On Saturday, June 6th, I sat alongside high school students to take the SAT at George Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. I knew what to expect. I’d taken the test back in 2009 in South Florida when I was beginning my own college application process.
I could never have imagined how different my experience would be this time. My SAT Testing center, located in a poor area of Los Angeles, had HUGE flaws that resulted in extremely unfair testing conditions for the students. When I shared these experiences with my co-workers, they were flabbergasted. But others shared experiences that were just as deplorable.
I wish I were joking. I wish this were satire.
But this isn't Saturday Night Live, and there were serious problems that ruined the experience for the other test-takers, many of whom were taking it for the first time and using vouchers. This is undoubtedly happening across the country and crippling the scores and futures of thousands of students.
Unfortunately, as in my experience, these problems may be especially prevalent in lower income areas where students aren't as well prepared for how the test SHOULD go, and incompetent proctors may be overlooked.
Read this and make sure this doesn't happen to you.
I'll address the five main issues that occurred:
- Shortened section times
- Communicating the wrong instructions
- Intolerable noise
- Poor proctoring leading to opportunities for cheating
- Break time waived
I'm reporting 100% fact from my own experience. I'm not a dramatic person, and I wish these things hadn't happened.
At the end, I'll address why these issues matter, what you as a test taker should learn from my experience, and what the College Board should learn from my experience.
Shortened Section Time Issues
While many students are angry over the 20/25-minute discrepancy on section 8/9 of the test, this is not the timing issue I am referring to. To be honest, no one at my testing center seemed to notice. There were too many other issues.
We only received 20 minutes for the essay portion, instead of 25 minutes - a full 20% less than the allotted time.
Our proctor incorrectly wrote that we started at 8:45 when we actually started at 8:50, according to my watch and the clock on the wall. I didn’t say anything at the time because I assumed he was timing off his own watch that was perhaps 5 minutes behind. I assumed we would be stopped at 9:15 according to my watch, but we were stopped at 9:10.
How many clocks does it take to tell the time?
I didn't say anything, and I regret it. I was able to finish my own essay, but I could have potentially helped the students around me. I didn't say anything at the time because I second-guessed myself. Was I wrong? Was the section only 20 minutes long? I re-read the instructions after the test was over and realized that we were supposed to have 25 minutes for the essay.
Also, in some ways, I felt helpless. I only had 1 proctor in my room, and he was the one making the mistakes. Would he listen to me? Who could I talk to other than him? I should have sought help from the other proctors especially because the timing issues continued.
On a few sections without a break before them, we were short a minute per section.
For those sections, our proctor said the section began at the same time the other ended. When in fact, he read directions in between, so the new section began about a minute after the other ended. With only 10-25 minutes per section, this minute could have been crucial to students.
I made a mistake by not speaking up, but you shouldn't. If this happens to you, you MUST speak up.
While this issue may have had the most direct impact on our scores, the others are just as worrisome.
100% Incorrect Instruction Issues
On top of the timing issues, there were issues with the instructions. At the beginning of the test when reading the directions, the proctor misspoke and said you could not write in your test booklet. What I think he meant was that you can’t ONLY write your answers in the test booklet, as you need to fill out the scantron to have your test scored.
A student was confused and asked if she could write in the booklet. He said no. This is absolutely, 100% false. You're supposed to mark up the reading passages and do your math figuring directly in the test booklet.
I spoke up. I said, “Yes, you can write in the booklet, but you need to put your final answers on the scantron.” The proctor said he wasn’t sure. Finally, another student spoke up and said that she read on the back of her test booklet that you can write in it. The student who originally asked the question looked unsure because the proctor still said he wasn’t sure.
This is unacceptable. Imagine how hard it is to do math without writing out work or use process of elimination when you can’t physically cross out answer choices. If this happened at my site, you could imagine how many instruction issues occur throughout the country.
People who have studied the test thoroughly know this instruction is wrong. But people who haven't taken the test and aren't prepared would have no idea. This would cripple their score.
Another PrepScholar writer took the test at a different testing center in Los Angeles this weekend, and her proctor kept skipping over instructions or telling "jokes" like "the test will last 23 hours." Her proctor really scared some students with that one. Additionally, her proctor missed several 5-minute warnings.
So, it's very important to bring your own watch to self-time. Some issues are out of your control:
Unbearable, Concentration-Breaking Noise Issues
During my test, there were noise issues CAUSED by the proctor as well as outside noise issues. After starting the test, our proctor promptly popped in ear buds and began listening to music. This is wrong on a number of levels. We could hear the music clearly through his headphones, and finally, about 10 minutes into the essay, one student had the courage to ask him to lower the volume. To his credit, our proctor apologized profusely and lowered the volume - but he should not have been listening in the first place.
At some point in the middle of the test, our proctor opened the window to our classroom (big mistake). During one section, we heard young children screaming in the hallway for a few minutes (why were they at a high school on a Saturday? who knows!). Our proctor did ask them to stop, but it was still a disturbance, and the window should have been closed.
During a later section, there was a very loud ice cream truck playing “it’s a small world” on loop. I asked the proctor about it, but he just told me it was an ice cream truck and did nothing. It clearly was parked in the school parking lot or something because it continued to play “it’s a small world” audibly and loudly for about 15-20 minutes. This noise was incredibly distracting. I was trying to power through a CR passage and block it out. Again, the proctor did not close the window. He did not try to get another faculty member to investigate the noise. He just let it continue.
I know noise issues are a common problem. Another PrepScholar writer took the test in Northern California this weekend, and her proctor was watching a movie on their iPad, which accidentally switched to full volume during a section. She said her proctor promptly turned it off. However, no proctors should be allowed to use electronic devices during the test. They need to be alert and focused to catch any possible cheating.
Creating Opportunities for Cheating Issues
During my test, there was a definite possibility of cheating. I am not saying that anyone cheated. I did not specifically see anyone cheating. However, I know it would have been far more possible to happen compared to normal testing centers.
At the beginning of the test, when the proctor was listening to his music while at his desk, it would have been easy to whisper to the students around you to discuss the essay.
Don't do it!
During one break, the proctor stood outside the classroom by the door, leaving all of the students who decided to stay in the room alone at their desks with their test booklet and answer key. It would have been easy to go back and review your work or answer problems you couldn’t get to.
Additionally, the proctor only walked up and down the aisles at most 3 times during the entire test. He did not check calculators. We could easily have had unapproved programs with vocabulary words or something else.
While I genuinely do not think cheating occurred in my classroom, my proctor definitely opened himself up to possible cheating. My proctor did not seem to care about much other than getting out of the test as quickly as possible, which leads me to my next point.
Waiving Important Breaks Issues
Another huge issue was that after our 4th section break, our proctor put it to a vote as to whether we would only break between the 7th and 8th section or whether we’d take 2 breaks. No. This test is NOT a democracy.
The College Board requires three 5-minute breaks and doesn’t let the students decide. We voted to take only one break. My proctor was elated as he was “trying to get to a Dodger’s game.”
I didn’t need another break; however, I’m sure if I were a student who wanted the additional break to reset, I would have been too nervous to speak up and conflict the group opinion. Students should not have been placed in that awkward situation.
Why Does This Matter? Social Inequality. The College Board Is Failing Its Students.
All of these problems created an incredibly unfair testing environment. I definitely think my score may have been impacted. I barely finished the Critical Reading section while "it's a small world" was playing on loop. All of the issues made it very difficult to concentrate. Additionally, the essay, for which we received 20% less time than normal, counts for 30% of our Writing score. An incomplete essay or poorly written essay could easily drop your score 100-200 points on the Writing section.
If this happened at my testing center, which I randomly chose from the centers available in the Los Angeles reason, irregularity must be incredibly prevalent, and that is unbelievably sad. As I mentioned, two other PrepScholar writers also had unforgivably bad experiences at their test sites. Testing center regulation should be of the utmost importance to the College Board, especially as I believe this issue may impact those at the lowest socioeconomic levels more.
I took my test at George Washington Preparatory High School in the Westmont neighborhood in South Los Angeles. According to an article from the LA Times, the average household income in Westmont is $31,572. It ranks 242nd out of the 265 ranked neighborhoods by household income in Los Angeles, meaning it's the 13th poorest neighborhood in all of Los Angeles, in the bottom 10 percentile.
The College Board already knows from their testing data that their SAT tests unfairly disadvantage those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the College Board does not take into account the unfair testing conditions that may be contributing to these students' lower scores as well.
I know that the playing fields are incredibly uneven when it comes to SAT testing centers. My original SAT Testing Center, William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, stuck to the rules. The proctors knew the instructions and were able to answer any of our questions. There were no noise disturbances, and the timing was precise. The proctors circulated throughout the test, ensuring that there was no cheating.
I don't know what it takes to become a proctor in South Los Angeles. Clearly, the proctors weren't instructed well, and the College Board doesn't care enough to maintain quality evenly throughout the country.
If I were to guess, the College Board takes extra care when it knows students are hyper-vigilant and ready to pounce on a single screwup. In wealthy areas of metropolises like New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, students would complain incessantly. And the College Board can't risk another scandal. So it pays attention to those areas and makes sure they stay quiet.
But where students are unprepared, don't know their rights, and aren't as motivated to report problems, the College Board gets away with unforgivable behavior like this. The SAT can account for a huge part of whether a student can get into her dream college or not. These conditions severely disadvantage the people the College Board is supposed to be trying to help.
But not all hope is lost. While the College Board may not be doing anything to level the playing field, you as the test taker can take certain steps to help yourself get the fairest testing conditions possible.
What a Test Taker Should Learn From My Experience:
- Try to go into the SAT as knowledgeable as possible about the test.
- Know the amount of timing you are allowed per section.
- Read the instructions at home.
- You should be able to read them off of any free SAT practice test.
- If you have any questions about these directions, email or call the College Board in advance of your test date, so you know the answer from the authority.
- Ask your older friends where they took their SAT.
- Ask them if there were any issues.
- Was the timing correct?
- Was there distracting noise?
- Ask them if there were any issues.
- Bring your own watch to time yourself.
- If you notice a timing issue, raise your hand and ask/tell your proctor about it.
- For noise issues, unfortunately, the College Board doesn’t allow you to take the test with ear plugs (a policy I think they should change).
- You need to ask your proctor to close all windows.
- Ask your proctor to tell whoever is outside to quiet down or go elsewhere.
- If your proctor is unable to answer any questions you have about the instructions, ask your proctor to go ask someone else.
- Demand to speak to someone else or have your proctor call the College Board.
- If you have other issues with your proctor as far as allowing possible cheating or trying to cut out break or anything else, go find another proctor during your break!
- Tell the other proctor what is happening.
- If you feel your issues were not addressed at the testing center, call the College Board; here is their phone number.
- I did!
- The College Board takes these matters seriously as they pride themselves on standardization.
What the College Board Should Learn From My Experience:
With all of these issues, I hope the College Board will consider offering free re-tests to every other student at George Washington Prep High School.
I also feel this reveals a bigger issue that the College Board needs to address: proctor training. I think all proctors should undergo a required training session before they act as a proctor for any SAT test. At these training sessions, the proctors should be taught the instructions and rules of the test. They should be taught the exact timing procedure including breaks, and they should be forced to practice it. Also, they should be told that they are never allowed to use electronic devices during the test. Additionally, they should be taught how to watch for cheating by checking calculators, walking up and down the aisles, etc. Proctors need to know their own dos and don'ts.
While I believe my proctor could have done better, I still think the College Board is to blame for the lack of standardized procedures at test centers. Why has the situation gotten so bad? I am not sure. Perhaps the College Board needs to send observers to every school site to ensure fair testing conditions are being met?
I also think that all SAT test takers should receive a test taker’s rights guide from the College Board so that they know what is fair or unfair. These students I took the test with were mainly first time, voucher-using students, who had no idea what to expect.
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.