The SAT Mess: Last Minute Cancellations
by Susan Adams on forbes.com
Eight months into the pandemic, the College Board, the Manhattan-based nonprofit that owns the SAT, is still struggling to give the college entrance exam and to keep would-be test takers informed. ACT, its Iowa City, Iowa-based competitor, has also canceled multiple test dates, frustrating and angering students and families.
Brooklyn twelfth grader Sasha Cohen, 17, was scheduled to take the SAT October 3, at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a public high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. As of yesterday he says he had gotten no notice of a cancellation and neither had his parents, who had already printed his entrance ticket. But his family checked and Medgar Evers was listed as closed on the College Board’s test center closings page. “My only regret is that I wasted all that time studying,” said Cohen after learning yesterday that he wouldn’t be taking the exam, “and I regret the money we spent on the tutor.” For the last 10 weeks he has been working with a private tutor to improve his score. (In an email, a College Board spokesperson says that all registrants at the Medgar Evers site received an email notifying them the center would be closed and that they would receive a full refund. Cohen says he got no such email.)
Families have struggled to get information in advance of scheduled tests. Cohen’s experience is typical. One teenager flew from Tokyo to Boston to take the test in March only to learn that it had been canceled. Another reported having her SAT canceled five times. She contacted her October 3 test center directly and was told capacity would be limited. But as of this Thursday, College Board hadn’t told her whether she would have a seat this coming Saturday.
Earlier this week, I posted a feature story about the College Board: The Forbes Investigation: How The SAT Failed America.
During my reporting, I gathered some clues about why families have had trouble getting information about the tests. According to three former College Board executives, the organization outsources customer service to a privately held Irvine, California-based company called Alorica. One former College Board staffer says the Alorica reps work in one of three locations—Durant, Oklahoma, Miami Beach or the Philippines. A 2020 Dun & Bradstreet report says Alorica has 92,000 employees.
An Alorica spokeswoman said in an email that the company doesn’t comment on its customers and College Board didn’t respond to a question about Alorica. I phoned College Board’s customer service number today and in 10 minutes a customer service representative answered. When I asked where he was located, he responded, “the Philippines ma’am.” I said, “can you tell me whether you work for Alorica?” His answer: “Yes.” Though I got through quickly, since the spring, families have reported long hold times. After her son’s March SAT was canceled, a California parent says she spent nine hours on hold trying to register him for another location. In an email yesterday she said that her son’s September 26 SAT was canceled on September 25, “and we have no faith that October will happen.” Her son has decided to give up trying to take the test. “There is really no other choice,” she wrote. Another explanation for the confusion: College Board does not administer the tests itself. It gives that job to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a Princeton, New Jersey nonprofit known for owning other large tests like the GREs. According to the College Board’s most recent publicly available tax filing, it paid $350 million to ETS in 2018 to handle test administrations including the SAT.
Test centers report to representatives from ETS rather than directly to the College Board and the information about closures then somehow makes its way onto College Board’s test closure site. In emails today, spokespeople for both the College Board and ETS said that the two organizations contact test centers to ensure they are open.
But Ryan Scheb, a history teacher and SAT coordinator at Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic school in Manhattan that will host the SAT tomorrow, says that he deals only with ETS, either through its website or through an email address set up to communicate with SAT coordinators. He says his deadline for confirming that his test center was open was three weeks ago. No one from ETS has contacted him since to confirm that his school would indeed be open.
He says the school is taking extensive safety precautions. In years past, it has used eight or nine classrooms to host 150 students. This year it’s spacing test takers at least six feet apart in more than a dozen rooms including the cafeteria, which seats 50 students. Before they enter the school, students must fill out a health form that includes a question about whether they have lost their sense of taste or smell and they must wear a mask while inside. “We are doing everything we know how to do to make it perfectly safe,” says Scheb. The school turned two students away on August 29 because of their answers on the forms.
The College Board has said that at least 1.5 million students have missed the test because of cancellations but the total is likely much higher. Its latest press release includes the following statement: “Colleges understand that testing opportunities are limited this year, and most are not requiring a test score for the upcoming admissions cycle.”
As we noted in our admissions guide, more than 1,600 colleges have made submission of tests optional this year. (See FairTest’s site for a complete list.) The advice of a half dozen admissions deans I interviewed: If you haven’t already tested, don’t even try. With the exception of some students who are applying to the Florida state college system, which still requires scores, and those seeking certain scholarships, you will not receive any lesser consideration if you don’t submit a score.