As a working-class Mexican American student, I disagree with this negative view of the SAT and ACT: I see my SAT scores as a marker of my achievements despite my circumstances and as a gateway to success in America. The test remains useful as a way of identifying high-achieving students who might otherwise be overlooked.
I live with my mother, father and two brothers in a two-bedroom apartment in the southern part of Chula Vista, in San Diego County; it’s a coronavirus hot spot. Both of my parents are essential workers — my mother, a caregiver for the disabled and elderly, and my father, a supervisor at a car distribution company. (Earlier in the summer, an uncle of mine died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)
I am a member of a group that is supposed to object to the SAT because students from middle- and upper-income backgrounds tend to score higher on it. And it’s true that since early childhood, I’ve been acutely aware of my family’s financial hardships. In elementary school, I was terrified that my peers would catch sight of my report card — not because of my grades but because it showed that I lived in an apartment, not a single-family house like most of my classmates. We could barely afford the rent, partly because my mother had cancer and couldn’t work for several years. We stayed afloat thanks to the generosity of other family members.
“Two rooms?” a friend once exclaimed, in sixth grade, after I told him about my family’s living situation. I didn’t know what to say. But afterward I kept the details of my home life private.
In middle school, my eyes lit up whenever my grandfather picked up me and my siblings from school. I loved to see him — but I cringed at his rusted, chipped 1998 Honda Civic.
In the classroom, though, I held my own. I earned good grades and relished knowing that I was defying the usual predictions for people in my situation. I’d leave home hearing my parents argue over debts, but at school, I found solace: Academics provided me with stability so elusive in other aspects of my life.
My mom would often tell me, “Salir adelante” (“Get ahead”). Those words resonated each time I’d order books with my birthday money, each time I’d hesitantly ask in Spanish for my dad to drive me to the local library, each time I’d notice that my eyes were cushioned by purple bags from a lack of sleep after studying.
When the pandemic hit, I struggled to keep up with remote learning without access to high-speed Internet — our service was slow and erratic — or a private space to study. I had to hop from room to room, and sometimes delay work till night, when fewer family members were online. Learning suddenly stopped being fun, and I started to laze around and play video games on my phone.
The guilt was unbearable. But I got back on track: With support from teachers and renewed determination, I finished my junior year with a 4.8 GPA and the highest possible score on four of my five Advanced Placement exams. I’d avoided the trap of academic underachievement that is too often expected of students who look like me. Even during the pandemic, I prevailed — and I wanted to be recognized for it.
In August, the College Board canceled my SAT registration because of pandemic-related complications. I’d been studying for months, with practice scores in the 99th percentile, and I was desperate to take it. Eventually, in late September, I was able to take the test at a site two hours away.
Making the test optional — as UC is permitted to do (for now), and as several of the private schools I’m applying to have done — seems like a reasonable middle ground between abolishing it and requiring it. Applicants with low scores, or those who didn’t take the test at all, won’t be punished by the UC System; they can simply choose not to submit scores. The system’s admissions offices practice a “holistic” review of applicants, taking into consideration a student’s socioeconomic background and other circumstances. But when the SAT is phased out — or banned, earlier, by a court order — students like me might be hurt.
I’ve been able to use free test-preparation programs such as those offered by Khan Academy, and the College Board waived my exam fee. On the other hand, my family’s low income means I don’t have access to private admissions essay editing services, and I’ve never attended expensive summer or international programs that might have looked good on a college application. High SAT scores might make up for those gaps.
Looking back, I can see I’m more fortunate than others. My mother’s cancer is in remission, and we’re no longer dependent on family members (thanks to my father’s stable job). Still, a strong SAT score will serve as a badge to show that I endured hardships — and persevered. I should be allowed to present it.
The critics are right that there is much that’s unfair about America’s educational system and about college admissions in general. But if they don’t acknowledge that some low-income minority students like me benefit from the SAT, they’re missing part of the picture.