The Big Score: Chicago High School Students Debate College Admission Tests

“A lot of pressure is put on [testing] because you're told that the default for college admissions is going to be your standardized test scores…For a lot of kids, it becomes a barrier for going wherever you want to. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, because I’m pretty sure that the history of standardized test taking would show us that it was created for completely alternative purposes than grading the entire youth population to determine the rest of their lives.”
– Lakshmi Sundaresan, senior, Oak Park and River Forest High School, Chicago, IL

CHICAGO, IL—For students at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), like in so many other schools around the country, the buzz and anxiety surrounding college preparation is intense. OPRF, located just outside of Chicago’s city limits, sends almost 90 percent of its graduates on to college. OPRF’s student population of over 3,100 is rather diverse--60 percent of students are white, 26 percent are African-American, five percent are Latino, and another six percent are multi-ethnic. Across the board, though, OPRF students are familiar with the pressures and preparation involved in standardized testing.

In January 2008, five OPRF students in the midst of the college application process sat down with WKCD to talk about how they judge intelligence, and their experiences with standardized tests.

  • Justin Cain, a senior, hopes to attend the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C
  • Lakshmi Sundaresan, a senior, is a member of the OPRF speech team
  • Eliot Abrams, a senior, hopes to attend University of Chicago in the fall
  • Anahí Gasse, a transfer student from Argentina, plans to attend Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington
  • Hannah Craft, a senior, will attend Taylor University in Indiana next fall.

Click below for excerpts from this WKCD student discussion:

Book Smart Versus Street Smart
The Pressure of Testing
The Achievement Gap
Are the Exams Biased?

Book Smart Versus Street Smart

Eliot: There’s a lot of overlap. If someone really understands books, and just doesn’t memorize them, but comprehends them, that person can be tossed into any situation and be expected to actually figure it out. They don’t have the background of that situation, but if they have spent their entire life studying and examining texts, artifacts or chemicals in a lab, they can go out an examine and understand situations in the real world, too.

Anahí Gasse: You need the books to be able to have a basic understanding, and if you’re interested in it, then obviously you’ll go more into it. But then there’s a different thing of going out and living an experience outside of texts and history, and more of your own personal journey. I think both are necessary in order to have a balanced existence. You have a little bit of your own experiences. You put yourself at risk, but on the other hand, you also have the background knowledge, the things that you’re actually interested in.

Justin: Experience is everything, really. Just because you’re in school and have done all these different things, you’re Magna Cum Laude, all this other hoopla that doesn’t even mean anything, once you’re dead it doesn’t even amount to anything.

I’ve talked to people before who say stuff that they’ve learned from high school on, they don’t remember. Is it impressive to know that Anton Cermak was the mayor of Chicago? Yes. Is it impressive to know that Warren Buffett is the richest man in the world? Yes. But I mean, does it mean anything? No, not really. It doesn’t help you with every day situations.

Anahí: So are you just saying we shouldn’t go to school at all?

Justin: I’m not saying we shouldn’t go to school at all. That’s the part where I’m kind of confused, because if we stop going to school at 8th grade, then what would we do from like eighth grade till 21?

Lakshmi: There has to be some kind of standard to work from. There’s a reason why there’s an education system.

Justin: People are living longer too. If we stopped school at eighth grade and got a part time job, and you learn different things from your part time job through trial and error, but…

Eliot: I know what you’re talking about. They have a school system in Germany that’s kind of set up like that. You stop at junior high, and then you go into trade schools. They have trade schools for besides normal trades that you would consider in America. But you’re talking about trades like computer science and electronics and all that stuff. They really have a great program.

Lakshmi: Yeah, but going to trade school is a very limited education.

Eliot: Well then, the other choice is that they have a trade school, or that they have a college. Instead of going to high schools, kids will go to colleges and universities at a young age.

Lakshmi: [The current education system presents] a pretty accurate way of measuring some kind of intelligence—it measures a knowledge of all subjects. I don’t see how you couldn’t think that that was valuable. Sure, street smarts is important, and yes, having money in the bank is important too, but isn’t there an aesthetic part of education, knowing that there’s something more important?

The Pressure of Testing >>



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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator




See WKCD’s student discussion from Bronx Leadership Academy 2:
Who Says Who’s Smart?

Download a PDF of WKCD’s new book, SAT Bronx: Do You Know What the Bronx Kids Know,
by students at Bronx Leadership Academy 2, teachers Shannon O’Grady and Kristin Ferrales, and Kathleen Cushman.

Order a copy of SAT Bronx.



The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

“Test Bias: The SAT in the College Admission Process,” by Susan Woolen (PDF).

“Who Needs Harvard?” by Gregg Easterbrook, Atlantic Monthly, October 2004.

“The Achievement Gap,” Education Week, September 2004.



Fair Test

Education Trust

The College Admissions Game