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Put Down Your No. 2 Pencils. But Not Your Face Mask.

Emma Goldberg | Sep 27 2020

Many of the teenagers pouring into the halls of Sleepy Hollow High School on Saturday morning, some still wearing their pajamas, hadn’t been inside of a classroom in months, and their lack of experience with social-distancing rules showed.

“Do you know what six feet looks like?” asked a scowling hall monitor, extending her arms to demonstrate the appropriate distance. She added, “This is how I have to do it with my third graders.”

I dutifully complied, spreading my arms wide alongside hundreds of nervous teenagers, all of us waiting to get into a classroom in suburban Westchester County for a rite of passage that has driven the anxiety levels of many high school seniors to new heights during the pandemic.

“Congratulations on taking the SAT,” a no-nonsense proctor, who later confirmed my suspicions that he was former military, said as I took a seat in an American history classroom with 10 other people, the desks spaced to provide at least six feet between us.

Four years out of college and a bit rusty on my test prep, finding myself at a high school taking the SAT was still unnerving enough to summon up old anxieties — when an editor gave me this assignment, I reflexively dug out my Princeton Review study guides.

Still, I got with the program. We followed the proctor’s instructions and cleared our desktops of any contraband items, including phones, wallets, and loose paper, leaving only the necessities: No. 2 pencils, calculators and — new this year — hand sanitizer.

“Normally, you’d have this foreboding sense that comes from taking a test in a room with 100 other students,” said Nikola Kasarskis, 17, from nearby Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “Now, instead, you have this foreboding sense of taking the test in a room with someone who might have a deadly virus. I don’t know what’s worse.”

The SAT is taken by some two million high school students every year as part of the college application maze. But this year, just finding the opportunity to sit for the three-plus-hour exam, with its math and verbal sections and optional essay, has been its own test for many students.

Spring exam dates were canceled because of the pandemic, often with little notice, and the College Board, which produces the SAT, abandoned plans for an online, at-home option. When the board added a September test date for the first time in decades, more than 334,000 students registered to take it on Saturday.

But again, many were thwarted; four out of 10 testing centers, mostly in the Northeast and California, remained closed on Saturday, a decision that the College Board said is made by local administrators, based on conditions in their communities. (The rival ACT has faced similar disruptions; nearly a third of its centers were closed for the Sept. 19 testing date.)

To try to avoid that risk, some determined test takers traveled many miles from home. Ava Pallotta, 16, a high school senior in New Rochelle, N.Y., had registered for the March and June test dates, but both were canceled. So for this weekend, she picked a spot in Albany, about two hours away, and drove there Friday night to sleep at her grandmother’s place.

“I can’t give myself a break,” said Ava, “because I’ve been so concerned about this deadline that keeps getting pushed back.”

Although testing centers in New York City and other major metro areas are often packed, those in suburban and rural areas generally have spots available, a split that exacerbates the inequities inherent in admissions testing. The College Board said less than 10 percent of its testing sites across the country were full on Saturday.

That’s how I wound up at Sleepy Hollow High School, which drew students from New York City and across its suburbs, along with locals. (I didn’t register for the test until the last possible day, and did so at a site far from my home in Brooklyn that still had vacancies, to avoid taking a spot from a student that wanted it.)

Others have gone much farther. Christopher Rim, a college admissions consultant, said some of the students that he works with from the New York area flew to test sites in Arizona, Montana and Florida this weekend, but some still had their exams canceled. The student who flew to Arizona learned about it on Saturday, when she arrived at the testing site, he said.

The College Board said it does its best to inform students of closures in advance, but some decisions are made at the last minute.

“I fully understand the emotions students and families are feeling,” said Priscilla Rodriguez, the College Board’s vice president of college readiness assessments. “There’s the normal stress of applying to college. Imagine doing it this year with Covid.”

Is all of this anxiety and effort even necessary? Maybe not. Because of the pandemic, most colleges and universities have dropped the requirement for this year’s applicants to submit test scores. Many were abandoning admissions tests even before the virus, because of concerns that they are unfair to poor, Black and Hispanic students.

Still, many high school seniors, along with their parents and advisers, can’t bring themselves to accept that the SAT may no longer be vital to their college dreams.

“It’s hard for me to trust that two people’s applications will be weighed the same if one of them has a test score and the other doesn’t,” said Myriam Joseph-Schilz, 17, a high school senior from Bethesda, Md.

No matter when and where you take it, some elements of the SAT are timeless: the heart-sinking feeling of hearing “pencils down” when you’re halfway through a reading section, or the sensation that a math problem is reducing your brain to eraser dust.

But other test-taking travails are unique to the pandemic era, including the furtive move to lift your mask to sneak a sip of water. Stress tics like nail-biting and pencil-chewing are out of the question. So are snacks, for the most part.

And then there’s the strange sensation of sitting with other humans after months of remote learning (or in my case, staff meetings) on Zoom. Some students in Sleepy Hollow are going to school a couple of days a week, but those who made the trek from the city haven’t been inside a classroom since spring.

“I bumped into a couple of my classmates, and they barely recognized me,” said Harrison Du, 17, of Mamaroneck, NY., who is taking back-to-back SATs this week and next in Rye, N.Y.

The first weekend in October is a traditional SAT testing date, and again, more than 300,000 students are registered next Saturday.

“Five minutes left,” the proctor in my classroom announced. I looked down and realized with a panicked gulp that I had mistakenly skipped a question and filled out the wrong bubbles. Unlike the seniors around me, some of whom have been studying for this for more than a year, I was out of testing shape.

When we heard the final “pencils down,” everyone poured into the hallways, crowding them again, as students wiped off their glasses, fogged up by masks, and briefly lowered face coverings to wolf down granola bars.

Proud parents greeted their children with hugs in the parking lot, brandishing doughnuts and Clorox wipes. In normal times, families might have gone out to celebrate, but on this Saturday, they were mostly just headed home.


New York Times

Originally published in the The New York Times on Sep 27, 2020.

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