Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Tales Out of School

By Roseana Auten

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  On a brisk and breezy Sunday afternoon, a group of Austin-area high school students are assembled in a windowless room inside the offices of The Princeton Review in Dobie Mall for another whirlwind session of boning up for the SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test. Their teacher is an energetic college student named Meaghan, who is leading them in a vocabulary-building exercise. She selects a word from a list of frequently used vocabulary on the SAT, and gives the students one minute to form a rhyming couplet, draw a cartoon, or develop an acrostic for it. "Okay," Meaghan says, setting her stopwatch, "inveterate. Deep-rooted or habitual. Go." Several moments of nervous pondering are followed by the furious squeak of markers on markerboard, as the kids draw or scribble. They seem to be having fun, and their efforts are clever. "The inveterate nail biter/Couldn't scratch the other fighter," reads one. "They were failing quizzes until we did this," Meaghan says in an aside. "They remember the words better this way." After vocabulary, she whips through a math review -- calculating the area of a triangle, set definitions, and ratios -- in fairly short order, all the while punching up ways to save time finding the answer, and when to watch out for trick questions, and above all, exhorting them to stay prepared for class. "Remember guys, no homework, no guarantee, and you won't be able to do these things on the test," she reminds them.

During a break, two of the students, Lizzy, 17, and Bianca, 16, agree they have "plenty better things to do" than this. It's very time-consuming. They estimate they should (but don't always) devote at least six hours a week to class preparation. They spend seven hours in class every week, plus three hours on Saturday on practice tests. But given the fact that their first SAT scores were lower than they'd hoped, they agreed with their parents that a six-week coaching course might help their next score. Like many students, they worry they won't have what it takes to get into the colleges they want, and think the preparation will give them an edge in the increasingly cutthroat game of college admissions. "This will help me keep my options open," says Bianca.

But the help doesn't come cheaply -- $695 is the price for this class, and private, one-on-one tutoring can run as much as $1,500. The Princeton Review and its closest competitor, Kaplan (both of which have offices in Austin and coach all manner of standardized tests), are the country's two largest test prep companies. They say their financial information is proprietary, but Princeton estimates that American families spend at least $100 million on SAT preparation alone, once all courses, tutoring, and sales of books, tapes, and CD-ROMs are accounted for. Clearly, the stakes are high when it comes to the SAT.

"People need to prepare for the SAT if they're going to take it seriously," says Paul Cohen, a spokesman for The Princeton Review. Seppy Basili, a spokesman for Kaplan, agrees. "That's not to scare kids, but to drive home the point that they shouldn't take it lightly," he says.

But why? If anything, America's colleges and universities are giving less weight to the SAT (and its kissing cousin, the American College Test, or ACT) in their admissions decisions. At the same time, some watchdog groups oppose the tests on grounds that they perpetuate race and gender bias. Once practically considered a letter of introduction when applying to college, SAT or ACT scores are now either optional or starkly diminished in importance for admission at over 280 public and private schools. This fall, Texas' four-year public universities joined this trend and began extending automatic admission to students who graduate in the top 10% of their classes.

That would be great for Lizzy, who says her grades are very good and that she hopes to be admitted to the University of North Texas. But she goes to tony Westlake High School, where the competition for a high grade point average is fierce, and a drop by mere tenths of a point can send one tumbling down the ranks. Despite her achievement, her class ranking is artificially low -- at the bottom of the third quarter of her class. That's not good enough for busy college admissions personnel, who deal with ever-burgeoning numbers of applicants for the same number of open slots, and don't have the latitude to consider the fact that students like Lizzy have gone to a school packed with mega-achievers. Bianca, who will graduate from Bowie High School a year early, finds herself in a similar predicament. "We get screwed," says Lizzy.

And getting in is still only half the battle. When it comes to getting scholarships, the SAT still rules. The Preliminary SAT (PSAT), administered to high school juniors, is the sole instrument in awarding National Merit Scholarships. But in many other needs-based or merit-based scholarship competitions, SAT scores can make the difference between attending a college of your choice with adequate financial aid or not. That's what is motivating Matt, 18, another student in the study group, a senior at Austin High School.

Yet Matt, a white male, is already at a statistical advantage for getting those scholarships. White males tend to outscore females and non-Asian minorities on the SAT by a range of 122 to 215 points, and beat them out of limited scholaship dollars. The SAT appears skewed against those who truly need the financial aid as well -- chances are, the higher a student's family income is, the higher the SAT score will be, and that person will be considered first for a scholarship. (Incidentally, to head off accusations that test prep companies are just part of the classism pervading the testing game, both The Princeton Review and Kaplan do community outreach to populations that would not ordinarily have access to their courses, and offer financial assistance.)

It's for these reasons that FairTest, a non-profit watchdog organization based in Cambridge, Massachuesetts, believes the SAT ends up being used as a "gatekeeper and a barrier to opportunity for minorities and low-income students," says Laura Barrett, executive director. "It perpetuates inequities, as opposed to breaking them down." Moreover, says Barrett, the SAT perpetuates gender bias. The College Board (the organization that administers the SAT -- the official trademark name for the test since the board no longer measures "aptitude") claims the exam indicates how well students will do in their first year of college. As mentioned before, men score higher on the SAT, by about 40 points; but studies show that freshman women get better grades than men who are doing the same coursework. "So at best, there's a weak correlation between the SAT and first-year college grades," Barrett says.

For its part, the College Board denies that the test itself is unfair. "Those who make such claims are ignoring the inequities in quality educational opportunities... in... America," reads a College Board press release. And while the College Board agrees that students should already be familiar with the test before they take it (the company even publishes its own test preparation material), they caution that "this is not a case where 'practice makes perfect;' practice should be in moderation."

This of course goes against the claims of the test prep companies, who drill students on both content and test-taking strategies, getting them "psyched" to take the test. Critics say the fact the SAT is coachable proves that it only measures a student's ability to take the test, not scholastic ability. "The very fact that these companies exist and do raise students' scores underscores the fact that the SAT is not a true measure of aptitude," says FairTest's Barrett.

So what can anxious students and parents expect if they enroll in one of these courses? The Princeton Review guarantees that diligent students will see a rise of at least 100 points in their scores, and the average hike is 140 points. Kaplan says its clients typically gain 120 points, and nearly a third see their scores go up by 170 points. At least one client is already well-satisfied. "I've already gone up by 50 points," says Lizzy, who takes the SAT again on December 6. "I think it's worth it."

The big wave in SAT-taking is in the spring for high school juniors. Check your bookstore -- many companies publish preparation materials, including workbooks and interactive software. Practice SATs can be downloaded from the Princeton Review and Kaplan websites: http://www.review.com and http://www.kaplan.com. For more testing facts, go to FairTest's website: http://www.fairtest.org

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