A student stares blankly at a Scantron. As the minute hand on the clock inches closer to the deadline, his heart races faster until it is barely recognizable from the hum of a running washing machine. He tries to swallow his anxiety down but his tongue feels like sandpaper: he is not ready for the SAT. Coming from a low-income family, he cannot afford the fancy prep classes and tutors like other kids. His entire future hangs on a score, his apparent desirability to universities determined by a number. If only he had a tool to turn the tides.

Over the past 150 years, the American education system has obsessed over the “golden standard” of academia: standardized tests. These tests come in many forms such as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, but have come under criticism in recent years for their inherent socioeconomic inequalities. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence software such as ChatGPT and Heimler AI have become a tool for bridging the existing gap.

Studies show that students who receive additional academic help through tutoring or test prep centers score higher on standardized tests than students who do not. “Historically, standardized test results have been kind of divided by socioeconomic class because if you can afford the test prep centers and tutors, you can learn more efficiently,” Darmin Tarasewicz (10) said.

According to an internal data analysis of the SAT with an essay portion by College Board in 2014, “out of 1800 total points, students from families earning more than $200,000 a year averaged a combined score of 1714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year averaged a combined score of 1326.” 

For those who lack the time or money to make this investment, AI tools are an alternative.

“In AP World this year, I used AI — more specifically, Heimler AI. It allowed both myself and other students to get a better understanding of how to structure a free response question on the actual AP test to improve our scores,” Tarasewicz (10) said.

What would have normally cost hundreds of dollars for a test prep course for the AP exam, Tarasewicz got for free. While some use AI software to help with learning how to write a good free response question answer, others use it to generate practice problems to study.

“I asked AI to give me an outline of an example AP Calculus BC, AP Comp Sci or AP Physics test. It just gave me a random set of problems that I would solve and then check the answers,” Erik Shamsedeen (11) said.

Additionally, some students have found a way to use AI to improve their study habits.

“I asked it to create a two-week study plan and I’d follow that study plan along with other resources such as my textbook or notes that I’ve taken to study. It’s really helped me succeed and get an A in a class I had a poor grade in last semester,” Nafis Aboonour (11) said.

AI tools can help with generic studying challenges but can not replace human instruction for those who lack the skills to study alone.

“My little brother, for example, gets tutoring. For some people, having a teacher or tutor helps keep them in check and study better. For those who don’t know how to study by themselves, AI tools are not going to necessarily help them that much,” Shamsedeen said.

Ultimately, AI tools are still under development; they are an imperfect technology. Naturally, AI falls short on theoretical subjects such as physics, a characteristic that comes with lacking the time to truly grow and mature into a complete replacement for human education and teaching.

“ChatGPT is really, really bad at physics. If you ask it to solve a physics problem, it will give you paragraphs of nice sounding stuff, but with answers that don’t make sense,” Eli Aghassi, an AP Physics teacher at TPHS, said.

Going beyond AP exams, the future of AI as a tool for preparing for the SAT or the ACT remains unclear.

“It’s too soon to say how ChatGPT will impact test prep, but from various articles in The Atlantic and The New York Times it seems it’s already rendered teaching English in college very challenging,” Chris Hamilton, the founder and CEO of Hamilton Education, a test prep center, said.

In the meantime, many are probing and pushing the bounds of AI tools. For example, Ritesh Verma, a YouTuber and University of Maryland student, released a video on his channel titled: “ChatGPT For SAT: How To Use ChatGPT To Study For SAT.” In it, he teaches viewers how one could use ChatGPT to study SAT vocabulary and, ironically, find the best free resources for studying the SAT.

Regardless of the countless uses of it today, AI software is still very much in its infancy and its future remains undetermined. For now, test prep centers and tutors remain a monolith for standardized test preparation. But as AI tools continue to grow, so do the options for students to overcome socio-economic hurdles that are inherent to standardized tests like the SAT and AP exams. 

AI tools may grow to be a beacon of hope for some, while a sneaking danger for others. One day, test prep centers may see themselves turn obsolete. At the same time, standardized tests may not be a measurement of wealth, but one of character.
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