as a blessing and a curse. 

On the one hand, and from the help of experimental grading from some of my current teachers, I’ve been able to look past measuring my understanding of arbitrary material with letter grades and instead focus on building skills in self-reflection, communication, and critical thinking. I’m being absolved of viewing education as a competition amongst my peers and only seeing my academic achievements on a 1600-point scale.  On the other hand, I am exposed to the immense hurt and abandonment in the building I learn in, seeing the kids who are so often left behind in pursuit of measuring God-knows-what in a way that no one understands. Not everyone is served by this current educational system. In fact, not a single person is and ever will be. 

Competition breeds discrimination. Putting kids up side-by-side and measuring their worth in skills and contexts that are not valuable to everyone is toxic. Thinking about the end result and the percentage of mastery given to a certain assignment has never served a single student during a tutoring session, so how could anyone expect it to serve elsewhere? If grades do motivate, they only motivate anxiety to develop in every kid who could instead be ensured that they are valued and capable of learning. There is no real purpose in our traditional grading system except to serve the students who can afford the “benefits” of receiving high scores and push and hold any student who can’t below the surface. 

For any sort of progression in our battle to end inequity, we must start with the education system. I do not want to be apologized to for a student having a disability, just learning to speak English, or who have been sent by their teacher because they continuously fail assignments they never connected to or understood in the first place. I am done hearing apologies from my peers about what they think are nuisances but are really just the results of a structure that was never built to help them learn; we are the ones who perpetuate it to be so. We must reframe and rebuild our educational complex, and the clarity a writing center offers is the best place to start.