Taking the SAT during the COVID Pandemic

An interesting article in the NYT on what it was like to take the SAT during the pandemic

“How did you like taking the SATs?” my editor asked me on the phone in mid-September. “And would you like to take them again?” I laughed, wondering whether there was a single self-respecting person in America who would answer “yes.”

Nevertheless, I soon found myself searching Walgreens for a calculator and pack of No. 2 pencils.

High school life has been upended by the pandemic, and the SATs have been no exception. The College Board, which administers the test, canceled spring exam dates. Many test centers have remained closed this fall because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus, and the ones that are open apply strict social-distancing rules for the students who managed to score a seat. Hoping to fully understand the experience for an article I was writing, I signed up to join them.

I took the SAT nearly a decade ago, and my study regimen was taxing: endless practice questions, hundreds of vocabulary flashcards. (I even researched the optimal mid-test snack — peanut M&Ms, with their protein filling and sugary exterior.) This time, my preparation for the test looked different. Instead of reviewing grammar rules, I studied the history of the exam by reading the journalist Nicholas Lemann’s excellent book “The Big Test.”

While researching, I also learned of changes the College Board has made since I took the exam. The test now focuses less on the esoteric information that tended to demand tutoring. No more clunky, spelling-bee-worthy vocabulary words: “recondite,” “grandiloquent.” The emphasis is instead on the material covered in a high school curriculum. When I found out, I gave a sigh of relief. Maybe I’d be OK after all.

Still, when my alarm went off at 5:15 a.m. this past Saturday, I felt the prick of pre-assessment jitters in my stomach. I had registered to take the exam in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., some 35 miles north of my Brooklyn home, because the site still had vacancies — I signed up on the last possible day to avoid taking a spot from a student who wanted it.

Sleepy Hollow High happened to be an idyllic setting for the test — a red brick building surrounded by a sprawling green lawn and trees turning apricot, like the setting of a teen Netflix drama. “Home of the Horsemen,” read the sign that greeted me. (I hoped my own horror story wouldn’t be as haunting as the Washington Irving tale that gave the town its fame.)

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