The 2020 PSAT – what is going on??

By Michael Ahn ’22, Minseo Kim ’22, Justin Ho ’24

The PSAT, or the “Pre-SAT,” is a standardized test hosted annually by the Collegeboard every fall. Its purpose is to give students a taste of the SAT (hence the name “pre” SAT) and help them understand how prepared they are for the actual SAT. But the PSAT serves another purpose: to provide students with an opportunity to earn academic recognition, awards, and scholarships. For the juniors at Bell who are supposed to take the PSAT this fall, the PSAT is a crucial opportunity to prepare for college applications.

But of course. There’s the lockdown.

As of now, Bells and thousands of students across the U.S. are attending school remotely. This begs the question: “How will the PSAT happen??”

If all goes well, students will take the PSAT on October 14, 2020. But in order for this to happen, requirements from Santa Clara County, Bellarmine, and the College Board will have to be met simultaneously.

First, what does the county demand? Due to the high number of Coronavirus cases in Santa Clara County, students gathering en masse for the PSAT would only be permissible only if the county’s safety alert were to be cleared. Meaning, less than 100 people per 100,000 in residence must be infected for 14 consecutive days, a rate less than half the current infection rate (250 infections per 100,000 people) at the time of this article.

Second, Bellarmine has its own concerns regarding the PSAT: if the safety alert is lifted, Bellarmine will enter the hyflex model (synchronous-asynchronous learning) for the second quarter, starting October 17th. However, to take the PSAT, hundreds of students will have to be on campus simultaneously on October 14th. This raises the question: would it really be safe to gather students en masse three days before officially beginning the Hyflex model? The number of students during testing would far eclipse the expected number of students on campus during the sparse, spread-out classroom experience of the Hyflex model. Thus, if the PSAT were to happen at Bell, the school board will have to take all the necessary health precautions and requirements to ensure the safety of its students.

Finally, requirements and restrictions imposed by the College Board must also be met. Remote testing for the PSAT will not be allowed; all students must take the test in person. The College Board demands other requirements as well. For example, under normal circumstances, students during testing take a short 5-minute break in between sections. During this time, students are allowed to drink water, snacks, stretch, and prepare for the next session. However, since students would be in close proximity during the test, taking their masks off to eat and drink would pose a significant safety issue. By extending the length of the break and allowing students to eat outside the proctoring room, this problem could easily be solved. But regardless, the College Board will not allow students to exit during this break nor will they allow the break to be extended. To put it simply: when proctoring the test, all requirements and demands asked by the College Board will have to be adhered to.

If requirements from all three of these institutions – the County, the school, and the College Board – are not met by the day of the test (October 14), the PSAT at Bell will have to be postponed to the winter. The date of this second testing opportunity has not been decided yet.

But even if Bells get to take the PSAT eventually (and Bells probably will get to do so), countless ethical questions regarding standardized testing and the larger, college-application process loom in the background.

For example, is this system of standardized testing fair and equal to all?

COVID-19 has hit different regions of the world to varying degrees. While things may be calming down in some states, other states may be suffering far more intensely. Meaning, students in relatively ‘safe’ regions will be able to take the PSAT, SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests, while students in relatively ‘dangerous’ regions (such as California) will have less of a chance to do so.

One might ask, ‘Why not just take a plane to a safer state and take the test there, then?’

There are multiple issues with that. First, students of lower-income households would not be able to take a plane so readily. And second, even if a student could hop on a plane to another state, is it really worth the tremendous risk of sitting in a plane for hours and passing through airports? With these issues of equity, can we truly say that these standardized tests are accurate predictors of “scholarly aptitude?”

Regardless, private schools can and will accept SAT scores for applications. This raises the question: does having an SAT score provide unfair advantages to students? Wouldn’t it just be better to eliminate the option for colleges to consider standardized testing at all, similar to how a recent California court decision ruled that the UC system can no longer look at the SATs/ACTs?

Unfortunately, the solution may not be as simple as that, as eliminating standardized testing altogether comes with its own share of twists and issues.

For one, standardized tests offer students opportunities to distinguish themselves during the college application process. For example, the PSATs provide students a chance to obtain recognition, awards, and potentially even scholarships. For students (especially those of lower-income households in need of scholarships and financial assistance), the PSAT is invaluable.

Moreover, without standardized tests, how will colleges judge their applicants? Without standardized test scores, schools would likely place extra significance and attention towards high school GPA, extracurricular activities, and application essays. Needless to say, GPA without test scores cannot fully illustrate a student’s academic competence, as class policies and levels of rigor vary wildly from school to school. And while extracurricular activities and essays provide valuable insight about the holistic aspects of a student’s philosophy and career, they cannot reveal a student’s academic abilities the way GPA and standardized test scores do.

So, what is right? By fully eliminating standardized testing from consideration, equity can be preserved. But doing so would also lead to other, unintended consequences, such as the loss of valuable college-app opportunities for many students. Moreover, is it really okay to nullify the fruits of many students’ hard work and past preparation for standardized tests?

This article alone cannot provide the answer to these larger, ethical questions, because there are both benefits and hazards that come with eliminating all forms of standardized testing. But one thing is clear: the solution to these ethical questions will likely be more complex than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no.’