Hosting SATs creates home court advantage

By Austin Block

Hundreds of students converged at the Upper School to take more than 1,000 hours of standardized tests on Saturday. Nine times per year, the campus is converted into a testing center, with Harvard-Westlake faculty and occasionally their immediate families serving as proctors for the ACT and SAT.

Approximately 350 students attend each testing weekend, and the majority of them are Harvard-Westlake students. The next leading feeders are Buckley, Campbell Hall, North Hollywood High School, Milken and Oakwood.

Though the College Board and the ACT pay faculty proctors, the the school also supplements the amount to encourage faculty to participate.

As a result, in addition to any costs the school incurs from hosting the test, Harvard-Westlake ends up paying to test students from other schools.

Two years ago, Upper School Technology Center Director Chris Gragg, who is in charge of standardized testing, calculated that it cost the school $5500 to test students from the top nine feeder schools. The school also has to pay its maintenance crew to set up tables, energy bills, parking personnel, and the security team for these Saturday mornings.

Though the school has no financial incentive for hosting standardized tests, it remains a testing facility because the administration believes that on campus testing makes students comfortable and helps them perform better.

Head of the Upper School Harry Salamandra said that hosting the SAT on campus is just convenient for students, especially since the number of SAT testing sites has decreased in recent years.

“I don’t know how to quantify any major benefits to our students,” Gragg said. “I just know that our students do like to take it here and try to sign up here because it’s a familiar place, you’re with familiar people, generally the proctor and the reader in the room is somebody you may have had in class or somebody you have at least seen around and you’re taking it where at least half of them are schoolmates.”

In all, Gragg said, “I definitely believe it’s a good thing to do for our students and I do believe it benefits them, helps them to be relaxed and therefore get better scores.”

“I think especially for some kids who get nervous it is nicer to have it at your own school,” Upper School Librarian Shannon Acedo said. “I know my kids had to take it at another place. They didn’t like it.”

Chelsea Edwards ’11 said her experience was distinctly better at the Upper School.

“I knew the area and the environment and it was a lot easier to go to the test,” said Edwards, who took the SAT I both at Harvard-Westlake and at Redondo Union High School, “I felt more comfortable.”

“When I took it at the other school I didn’t know where I was taking it, [it was] hard to find,” she said.

Edwards said she believes the more comfortable environment positively impacted her performance and said she thinks it is important that the school continue hosting the test.

The school has been an SAT testing site for over 25 years, but it only began hosting the ACT last year in response to the growth in popularity of the ACT among students.

Until just a few years ago, the ACT had only a small presence on campus. It was traditionally the standardized exam for students in the Midwest, whereas the SAT was most common on the coasts.

In 2005, when the SAT added its writing section, the ACT saw an opportunity to expand.

“It [the ACT] was always around but just a little bit, but after [2005] when they made [the SAT] a writing, math, and critical reading [test], the ACT saw its time and they began a lot of Public Relations, and they began a lot of promotions to high schools about the value of the ACT and we started offering the PLAN,” Upper School Dean Vanna Cairns said.

The school first offered the PLAN on campus to the class of 2011 during the 2008-2009 school year.

“We had more and more students every year from 2006 doing the ACT and then we thought, well wait a minute, we like the ACT too and for some kids it’s really good, so we should probably promote it as much. It won’t be looked at as good as the SAT to the community unless we give it as much value and we make everybody take the [PLAN].”

In the first two years, the PLAN wasn’t mandatory for students, but this year it was made mandatory.

The school hosted its first ACT in June and its second in September. For now, the school will host the ACT twice a year and the SAT seven times.

“Last June was the first [ACT on campus],” Cairns said. “We thought, well wait a minute, we’re trying to promote this thing, but we’re not saying it loud enough, our behavior doesn’t match what we’re saying so we said, well we should be an ACT site, so now we are for just September and June.”

Gragg said there are a few other benefits to hosting tests on campus.

“It’s a really nice way for middle school and upper school teachers to get together and get to know each other because there aren’t that many opportunities during the year,” he said. “This is a good way for the students to see teachers [from the Middle School].”