High school: Tests and tribulations

KOSOVAR REFUGEES weren't the only hordes scrambling for berths early this month. Early on Saturday, June 5, thousands of local high school students were either chasing off to distant sites or waiting on standby for a chance to run that gauntlet of academic advancement, the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT, a key admissions criterion at many colleges and universities, can be daunting under the best of circumstances. But the students who took it this month had something else to worry about: It wasn't clear whether the Educational Testing Service, which operates the SAT, and the local schools that host it, both caught short by surging demand, would be able to accommodate them. Some Seattle students were told to report at 8am to such distant sites as Everett Community College and Pacific Lutheran University—an hour away, if they had wheels to get there. "My friends are getting sent off to Tacoma and Mill Creek," one Seattle student reported. "Or they're just blowing it off."

Asked about such inconvenient assignments, one helpful staffer at the ETS headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, looked for other local test sites with openings and found just one: "Would Walla Walla be any closer?" The reasons for the crunch were two, she explained: More students wanted to take the SAT at the popular June session (the last of four in the school year). And two Seattle test centers opted not to host the June SAT, overloading the other centers. These happened to be the two Seattle public high schools, Franklin and Rainier Beach, that serve as test sites. They're also the only test sites in South Seattle—with more minority and lower-income kids, who should, perhaps, be encouraged to aspire to college and take the SAT.

This crunch should not have come as a complete surprise. With the 1980s "baby boomlet" approaching college age, prosperity enabling more students to go to college, and globalized competition for good jobs obliging them to go, the SAT is a hot ticket. The ETS estimates that nationwide, sign-ups will climb from 2.3 million in 1998 to 3 million this year. They're surging even faster in Western Washington, says ETS spokesman Kevin Gonzalez: "Seattle had problems accommodating everyone last year."

This year, the testing system seemed to cope fairly well with the crunch, with a little last-minute scrambling. The ETS urged test centers to set out extra desks for unreserved "walk-ins." Rainier Beach High hosted the June test after all, and received overflow from the Eastside. (Franklin, which had already given the SAT three times this school year, felt its students had already been well served.)

"We didn't turn anyone away from any test centers," says Gonzalez. But there's no knowing how many students, unaware they could go standby at the fully booked centers, either didn't make it to the remote sites they were assigned to or "just blew it off." An educational system that burdens students with so much "assessment testing" for its own purposes might want to make it easy for them to take the one test that matters to them.

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