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Bay Area High School Students Scramble to Find Seats to Take the SAT and ACT

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Leslie Cruz Urquilla sits outside her high school, KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory. When she took the ACT last December, her dad had to take a day off work to drive her to a testing center three hours away. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Junior Leslie Cruz Urquilla aspires to attend an Ivy League university and has been busy preparing for the SAT this school year. She wants to take the exam in June, but one of her biggest hurdles has nothing to do with test content: She hasn’t found a seat yet.

“It was super stressful. I honestly didn’t want to take it at some point,” said Urquilla, who lives in the city of Richmond and attends KIPP San Francisco College Prep, a charter school. “But I had to remind myself that taking the SAT is a step towards my goals.”

According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, there are fewer than half the number of SAT centers in California this year than there were just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many testing centers never reopened after the pandemic, and some cited decreased demand from students as many colleges, including the University of California system, no longer require standardized tests on applications.

Nationwide, colleges and universities ditched the test requirement for admissions during the pandemic while schools closed their in-person campuses. And many universities were already moving away from the exams over concerns about equity and how students with more resources are more likely to afford private tutoring and take the exam in general.

“The demand has not been as high as it has been in the past,” said Vinh Trinh, who oversees testing at Oakland Unified School District.


Plus, this year, the SAT switched entirely to a digital test, which students must take in person at an official testing center. That created an all-new testing system for schools that were used to the previous paper format.

“It just kind of feels like [getting an SAT seat] is harder than getting Taylor Swift tickets,” said Sophie Linnet, an SAT tutor for students around the Bay Area.

Still, thousands of California students are sitting for these exams to try and stand out in the college admissions process. Recently, some elite universities, like Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale and MIT, have once again begun requiring SAT and ACT scores for students seeking admission.

“In the event that the school I want to go to requires SAT scores, I think it would be a good thing to have,” said Jacob Neidleman, a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco.

He signed up to take the SAT at Lowell in May and June, but he almost didn’t get those seats, which were only recently added, he said.

Jacob Neidleman, 17, a junior at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, decided to take the SAT in case the college requires it of his choice. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

“It was very difficult to get a seat at Lowell. Back in January, I was unable to find a test center within 100 miles of where I lived. We had planned to travel all the way to Roseville, and that was not an ideal situation for us at all,” said Neidleman, who said his family was prepared to incur costs like an overnight hotel stay and gas.

When Cruz Urquilla took the ACT for the first time last December, she had to convince her dad to take a day off from work to drive her to a testing center three hours away at a private boarding school in Monterey and back.

“That commute really added to the stress of studying. And I really wanted a good score because of all of the sacrifices my dad was taking and all of the time it took,” she said. “You don’t want it to go to waste.”

But she didn’t get the score she hoped for, and she said that could have at least partly been due to the challenges of getting up and commuting so early. She retook the test in February and had to commute over an hour then, too.

Linnet, the SAT tutor, said the limited seats have been especially challenging for some of her students who can’t afford to travel long distances or who don’t attend schools that host the exam.

“I’ve worked with a lot of students who have very different financial circumstances that would present some real barriers here to being able to travel this far,” she said.

Those barriers are not lost on students, either.

“The test sites that I commuted to were in rich neighborhoods, and like, I had to go to a private boarding school in order to take it,” Cruz Urquilla said. “It honestly shows the inequality in the education system.”

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Priscilla Rodriguez, senior vice president of College Readiness Assessments at the College Board, said the organization is well aware of the mismatch between supply and demand for testing slots this year.

“We know that this is frustrating for students and families,” Rodriguez said in an email. “We contact closed centers regularly and ask them to reopen, as well as ask existing centers if they are able to add more seats.”

The College Board plans to add over 6,000 seats in the Bay Area for the May and June test dates.

Cruz Urquilla hopes that will give students a better shot if they don’t have the means to travel to take the test.

“I hope in the future that students have more access to these tests so that they could also be stronger candidates for competitive schools,” she said.

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