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‘It’s just a test’: Philly parents preach calm at first SAT since college admissions scandal

Outside an SAT testing center, parents tried to keep the day in perspective and keep undue pressure off their kids.The college admissions scandal hasn't changed their perspective, they said. “If a couple rich parents throw some money at colleges," said one parent, "it doesn’t really surprise me."

Students leave John W. Hallahan Girls' High School in Philadelphia after taking the SAT test Saturday May 4, 2019.
Students leave John W. Hallahan Girls' High School in Philadelphia after taking the SAT test Saturday May 4, 2019.Read moreAvi Steinhardt / For the Inquirer

As city streets bustled around her, Renee Lee stood on the sidewalk, hands shoved into the pockets of an oversize La Salle College High School sweatshirt, waiting for her son to finish the SAT.

On a stressful day for many students and parents, Lee was calm, unfazed by the competitive college admissions process or the cheating and bribery scandal that captured national attention since her son, La Salle junior Tyler Wood, last took the test.

“I think the whole playing field isn’t level," Lee, of Germantown, said with a shrug Saturday. “If a couple rich parents throw some money at colleges, it doesn’t really surprise me."

A few minutes later, Wood walked out of the testing center at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, breathing a sigh of relief. The test went well, he said, but he’ll probably take it again — for the fourth and final time.

As for the allegations of cheating in college admissions, the 16-year-old said: “It was more pointing out the obvious, so it doesn’t really change my perspective.”

Saturday marked the first time since the scandal rocked academia in March that hundreds of thousands of students across the country woke up early, sharpened their No. 2 pencils, and crammed into classrooms to take the SAT. Of last year’s high school graduates, more than two million had taken the test nationally, marking the largest number of students in a single class to ever sit for the exam.

Most colleges still require applicants to take the SAT, a multiple-choice exam administered several times a year by the College Board, or the ACT, its faster-paced counterpart. While the SAT or ACT is only one part of a student’s application, a poor score can make it more difficult for students to get into elite universities. But the admissions scandal has renewed debate about the fairness of standardized tests and whether more colleges should join the hundreds that no longer require an SAT or ACT score for admission.

In “Operation Varsity Blues," the largest admissions bribery case in U.S. history, high-powered people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, paid top dollar ($500,000 in Loughlin’s case, authorities say) to get their children into elite schools. Last month, a former private-school administrator pleaded guilty to cheating on more than 25 SAT tests, admitting to taking exams for some students and correcting the answers for others in exchange for more than $200,000.

At dozens of test centers in Philadelphia and its suburbs Saturday, teens worked to get into college the honest way, spending more than three hours toiling over the SAT.

Outside Hallahan’s testing center on 19th and Wood Streets near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, parents like Lee tried to keep the day in perspective, and keep undue pressure off their kids.

When Tim Scally, of Roxborough, pulled up to the school, his daughter Grace said goodbye to her friends and hopped into the passenger seat of his SUV, saying the test had gone “all right."

For the last week, the Hallahan junior said, she had prepared with Khan Academy’s free online courses, nothing too time-consuming or expensive.

“As parents, we try not to stress her out over it,” Scally said. “There’s already anxiety for them. We just want her to do well.”

The college admissions scandal didn’t change that parenting approach at all. Since his own college days, he said, he’s had a feeling the admissions process wasn’t fair for every applicant.

“That’s nothing new," he said. “You kind of always know that there’s favoritism and nepotism and all that.”

“We pretty much told her: That’s the way the world works," he added.

For years, the standardized test has caused anxiety for both test-takers and parents, some of whom shell out thousands of dollars on prep courses for the SAT and the ACT.

Julia Taunay, director of enrollment and operations at Wayne-based Educational Services, said she hadn’t heard much about Operation Varsity Blues from Main Line parents or students seeking to enroll in their test prep services, which include SAT and ACT “summer boot camps” that run about $1,500. Sure, many clients are anxious about how their child will fare in the admissions process, she said, but they don’t seem any more worried due to the scandal.

Outside Hallahan, Deborah Stewart wasn’t worried as she waited for son Brandon, 17, to finish the SAT.

“I know he has to take the test, and we’re not paying for someone to take his test,” she said, monotone and matter-of-fact. “It’s just a test.”