| | By Julia Kane
A quick Google search for "SAT tutors in Oakland, CA," results in an abundance of advertisements. Varsity Tutors promises "personally-tailored SAT lessons from exceptional Oakland tutors in a one-on-one setting starting at $63.00 per hour." StudyPoint boasts of "Price Options Below $99/hour for One-to-One," and guarantees a score increase of at least 220 points if you choose to work with one of its most experienced tutors. If you want to "leave nothing to chance in your preparation," Veritas Prep offers a comprehensive 48-hour tutoring package for "$7,400 or $2,483/month." Preparing students for the SAT, the predominant standardized test used by college admissions boards, is a lucrative business. For the 74 percent of Oakland Unified School District students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, these expensive, individualized tutoring sessions are simply not an option.
David Tran is a high school senior at Oakland Military Institute, a public charter school in West Oakland. He is a first-generation Vietnamese American, he has a weighted GPA of 4.3, and he is the captain of his high school's cross-country and track teams. When asked about his parents' involvement in his preparation for the SAT, he raised his eyebrows. "I don't think they know what the SAT is," he said.
David will be the first in his immediate family to attend college, and like many first-generation, low-income students, he had to find his own way through the standardized testing and admissions. Unlike many students with similar backgrounds, he scored well above the national average on the SAT and was recently accepted to his first-choice school, the United States Coast Guard Academy.
David is a happy anomaly in a public school district that is not adequately preparing students for life after high school. According to data released by the California Department of Education, 71 percent of OUSD seniors took the SAT during the past school year. Of that group, only 50 percent met the college and career-ready benchmark score for evidence-based reading and writing, and only 31 percent met the benchmark score for mathematics.
Colleges use SAT scores as a discerning factor during admissions. A student's standardized test performance often determines whether his or her application warrants more than a passing glance from an admissions committee. The SAT is a coachable test. There are proven, immediately available resources that high school students can use starting right now to better their standardized test scores.
David took the SAT three times, improving his score by 130 points. He went from an 1150 to a 1280, where the maximum possible score is 1600. "I knew what I wanted," he explained. "I wanted to go to a service academy. So I looked up the average SAT score and what I needed to have in order to be competitive." In the months leading up to his final test date, David reached out to his math teacher for extra help, and together they used a free, online program called Khan Academy to study during school lunch periods.
"Test prep solutions can be expensive, and it can be hard for students who either don't have access or don't have the means to pay to practice to the same extent that their peers are able to," said Catherine Wang, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships for Khan Academy. To close that opportunity gap, Khan Academy, a Mountain View nonprofit, began offering free, online Official SAT Practice in June 2015.
Khan Academy partners with College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, to ensure that its content correlates with the material students can expect to see on the test. When a student first logs in to Khan Academy, he or she can link his or her results from previous College Board tests, or the student can take a series of diagnostic quizzes. The website then creates an individualized study plan that is focused on areas where the student needs improvement and omits topics the student has already mastered.
"We embarked on this journey with College Board with the idea, 'How do we offer free, world-class, online practice materials for all students?' so that all students have equal access and can be on the same playing field," said Wang.
Khan Academy's use of technology to create educational resources that are free to everyone has been tremendously successful. On average, students who spent 20 hours studying on Khan Academy saw a 115 point increase between their Preliminary SAT and SAT scores — a significant bump that was consistent across gender, race, ethnicity, family income, and parental education level.
However, simply having access to a resource like Khan Academy does not guarantee that students will use it. Although parents of first-generation, low-income students value higher education and want the best for their children, some families have limited familiarity with standardized testing and college applications. Without a teacher, coach, mentor, or someone else who understands the importance of the SAT, many of these students will not perform to the best of their abilities.
Even David, an exceptionally self-motivated and driven student, benefited from pressure applied by his high school distance running coach. After taking the test for a second time, he told his coach that he did not want to take the test again. "But Coach was like, 'You're taking it again,' so I was like, 'I guess I'm taking it again!'" said David with a smile and a shrug. He ended up improving his math score by 90 points on that last try.
California is grappling with how much emphasis public high schools and universities should place on the SAT. In September, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed school districts to replace the state's 11th-grade standardized test, known as the Smarter Balanced, with the SAT. He instead suggested that California's public universities use the Smarter Balanced tests as a factor in admissions decisions. On April 2, Assembly member Kevin McCarty introduced a bill that would prompt the University of California and California State University systems to study whether a student's standardized test scores are really a useful factor in admissions decisions.
Regardless of whether California's public universities phase out standardized test score submission requirements, the SAT will remain a determining factor in college admissions decisions for other states and private institutions. The fact that youth from Oakland schools are underperforming on this critical standardized test remains a cause for concern. David summed it up: "There are kids here that have a lot of potential; they just don't have the support or the right motivation to use their potential." But when provided with the right resources, they can improve their SAT scores and compete for admission to their dream colleges.
David Tran raised his SAT score significantly with free help from Khan Academy. Photo courtesy David Tran.