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Oakland's Canceled SAT Highlights California's Problem With Digital Exams

Since the SAT went fully digital in March, California has seen demand exceed capacity for SAT weekend administrations because of a shortage of high schools and other institutions willing to serve as weekend test centers.

computer mouse next to a bubble sheet for a standardized test
(TNS) — Wi-Fi troubles led to the cancellation of a planned SAT exam for roughly 1,400 students in Oakland, a debacle that stretched on for hours Saturday and shed light on broader inequities in the city.

The incident hits home in a region where a surprising lack of available SAT testing sites has forced students to commute long distances from their home cities. Students affected in Saturday’s Wi-FI breakdown now await a rescheduled date — and a full refund.

The canceled test was supposed to be administered at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland — a location that, in most cases, would be unusual for the standardized test used by more than 4,000 U.S. universities and colleges to help evaluate student admission applications, according to College Board International, the private nonprofit that administers the SAT.

But the city’s school district stopped using campuses as testing sites in the pandemic, and now rely on alternative sites like the Marriott.

This testing-site squeeze is not unique to Oakland; College Board reported that there are now fewer than half as many SAT testing sites in California as there were pre-pandemic.

“We deeply apologize to all affected students,” Holly Stepp, a representative for College Board said about the cancelled Oakland test in an email.

The SAT went fully digital in March, becoming the latest education staple to fully rely on strong Wi-Fi networks.

Stepp said similar problems haven’t played out at testing sites in other states since the digital rollout, and that “California is a unique case.”

“Student demand has exceeded capacity for SAT weekend administrations in California’s Bay Area because of a shortage of high schools and other institutions willing to serve as SAT Weekend test centers,” she said in the email.

That demand remains high might come as a surprise to some Californians. In 2022, the CSU and UC systems stopped requiring aspiring students to take the test.

But quietly, other universities have reinstated SAT requirements just a few years after joining the national wave to de-emphasize the test’s importance. In April, Harvard and Caltech resumed requiring either SAT or ACT scores for applications.

“We were getting away from corporate, big-box standardized testing,” said Jorge Lerma, an Oakland school board director. “We were going to make education a personalized experience. Now, all of a sudden, what we see creeping back in is a reliance on these external, impersonal assessment devices.”

The cancellation at the Marriott strikes local education advocates as concerning. But even more pressing is a larger fight playing out at the state level over the future of broadband access.

Last year, state technology officials removed urban areas like East Oakland and South Central Los Angeles from a funding map for broadband Internet expansion, relying on data provided by Internet-service providers expected to build out the fiber infrastructure.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission has acknowledged the data is flawed. Speed tests conducted locally, meanwhile, contest the notion that East Oakland enjoys smoother Internet connection than wealthier suburbs, such as Walnut Creek, which remain on the funding map.

Separately, the commission is still reviewing objections by Comcast and AT&T to $14 million in broadband expansion funding in East Oakland, where students struggle to maintain a high-speed home Internet connection.

“Things are going in only one way,” said Patrick Messac, a former Oakland teacher who heads the digital equity nonprofit #OaklandUndivided. “Education services are moving online. We feel a tremendous sense of urgency to ensure all students have digital access.”

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.