One student's story: my SAT debacle

Parents, have you ever wondered what actually happens when your child heads into his/her local testing center to take the SAT?  Here is what happened to one student. Photo: albertogp123 (Flickr)

WASHINGTON, August 4, 2011 — Parents, do you ever wonder what will actually happen when your child heads into the local testing center to take the SAT? 

You’ve probably focused on academic preparation and actual performance on the test itself. Who could blame you? The College Board runs a tight and precise ship, with rules, regulations, and recommendations. There can be no surprises in the administration of its flagship test, can there?

Yes, there can. Understanding all the things that might go wrong can help your children prepare, not just academically, but psychologically for this important test.

In my case, it was the logistics that were the debacle, not the test itself. 

Instructions for every student taking the SAT at this particular testing center included arriving at exactly 7:15. When I arrived a minute after the assigned time, there were no volunteers in sight, no check-in locations, and hundreds of students were simply milling about the cafeteria area.

Ten minutes later, a check-in was set up and we formed into four lines to check-in. I was one of the first to line up. Around 7:45, I looked out the window and saw that the line of students waiting to check in extended out the doors and at least halfway down the side of the building. Luckily, a few minutes later, a volunteer directed us to find our  testing rooms.

No pressure, just your college career on the line.

No pressure, just your college career on the line.


About half the students at the center were there for the SAT general test; the rest were taking one or more SAT Subject Tests. I was in the latter category. When I reached my assigned room, I was relieved to see that it was in fact a room for the Subject Tests.

That was until additional students slotted to take the general SAT entered the room, outnumbering those of us there for the Subject Tests. The situation baffled one of our two proctors, who ran off to figure out what he should do, as he only had copies of the Subject Tests.

When the proctor returned, I gathered that instead of separating students taking the regular test from students taking subject tests, volunteers simply assigned all students to a random room. So we sat there, waiting for instructions.

At approximately 8:15, a higher-up called our proctor and instructed him to send Subject Test students back to check-in to receive a correct room assignment. This confused our proctor, who only held copies of the subject tests, not the regular tests. However, we followed instructions and returned to check in. 

At this point, the schedule was only 30 minutes delayed, not the end of the world. At least 500 students returned to check-in to take the subject tests. A volunteer then ordered all 500 of us to line up in alphabetical order. But not only would that undercut the randomized group idea, more importantly, it was simply not feasible.

It took us approximately another half-hour to line up in pseudo-alphabetical order, grouped merely by last initial. During the process, the test center supervisor looked at our disorder and told us to “hurry up,” because we were “wasting her time.” At last, one student lost his temper, and bellowed back, “Well, don’t you think that we’re wasting our time, too?!”

When volunteers finally broke us up into groups by letter, we received the privilege of returning upstairs. We felt tremendous relief, and most of us probably were looking forward to taking the test itself at that point.

Naturally, in the spirit of the day, the proctor told us we couldn’t enter the room until all of us with the last initial S lined up along the wall in perfect alphabetical order. As we attempted to do this, one of two proctors let us into the room one by one and the second proctor went in and out of the room, comparing the number of open desks to the number of students left in the hall. As the student dead last in the alphabetical order, I harbored a serious doubt that with the disorder of the day, there would be enough space for me.

Somehow, our entire group squeaked in with an extra empty desk to boot. But the misery wasn’t over. We had 31 students in our group, and the proctors had 31 test booklets, but one test booklet had a serial number out of sequence from the others. The proctors took a full five minutes to debate whether they could give me this extraneous test booklet. Finally, they decided that yes, I could take the test, despite its serial number of apparent doom.

After the usual mess of reading rules and asking inane questions, we started the test at 9:45, a full two and half hours late. Complications continued to arise. The overseers had forbidden us to use the bathroom from the time we first went up to our rooms, back at 7:45. Several students in my room looked quite uncomfortable as the test progressed.

One desperate student attempted to cancel his scores in the middle of the test so he could use the bathroom, but ended up sitting through the last twenty minutes, almost unable to work. Meanwhile, the proctors ate lunch in front of 31 teenagers who hadn’t eaten since breakfast. 

The workings of the College Board, an entity with vast power over students and their futures, were truly a disaster that day at that testing center. Human error and inefficiency showed their power to derail even the most finely honed machine in one fatal swoop. I exited the test center sometime after 11:00, hours late, wondering why the measurement of knowledge of a subject so grounded as American history had to be wrapped in a game weighted against students.

It doesn’t always turn out that way. But understanding that it can is part of the testing game. Prepare for disaster (and don’t drink too much water before the test), and when it doesn’t happen, you’ll be ahead of the game.


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Arjuna Subramanian

Arjuna Subramanian is an aspiring baseball writer living in the Washington D.C. area.  He started his writing  with his blog Painting The Black on MLBlogs in May of 2009.  He fell in love with the sabermetric movement during the 2008-2009 offseason, and strives to provide balanced articles from both sides of the statistics/scouting divide.  

When not writing, watching/listening to baseball, over-analyzing his Chicago Cubs, staring in disbelief at the writing of Thomas Boswell, or keeping tabs on the latest Milton Bradley blowup, he can usually be found at the DC Fencers Club, where he is a competitive epee fencer.

Contact Arjuna Subramanian


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