By Carol Costello and Bob Ruff
What on Earth would motivate six teenagers to spend their summer vacation locked in a tiny, nondescript room with a teacher endlessly going over vocabulary words and math problems that require the use of the Pythagorean Theorem?
(A) Their parents sent them to summer school.
(C) They like studying in the summer.
(D) They’re cramming for the SAT exam.
If you answered (B) and (D), you’d be right.
For decades, taking the SAT has stood as the sine qua non for entry into the vast majority of American colleges and universities. Taking the test continues to strike fear into high school students, especially as the date of their SAT exam approaches.
The teenagers we visited had this to say:
McKenna Baskett, St. Louis, Missouri: “I’m so nervous! ... I’m a really bad test taker and they’re really hard questions, so I just hope I can get through it.”
Pratick Parija, Jersey City, NJ: “The test is long. ... And you have to complete it and think through, so that’s what scares me a little.”
Jason Huang of New York City was philosophical: “You can’t be nervous for everything. That’s just [a] life lesson. You just got to take it, deal with it.”
McKenna, Pratick, and Jason are just a few of the many high school students taking an SAT preparation course from the Princeton Review, one of several companies offering courses throughout the nation. This one costs a little more than $600. But wealthy students, or at least their parents, are coughing up more than $7,000 for intense private tutoring so that their child can get into the just the right college.
Critics of the SAT say that all this angst is pointless. Fairtest, a nonprofit group that says it supports “fair and open testing,” believes that the SAT is biased and doesn’t do a good job of predicting college success.
Fairtest’s Robert Schaeffer: “The SAT is biased against women, against kids whose first language isn’t English, against older students, it’s highly susceptible to coaching, and it’s not really needed to do good college admissions, as more than 820 colleges have shown.”
He’s talking about a growing trend among colleges to stay away from the SAT as a tool in assessing applicants. This year alone eight more colleges decided to make the SAT optional. A majority of colleges still requires the SAT, but the trend is going against test.
Another critic of the SAT is Shawn Toler, principal of the KIPP School in Baltimore for inner city kids. He says that the SAT penalizes minorities because the test itself is stacked against lower income children, who are unable to pay for test preparation programs like the Princeton Review.
Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the SAT program for the College Board says these criticisms of the SAT are pointless. He says that the test is one of several valuable tools in assessing the qualifications of students.
“I always tell parents and students to keep it in perspective,” he says. “The SAT is only one thing they look at. They’re looking at your grades. They look at what else you do: sports, athletics, art. They look at recommendations from teachers.”
Britt Reynolds, the University of Maryland’s director of admissions, gets 28,000 applications a year. He says that the SAT is no more important than any other factor, but that it does give “a little bit of consistency from student to student.”
Schaeffer says that most colleges don’t really believe the SAT is useful in predicting college success, but that admissions departments are so overwhelmed with applications that they’re forced to rely on the standardized tests to manage the volume. Students with low scores and high scores go into separate piles – and that frees up scarce admissions resources to focus on the qualifications of those who score in the middle.
You might think the man who runs the Princeton Review’s SAT preparation courses would extol the virtues of the test. But you’d be wrong.
CNN's Carol Costello asked Ed Carroll, executive director of Princeton’s high school program development, if the SAT shows how smart you are. “The only thing that the SAT is really good at is predicting how well you do on the SAT,” said Carroll. “We don’t pretend that we’re teaching you life skills or improving your academic work. We’re helping you take the SAT.”
Originally posted August 31, 2009.