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FRONTLINE

#1802

AIR DATE: October 4, 1999

 

Secrets of the SAT

Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Chandler

 

NARRATOR: In a few days, millions of American teenagers will take a test that will determine their future. They have spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars, obsessed with higher scores. But what do the SATs really measure? And are they fair? Tonight on FRONTLINE, the real Secrets of the SAT.

EXAM PROCTOR: Good morning, and welcome. This morning you will take the SAT-1 reasoning test. Testing will begin in a few minutes. First, listen carefully to the instructions I must read. The College Board and ETS are obligated to report scores that accurately reflect your performance. Therefore, ETS has-

NARRATOR: On Saturday, October 9th, half a million American teenagers -mostly high school seniors - will take the most important test in their young lives, the SAT.

JENNY LEE, Wallenberg High School: My parents don't know much about the SATs. They just know that the highest score is 1600, and that's what I needed to get. But that didn't happen!

STUDENT: There's a lot of pressure. You have to keep moving.

NARRATOR: The SAT is a three-hour multiple-choice examination of verbal and math skills. A perfect score is 1600 points. It has become a very important number for kids who want to get into America's top universities.

BETSY RUIZ, Kennedy High School: Because, you know, they put so much on your SAT score. You know, scholarships ride on the SAT scores. Getting accepted into schools rides on your SAT scores. Oh, no pressure!

NARRATOR: The average SAT scores for students admitted to Princeton is 1465; MIT, 1475; Harvard, 1495; and Stanford, 1500

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: And so your SAT-1 is - don't tell me. It's 1570?

STUDENT: No.

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: Fifteen-ninety?

STUDENT: No.

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: Fifteen-sixty?

STUDENT: No.

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: What?

STUDENT: Fifteen-fifty.

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: Boy! All this rumor around school that you were actually smarter than you are.

LISA MUEHLE, Cambridge SAT Colloquium: [SAT prep class] Does anybody want to try this? This is a weighted-average problem.

NARRATOR: An entire industry has grown up dedicated to raising test scores, beginning at a younger and younger age.

LISA MUEHLE: There can be pairs of words that appear on the SAT that do not have any connection. Kiana?

KIANA: Flower and barbershop.

LISA MUEHLE: Right.

NARRATOR: In a storefront off the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, California, 13- and 14-year-olds practice for their SATs in a program called The Cambridge Colloquium. It costs $500 a year and lasts for five years.

LISA MUEHLE: Okay, let's say you had to guess. It says "Decibel and sound"-

This is not your dad's SAT anymore, okay? It's a whole different world. You don't show up to the SAT anymore without some prep because the SAT, along with your grade-point average, are the two most important criteria that college admissions departments look at.

1st PREP STUDENT: At first I kind of regretted going to this class, but now I just- I'll be so much prepared for the SATs that I can probably get into Stanford.

2nd PREP STUDENT: I want to get into, like, this college named Dartmouth. And it's an Ivy league school, and they're really hard to get in.

LISA MUEHLE: Dr. Megisson is going to pick the question and give it out. Okay, don't open until I say, right? Okay, ready? Open. Antonyms for 300. Here we go. What is it, Dr. Megisson?

Dr. MEGISSON: A.

LISA MUEHLE: It was A.

The average SAT score is 1000 on a scale of 1600. But this is what I know. The bright students' scores are getting higher and higher. A 1550 used to mean everything, and a 1550 doesn't necessarily mean everything anymore.

MOTHER: What are we heading for?

3rd PREP STUDENT: Sixteen hundred.

MOTHER: Yeah. And that's what I'm expecting.

FATHER: We're definitely going to the four years here, as long as she feels that she wants to do it. I mean, I do have to let her have some decision in this.

MOTHER: I remember I took it the day that of the winter formal. It was just something I had to do that day. I went in curlers. And I don't know. I just see how competitive it is to get in college now. And I can't imagine going through what they're going through.

NARRATOR: How did the SAT become a national obsession? The story began nearly 70 years ago here at Harvard University. For generations, the sons of the New England aristocracy had found their money, power and breeding was the ticket to a Harvard education. But in 1933, Harvard's new president, James Conant, had another idea.

NICHOLAS LEMANN, Author, "The Big Test": Conant, sitting at Harvard University, which is where he had spent his life, believed that these people were born into money, privately educated, often in New England boarding schools, usually Episcopalian. He felt these people formed a kind of club.

Conant very much wanted- his primary goal, as far as domestic life in America, was to break the hold of this old elite and put in, in its place, a new elite, which would be made up of people from a national group, people from all over the country, people selected on pure intelligence, not on background, and put them in charge of the country.

NARRATOR: Nicholas Lemann has been studying the American fixation on standardized testing for the past five years. His new book is The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: The story starts with the invention of I.Q. tests. For the first time during the First World War, an I.Q. test was given to millions of people. And some of the people who had worked on the World War I test worked on adapting it to use in college admissions.

NARRATOR: To carry out his plan, Conant turned to his young assistant dean, Henry Chauncey. Though a son of the elite that Conant was trying to replace, Chauncey also believed in the scientific power of testing.

HENRY CHAUNCEY, First Pres., Educational Testing Service: I think I was interested in the full development of each individual, and one could learn about individuals from tests. That is still something I believe in, that you try and find out what the interests and capabilities are of individuals. And you want to bring about the full development of each one.

NARRATOR: Henry Chauncey would go on to head the Educational Testing Service, or ETS. Its most famous product was the SAT. Conant and Chauncey's vision made it possible for the first time to test an entire nation.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: I mean, it's astonishingly ambitious. You know, America is filled with these utopian experiments, but they're usually one little town or one house or something. Conant had the ability to do a utopian experiment on the whole country. And it worked, in a sense, although it didn't turn out to be a utopia.

NARRATOR: The utopia Conant dreamed of began as an Eastern experiment. But to win over the country, he and Chauncey need a broader base of support. If testing, as Chauncey wrote, was to be like the standard gauge for railroads, then California, with the largest university system in the country, was the "golden spike."

Today the University of California is the SAT's biggest customer, and the top-ranked Berkeley campus is the most selective public school in the country. Each year 30,000 high school seniors apply to Berkeley from all over America and the world for only 3,500 freshman slots.

Prof. RON TAKAKI, Ethnic Studies, U.C. Berkeley: We let people through the gates, and when they come through these gates, enormous opportunities become available to them, especially in terms of professional employment. From Berkeley you can go to law school, or to top medical schools. And so it makes a difference between going to Berkeley, say, and going to San Francisco State, or even going to U.C. Riverside.

NARRATOR: By the 1990s, using both SATs and an aggressive Affirmative Action policy, this elite university had grown into one of the most racially diverse campuses in America. Until Proposition 209.

DEMONSTRATORS: Hey, hey, ho, ho, 209 has got to go! Hey, hey, ho, ho, 209 has got to go!

NARRATOR: In 1996, California voters by a solid majority passed Proposition 209, which banned the use of race in U.C. admissions. Affirmative Action had traditionally made up for the troubling disparity in test scores between Latinos and blacks and whites and Asians, 100 to 200 points on average. Without racial preferences, minority enrollments at Cal plummeted.

Prof. RON TAKAKI: That system resulted in a disaster, a precipitous drop in black and Latino enrollments at Berkeley, from 22 percent to 10 percent for the admitted class, over a 50 percent decimation of these student minority populations.

NARRATOR: Jesus Rios believes he is a casualty of Prop 209. When Cal rejected him for admission last year, he joined a class-action lawsuit against U.C. Berkeley, claiming the school relies too heavily on advanced placement classes and the SAT.

BOB SCHAEFFER, National Center for Fair and Open Testing: You take a kid in California who's a child of migrant farm workers, who despite the background and despite moving around still excelled in high school - got a 4.0, was a leader in groups - that person was not admitted to U.C. Berkeley.

And in his or her place went someone who grew up in Beverly Hills, had all the advantages of a nanny who read to them and parents who were college-educated in the best of private schools and an SAT coaching course. How can you possibly say that the kid from Beverly Hills has more of this mystical thing called merit?

NARRATOR: As the director of admissions at U.C. Berkeley, Bob Laird has worked for years to balance racial diversity with the academic meritocracy represented by the SAT. Now he finds that his university has become ground zero in the long-running argument over the meaning and fairness of test scores.

BOB LAIRD, Dir., Undergraduate Admissions, U.C. Berkeley: I think the admission process at Berkeley is the most highly scrutinized admission process in the United States. And the perception that the elite public and private universities are the only key to a good life in America raised the emotional stakes on this issue to a level that is just extraordinarily intense.

NARRATOR: After Prop 209, Laird was caught in the middle between his own values and the law. What would Berkeley do in the face of the dramatic drop in minority enrollment? And how important would the SATs be in admissions?

To find out, we decided to follow a group of California seniors applying to Cal. It is a journey that would take us deep into the debate over the SAT's merits and behind the scenes of the admissions process, to see who is good enough for Berkeley.

Hollister, California, a lush agricultural community in San Benito County. At Jose Rios's old high school, another senior wants to go to Berkeley, Omar Rodriguez. Like Jesus, Omar would be the first in his family to go to college.

OMAR'S FATHER: I hear you counted candies.

OMAR RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, M&Ms! We took, like, a sample. And then we had to estimate how many were pink.

OMAR'S MOTHER: And how many colors were there on the-

OMAR RODRIGUEZ: It doesn't matter.

OMAR'S MOTHER: Oh, it doesn't matter?

OMAR RODRIGUEZ: The reason I think I've done so well in school is because I think my parents have kind of led me in the direction of, "Do your best. Do your best in school. Do your best in everything."

OMAR'S FATHER: I work for the state of California, for the California Highway Patrol. And I'm a commercial vehicle inspector. But I want something better for my son, to use his brain into a career that he would do better than what I have right now.

OMAR RODRIGUEZ: He used to tell me, like, when I was younger, if I didn't get good grades, he'd put me out to work to see what it was like if I didn't have an education and to see what I'd be doing the rest of my life. Him saying that alone was enough to kind of set me straight. And I'm going to study hard. I'm not going to fool around.

NARRATOR: Omar is taking four tough advanced-placement courses this year. His GPA is a respectable 3.8, and his SATs are 1240. But without Affirmative Action, his chances are half what they would have been two years ago.

OMAR'S MOTHER: If Omar doesn't get into Cal- it will just break my heart if he doesn't because that's what he wants.

NARRATOR: In San Francisco's Chinatown, we met Jenny Lee. Jenny has maintained a 4.0 GPA at Wallenberg High. She is the daughter of immigrants, and she, too, would be the first in her family to go to college.

JENNY LEE, Wallenberg High School: The Chinese culture is very strict. Very strict. I grew up with studying comes before everything, even spending time with family. Homework comes first. Like, I haven't even watched T.V. for so many years.

And my dream come true is to make it to Berkeley. I worked for a very long time, and I've always had that goal. At first, I thought it was Chinese thing. You know, my parents would say, you know, Berkeley's the highest, the best. It's, you know, the number-one school.

JENNY'S FATHER: U.C. Berkeley's a very famous school and good for a student. Good education. And very good school to go.

JENNY LEE: I'm very scared because, you know, these past few weeks, especially, I've been very stressed out because of the SATs, of course. And I've had to work for SATs more than I have for grades.

NARRATOR: Jenny scored 990 on her previous SAT test. But Berkeley's average SAT score is 1306, so she and her parents decided to spend more than $700 to send her to an SAT prep course.

JENNY LEE: I had to do something about the SATs. I mean, had I not taken Kaplan, I don't even know where I'd be right now. It's just that one blemish, that one thing that could have ruined everything.

1st SAT PREP TEACHER: Does anybody have any idea how many people take the test every year? Two million people take the SAT every year. A 50-point increase is going to basically have you leap-frogging over thousands of other students taking the test.

2nd SAT PREP TEACHER: And they keep saying you can't prep for it, but we're here to show you different, okay?

NARRATOR: Jenny is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of students take test prep every year. It's a business generating over $100 million, and it's dominated by two private companies, Kaplan and Princeton Review.

SAT PREP TEACHER: There are three rules to making a good sentence. What are they?

JOHN KATZMAN, Princeton Review: People would like to think that it's a multiple-choice test, so it's objective. It's not. This test was written by people. It wasn't written by, like, Nobel physicists. It was written by a bunch of teachers who got together and said, "Well, you know, why don't we ask it this way?"

There's a certain idiom to the test. There's a certain way they ask questions. There's a certain way they create wrong answers. And if you're good at that idiom, then you're going to do well on testing in general, not just the SAT, but all of these tests.

SAT PREP TEACHER: Now, ETS basically designs the test for a guy we call Joe Bloggs, okay? The average American guy, okay? He's not too bright. He's not too dumb, okay? And so what you need to do is, you need to know how Joe Bloggs thinks.

BOB SCHAEFFER, National Center for Fair and Open Testing: This is one of the most famous SAT questions. It's called the doughnut question, and it asks, "In the figure above, what is the greatest number of non-overlapping regions into which the shaded region can be divided with exactly two straight lines?"

JOHN KATZMAN: In other words, how many pieces can you cut the doughnut into with two straight lines?

WAYNE CAMARA, The College Board: What it's trying to do is measure mathematic reasoning, spatial relations, and one's ability to conceptualize.

BOB SCHAEFFER: And what coaching courses like the Princeton Review and others teach you is that you can analyze- without knowing how to solve the problem, you can have a very good chance of getting the right answer.

JOHN KATZMAN: The easy answer there is four. I can make four pieces pretty easily.

BOB SCHAEFFER: But that's too easy, too. That's got to be wrong.

JOHN KATZMAN: The answer's got to be five or six.

BOB SCHAEFFER: And six is wrong because it's the easy answer. The answer's five. That is the right answer.

JOHN KATZMAN: What is this telling you about your son? Like, is it telling you he's stupid that he got it wrong? Is it telling you he shouldn't go to college, or he should? What is it telling you? And I would claim it tells you almost nothing.

BOB SCHAEFFER: It has nothing to do with math, has nothing to do with aptitude. And it most certainly has nothing to do with merit, unless you define merit as being coached. [www.pbs.org: Learn more about test prep]

MOTHER: If there's anything I can do to maximize the benefits and options for my child, I'm going to do that. But it's expensive, probably well over $1,000, close to $1,500.

INTERVIEWER: But you think it's worth it?

MOTHER: I hope so.

NARRATOR: In San Francisco, Jonathan Antenore is applying to several good schools, including Stanford and UCLA, But he's wanted to go to Berkeley since he was 10.

JONATHAN ANTENORE, Wallenberg High School: This is the second semester of my senior year. I mean, it's supposed to be easy, right? But you know, I'm studying for my A.P. classes. There's so much pressure. It's terrible.

TEACHER: To be perfectly honest with you, it doesn't say much. Look at that. What's wrong with that sentence? That sentence doesn't say anything.

JONATHAN ANTENORE: Yeah. Yeah.

TEACHER: Describe it to me.

JONATHAN ANTENORE: You have his arm, and then you pick it up. And

TEACHER: Write that. Write what you just said. Write it down.

JONATHAN ANTENORE: Hard work builds character, right? Yeah.

NARRATOR: Jonathan goes to the elite Lowell High School, where he is captain of the wrestling team. Lowell sent 40 students to Berkeley last year. Even with a 3.9 GPA, Jonathan is not one of the top students at high-achieving Lowell. He used an SAT prep test book to raise his scores, and his 1390 score may be his best hope for getting in.

JONATHAN ANTENORE: [string quartet rehearsal] The first time, maybe we play it a little bit louder. And then crescendo the second time, like, really quietly, and then crescendo-

The real jump is from the 1240 to the 1590. And the book that I think really, really helped me was the Princeton Review book because it explained that the SAT is a measure of how well you take tests, rather than- rather than how smart you are or how much you know.

SAT PREP TEACHER: Everybody get out your verbal books. It's time.

NARRATOR: Despite the millions of dollars being spent every year, controversy rages inside the industry over how much the prep courses raise SAT scores. The College Board, for whom ETS administers the tests, says the impact is negligible.

WAYNE CAMARA, The College Board: The typical or average gain attributable to external commercial coaching programs is about 8 points in verbal and about 18 points in math, so a total gain of about 26 points.

JOHN KATZMAN, Princeton Review: We have accepted every challenge from anybody who wanted to do a study. We've supplied our data- in bulk form, not with the kids' names, but with everything, and with confidentiality even with names. And our consistent answer is that we get about 140 to 150 points average improvement, every study we've participated in.

WAYNE CAMARA: There's not one published study I have ever viewed that shows an increase of 100 points.

NICHOLAS LEMANN, Author, "The Big Test": You know, the studies on either side are not very good. And they're not- they're heavily freighted with self-interest. And there just isn't a good, kind of standard double-blind scientific study of this question. I sort of think, you know, 10 million Frenchmen can't be wrong. If that many people are taking these test prep courses, they must do something, even if it's just sort of test-familiarity.

NARRATOR: Richmond is one of the poorest cities in the San Francisco area. Betsy Ruiz is a senior here at Kennedy High School. She came to this country as a child from Guatemala.

BETSY RUIZ, Kennedy High School: U.C. Berkeley was the school that I've always wanted to go to since we came to this country. And when we walked [on] the campus, and I didn't know what it was, and my dad told me it was the university. And so I've been focused on it since elementary school.

[in social studies class] What happened in Colorado was premeditated because they were white supremacists, as well.

I gave a speech in the Academic Decathlon competition, a contrast on Oscar Wilde's idea of art and Plato's idea of art, according to The Republic.

NARRATOR: Betsy has competed in the Academic Decathlon for the past three years, but her mother feels that growing up in Richmond has made it hard for her daughter to prepare for college.

BETSY'S MOTHER: She's not really, really very well prepared, but she can do it because she wants to. And she wants to get someplace, somewhere, then she has to fight for that.

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: Okay, now, I have to assume- okay, the SAT scores and-

BETSY RUIZ: Don't look at those!

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: Well, no. Whatever it is-

NARRATOR: Although Betsy's grades are an excellent 4.0, her SATs are a low 920.

BETSY RUIZ: I always thought that if I could get a 5 GPA, which is what I've been working hard for, and a really high SAT score, then no problem. I would be into U.C. Berkeley, just- you know? But now I don't think so. I kind of think they're- "Oh, look at that score!"

NARRATOR: Betsy's classmate at Kennedy High, J.K. Delane, is also working hard on his application to Berkeley.

J.K. DELANE, Kennedy High School: Am I nervous? Yeah, in a way, because it kind of seems like it's kind of hard to put, you know, what you've been working for your whole entire life- it's, like, one little folder, you know what I mean?

NARRATOR: J.K. is president of the senior class, member of two school clubs, plays three sports, has two internships and works a job after school.

J.K. DELANE: Hey, guys, listen to the qualities. I got, like, leadership, persistence and-

I think I have a pretty good chance to get in. I've worked throughout my high school career, played sports, senior class president, homecoming king, president, vice president of various clubs. But the only thing that's maybe holding me back is my SAT scores.

NARRATOR: J.K.'s SAT scores are a low 850, but his GPA has been improving. It's now 3.5, and he is hoping the admissions office will find worthwhile the story of how he overcame hardship on the path to college.

J.K. DELANE: [reading application essay] "But I learned that if one is persistent enough, like my mother, you can get out of any dire situation. I wanted to escape the norm that almost every African-American male has to deal with. I didn't fall short to fast cash, criminal behavior or drug addiction. Instead, I struggled to make it. I did not want to be the person asking for change at the gas station. I wanted to be somebody."

I couldn't really figure out what I wanted to do in life. I couldn't really figure it out. I always knew that I was going to be something successful, however. But you know, I just didn't know at what.

As soon as I got in a position to be in the field of journalism, it was kind of, like, that was my passion, and I had to work for it. So I tried. I tried hard. I tried hard. And my GPA went up, and I started researching colleges.

But my SAT scores- that's the only thing that's holding me back, and I really feel sorry for that. I really do. I- you know, sometimes I get depressed about that. But you know, it's also my mom. She influences me. She tells me every time I speak with her, you know, "The SAT scores- they don't just look at your SAT scores. You're a good, well-rounded student. They don't just look at your SAT scores."

NICHOLAS LEMANN, Author, "The Big Test": The level of obsession over these tests is way out of proportion to what they actually measure. People don't realize this. It's not built to measure your innate worth or anything like that. It's built to predict 15 percent of the variants in freshman year grades in college. I mean, it's a fairly small thing for a test to do, is predict 15 percent of the variants in freshman year grades in college. But it does that.

BOB SCHAEFFER, National Center for Fair and Open Testing: The sole scientific claim made by the SAT - when you get down to the bottom line and strip away all the rhetoric and nonsense - is its capacity to predict first-year grades. Well, young women get higher grades than young males across the country in colleges despite the fact that they earn lower SAT scores by about 40 points, on the average.

There's only two ways to square that circle. Either all the colleges in the country are wrong, they're biased towards girls and give them higher grades than they deserve, or there's something fundamentally flawed about the test.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: Ever since standardized testing began, one of the most consistent findings in all of standardized testing from the very beginning is that the better-educated and prosperous parents produce children who score better on standardized tests. The SAT tends to reproduce the class system from generation to generation, not to turn it on its head.

If Conant were alive today and he saw the incredible energy and money that the "haves" in America put into using essentially his test to make sure their children will be "haves" also, I think he'd be severely disappointed by that. He thought the test would cancel out the advantage that parents can pass onto children, and it just doesn't do that.

NARRATOR: In the wealthy suburb of Orinda, Miramonte High School sent 30 kids to Cal last year. Marlow Schindler is one of Miramonte's best students. She is applying to several elite universities around the country, including Berkeley.

MARLOW SCHINDLER, Miramonte High School: Growing up in a suburban environment, in a bubble or whatever, I think I'd like to go somewhere that's more diverse, where people aren't all identical and dressed the same.

MARLOW'S FATHER: Basically, we're making lemonade out of lemons here. If they asked you to talk about the adversity you face, then what you're going to do is come clean and say, "I've faced very little adversity."

NARRATOR: Because Marlow is taking several A.P. courses, her GPA is 4.3, and her SATs are also a very high 1500.

MARLOW'S FATHER: There are days when Marlow's up till 1:00 in the morning, I feel badly about that. But there's sleep aplenty in the grave. And you can either work your tail off in high school and college, or you can spend your life in a series of jobs that involve name tags, hairnets, and the phrase, "Would you like fries with that?"

MARLOW SCHINDLER: For the Ivies, I'm applying to Harvard, Brown, Yale, Columbia, U. Penn.

NARRATOR: Berkeley is Marlow's back-up school. Her first choice is the Ivy League.

MARLOW'S MOTHER: Applying to 14 schools seems like sort of an overkill. But I guess I've heard enough stories about girls very much like her with equivalent backgrounds - very equivalent - who've been turned down at many of these schools.

NARRATOR: For another Miramonte senior, Fred An, Berkeley is his first choice for college, and he's taken a very unusual road to try to get there. At 15, Fred moved from his home state of Washington to a condo near Orinda, where he has lived by himself for the past two years to better his chances of going to Berkeley as a California resident.

FRED AN, Miramonte High School: Ever since, like, 8th grade, my parents wanted me to move down to California. It was a hard decision for both of us. Now I'm here, right next to the campus, you know. And I feel that if I went to Berkeley, then, you know, I'd probably have a better chance of getting a good job so I can lead a decent life.

Everybody's always separated from their family one time in their life, you know? So I mean, the earlier you go through it, the better it will be in your life, you know? I mean, it's hurt a little bit.

NARRATOR: Fred has a 3.5 GPA, and his SAT score is 1150, well below the Berkeley average.

FRED AN: Well, my biggest story is my SAT scores. A higher SAT score would probably help me to get into Berkeley because it seems like they're really based on numbers, you know?

NARRATOR: To push his score even higher, Fred took an SAT prep course which cost his parents over $800.

FRED'S MOTHER: We will do anything for my children, if that helps their future or education.

FRED'S FATHER: Education is a first. We don't care how much it's going to cost.

NARRATOR: Ninety-seven percent of all students in high school use some kind of test prep, but within that universe is a world of difference. In Manhattan, students pay $500 an hour for private tutors. J.K. took a free course at his high school.

SAT PREP TEACHER: J.K., your teacher didn't understand what you said. Could you please say it again?

J.K. DELANE, Kennedy High School: All the angles on the outside of a triangle equal 360.

SAT PREP TEACHER: Right.

J.K. DELANE: So what's bigger, 360 or 180?

SAT PREP TEACHER: Oh, I hadn't thought about that. That's so clever!

J.K. DELANE: I took the course at my school, but in all actuality, I was sort of kind of teaching my teacher.

VOICE ON CD-ROM: If you get a low score it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

OMAR RODRIGUEZ, San Benito High School: The first time I took the SAT score, my score was 1070. And then I had my dad buy me a CD-ROM to help my SAT score out, and then I improved my score to 1,200. I wasn't really aware of the courses to improve my SAT scores. And when I did, I found out they were really expensive, so I'll just stick with my CD-ROM. [laughs]

JOHN KATZMAN, Princeton Review: This is a test where everybody's saying, "Look, we're just being an incredibly fair society here. Everybody takes this test. And the better kids go to the better schools." And it's just bullshit. You know, the better kids hire me.

BOB SCHAEFFER, National Center for Fair and Open Testing: How do you know that the scores that you're seeing, whether they're the result of some kid walking in and taking the test cold on a Saturday morning, and the results of some other kid who's been tutored for $700 at the Princeton Review or Kaplan, or $1,500 for some tutor who comes to your house and drills you on the test? Those scores don't mean the same thing.

WAYNE CAMARA, The College Board: It really is a crime. What the crime is, is not that the SAT is used for admissions. The crime is that courses like the advanced placement program, qualified teachers, the opportunity to be engaged in more rigorous courses and be expected to perform at higher levels- that that opportunity is not uniform across all schools and across all communities, irrespective of where one lives.

J.K.'S MOTHER: J.K. was up late last night trying to study, and he is not really, really in a very good mood.

J.K. DELANE: Mom, do you have any extra pencils? All I have is, like, mechanical pencils.

NARRATOR: In the fall of 1998, J.K. Delane and the other kids we followed had a last chance to raise their SAT scores.

J.K.'S MOTHER: Okay, are you ready for the test?

J.K. DELANE: Yeah.

J.K.'S MOTHER: Well, just do the best you can. That's all you can do.

J.K. DELANE: Pretty much.

J.K.'S MOTHER: Say your prayers, and just go get it.

EXAM PROCTOR: Good morning, and welcome. This morning you will take the SAT-1 reasoning test. Testing will begin in a few minutes. First listen carefully to the instructions that I must read.

JENNY LEE, Wallenberg High School: I couldn't sleep last night because the SAT is really- I sort of crammed in all the things I learned over the summer from Kaplan.

EXAM PROCTOR: And begin work.

BETSY RUIZ, Kennedy High School: The test is really long and hard. But now it starts, "When are my scores going to be sent?" But other than that, I'm relieved. I'm very happy that it's over.

NARRATOR: The tests have been graded and the scores are ready. In his condo in Orinda, Fred An was certain he had to score above 1300 to have a shot at Berkeley.

AUTOMATED VOICE: [on the phone] Your SAT-1 test scores are-verbal, 640. Math, 710.

NARRATOR: Fred's combined score was 1350. It had jumped 200 points.

JENNY LEE, Wallenberg High School: Before, I got 970 on my own. After Kaplan, I got 1110 for my SAT scores. It sort of saved me.

INTERVIEWER: What was your score?

J.K. DELANE, Kennedy High School: I don't want to say. I don't want to say! I really don't want to say. I mean, it was really, really, really depressing. I mean, I- I don't know. Maybe- and I was thinking about, you know, where- because when I opened my SAT envelope with my test scores and all, I was thinking about, you know, "Where did I go wrong?"

And I kind of came to the conclusion that, you know, maybe I didn't start my life off college-bound, per se. You know what I mean? And maybe if I was on that track early enough, maybe I would- could have passed- I mean, maybe I could have a got a better score on the test or whatnot. Who knows, you know what I mean? That's something you never will know.

NARRATOR: J.K. told us later his score was 880, hardly any improvement.

At Stanford University, psychology professor Claude Steele has spent several years investigating the 150-point score gap between whites and blacks on standardized tests. Was the cause class difference, lower incomes, poorer schools, or something else?

Prof. CLAUDE STEELE, Social Psychology, Stanford Univ.: We tend to think of standardized test scores- almost the term "standardized test" gives the image that this is a test that is standardized. It's fair for everybody. It is a fair and impartial measure of school potential, potential to succeed in school. And this research, I think, raises at least one source of concern about that, that different groups in the midst of those tests may be under different degrees of pressure, and their performance is likely to reflect that.

NARRATOR: In research conducted at Sanford, Steele administered a difficult version of the Graduate Record Exam, a standardized test like the SAT. To one set of black and white sophomores, he indicated that the test was an unimportant research tool, to other groups that the test was an accurate measure of their verbal and reasoning ability.

Blacks who believed the test was merely a research tool did the same as whites. But blacks who believed the test measured their abilities did half as well. Steele calls the effect "stereotype threat."

Prof. CLAUDE STEELE: And if you're a member of a group whose intellectual abilities are negatively stereotyped, this threat might occur. That is, the negative stereotype might be applicable- will be applicable to you right in the middle of a standardized test, an important standardized test.

And our general reasoning was, well, that maybe this threat, this prospect of confirming a stereotype or being seen that way, would be distracting enough, upsetting enough, to undermine a person's performance right there in the middle of a test.

NARRATOR: Surprisingly, Steele finds the threat strongest among the best students.

Prof. CLAUDE STEELE: What we're finding is poor performance among people who are almost trying too hard. They're re-reading the items, re-checking their answers, double guessing. And on standardized tests, that's not the most effective way to take them.

It becomes clear that that underperformance is no mystery. It's- it's amazing it isn't worse than it is. You know, I don't want to be shy here. This is where I feel that it's appropriate to consider race because race is a systematic influence on test performance.

NARRATOR: Steele's findings are not limited to black-white stereotypes. He has also reproduced the results with white women testing against white men, and white men against Asian men. In each case, the group feeling itself negatively viewed lived down to its own expectations.

Prof. CLAUDE STEELE: If you take white males who are very invested in math again - graduate engineering students as we did in one case, or undergraduate honor students in math, these are very good math students - you sit them down just as you saw today in these experiments and tell them just before they take the test that, "Gee, this is a test on which Asians tend to do better than whites," and lo and behold, those students underperform there.

NARRATOR: Steele's research has lead him to conclude the SAT is unreliable and unfair. [www.pbs.org: Read reports on the score gap]

Prof. CLAUDE STEELE: We're thinking about this thing in the wrong way, as some objective, uncontaminated measure of academic merit. It is not that.

NARRATOR: November 30, 1998, the deadline for submitting an application to Berkeley to become a member of next fall's freshman class.

J.K. DELANE, Kennedy High School: This envelope - this one little envelope has- can have a profound effect on which direction your life is going, you know what I mean?

[at application office] Have there been any other people coming in, dropping off applications?

RECEPTION CLERK: Quite a few. Quite a few.

1st APPLICATIONS READER: There are a lot of puzzles in this application.

2nd APPLICATIONS READER: Well, the one C she got in physics in her junior year gave me pause, but as you can see, she comes right back the next semester with an A.

1st APPLICATIONS READER: That C in physics jumps off the page at me.

NARRATOR: By January, Berkeley's admissions office is in high gear. Fifty-five readers must now sort through 30,000 applications to choose next year's class. FRONTLINE was granted rare access to observe the process.

3rd APPLICATIONS READER: And so I opened the application and started looking to see if there was some catastrophic circumstances in the family that would, you know, account for these grades. And I couldn't find anything.

4th APPLICATIONS READER: It sort of looks like one of those applications filled out on the way to the mailbox, right?

NARRATOR: The applications of the seven kids we followed are not under consideration in this session, but there were many students like them, students from top schools, like Jonathan and Marlow-

APPLICATIONS READER: Straight A's. And I can't remember if we mentioned this, but look where she is in her school. She's n the 99th percentile.

NARRATOR: -and students from low-income families, like Betsy and J.K.

APPLICATIONS READER: He comes from a low socioeconomic background. His parents do not have high school education. He's done very well academically.

NARRATOR: By U.C. policy, Berkeley must admit half of each class based on pure academic criteria: grades, course difficulty and SAT scores.

1st APPLICATIONS READER: She's taking, like, 3 in the 12 grade, which i think is pretty impressive.

2nd APPLICATIONS READER: What an extraordinary human being!

NARRATOR: But in choosing the second half of the class, the school can consider other factors: a student's activities, community service, and ability to overcome obstacles.

APPLICATIONS READER: He's really achieving in light of not only poor family circumstances, but putting a lot of hours in every week to help support the family. I really like the mature voice, too, that I saw in his essay.

NARRATOR: In the end, how much do SAT scores count at Berkeley?

BOB LAIRD, Dir., Undergraduate Admissions, U.C. Berkeley: We have no fixed weights in our scoring processes. We have no formulas. We depend upon the trained professional judgment of our readers. So that an SAT-1 verbal score of 600 doesn't have a single meaning across our applicant pool. A score of 600 may mean one thing for a student whose first language isn't English or whose parents didn't complete high school.

APPLICATIONS READER: Even though his SAT scores aren't that strong for our pool, he's gone beyond the high school to challenge himself by taking-

NARRATOR: Prop 209 mandates that Berkeley can no longer consider race in admissions. But realistically, can Laird's staff ignore it?

BOB LAIRD: On the application itself, the race and ethnicity and gender items are blanked out, so none of our readers see that information when we read the applications. But there are many different ways in which applicants reveal that information about themselves.

And so the notion that somehow blocking that one item on the application is going to mask information from the readers is really naive. So I think the answer to the question is that we adhere to the law because it is the law, and we work hard to carry it out.

APPLICATIONS READER: What academic score shall we recommend for this student?

APPLICATIONS READERS: Five, I'm afraid. Five also. Yeah.

BOB LAIRD: I think there are lots of us, though, who are in the middle. I think people who are really supportive of diversity all feel that sense of tension between fidelity to the law of the state of California and our own personal values and the things that many of us have worked for for most of our adult lives. And that part is hard.

NARRATOR: Beneath Bob Laird's struggle to balance the law and his hopes for diversity lies a debate over a fundamental question: What is the real mission of an elite university like Berkeley?

Prof. JOHN YOO, Boalt Law School, U.C. Berkeley: The end goal of having standardized tests and using GPA is to have the brightest, smartest, most competitive people at the best university because we believe that furthers the advancement of knowledge.

And the Berkeley campus, for better or for worse, was designed to be sort of the jewel in the crown. It's supposed to be a campus that can compete with the best private universities in the world. If we have a system that's designed for that educational excellence - and if that's the way that the racial groups happen to fall out after that process, the race-neutral, fair process - then that's the way it's going to be.

Prof. RON TAKAKI, Ethnic Studies, U.C. Berkeley: We are a university to comprehend the physical universe, but also the social universe. And this social universe is ethically and racially diverse. And so how can we accomplish our educational mission in terms of helping students understand, comprehend this social universe that is ethnically and racially diverse when our student body itself is not diverse?

NARRATOR: The value of racial diversity on college campuses has become a national issue. It may soon be decided by the Supreme Court, spurred by a series of lawsuits focused on test scores.

Terrence Pell has sued public universities in Texas, Michigan and Washington, claiming their Affirmative Action programs discriminate by applying different test score standards to different races.

TERRENCE PELL, Center for Individual Rights: This page of data from the University of Michigan admissions office shows a white applicant with this combination of grades and test score will be rejected out of hand based just on their grades and test scores, whereas an under-represented minority with the same grades and test scores will be passed on for probable acceptance. That's about as clear an example of a two-track admissions system as you could possibly have, and here it is in black and white.

It's not that these universities are evil law-breakers, it's that they are faced with very real disparities in standardized test scores. And any school that uses standardized tests heavily in its admissions process has got to find a way around those disparities. And bureaucratically, the most convenient way to do that is through the illegal use of racial preferences.

NARRATOR: Despite the assault on Affirmative Action at public universities, elite private schools like Harvard - where the meritocracy began 50 years ago - still pursue racial diversity.

DEREK BOK, Former President, Harvard University: We need diversity. Diversity is part of education. You cannot really have a racially diverse student body without taking race into consideration in the admissions process.

NARRATOR: In a new book called The Shape of the River Derek Bok and former president of Princeton studied the impact of Affirmative Action at 28 selective universities. They presented evidence showing the success of minority students.

WILLIAM BOWEN, Former President, Princeton University: I think most striking is the leadership they are contributing in civic and community life. The ratios of black matriculants leading civic and community organizations to their white classmates- almost twice, in many areas. [www.pbs.org: More debate over tests and diversity]

Very hard choices have to be made in the admission process, and they have to be made not on the basis of who has achieved a certain test score result at this point in their lives, but on the basis of which set of applicants will really contribute most to the quality of education at this institution and to the larger purposes for America and society, to the need of the society for diverse leadership.

NARRATOR: April, 1999. Berkeley and many of America's top universities have decided who they will admit to their next freshman class. In Orinda, Marlow Schindler is awaiting letters from 14 schools, including Berkeley and, most important, Harvard.

MARLOW SCHINDLER, Miramonte High School: [opening letter] Fuck!

MARLOW'S FATHER: Oh, honey! There's a big envelope in there from somebody. Penn.

MARLOW SCHINDLER: Well, that's nice.

MARLOW's MOTHER: It's good.

MARLOW SCHINDLER: Yeah.

MARLOW'S FATHER: It says it's an ivy league school.

MARLOW SCHINDLER: I like U. Penn a lot.

MARLOW'S FATHER: And Harvard wasn't your first choice, hon. It was a shot in the dark. Yeah, I know.

NARRATOR: Marlow was accepted at Berkeley and 10 other schools. In the end, she decided to go to Columbia.

In Richmond, Betsy Ruiz has been waiting four months to hear from Berkeley.

BETSY RUIZ, Kennedy High School: I don't want to open it! The moment of truth. [reads] "Congratulations. I am pleased to offer you admission." Mom, they accepted me!

BETSY'S MOTHER: Congratulations, Betsy!

NARRATOR: In San Francisco, Jenny Lee is still putting all her hopes on Berkeley.

JENNY LEE, Wallenberg High School: [reads] "Congratulations." Yeah!

JENNY'S FATHER: Thank you, U.C. Berkeley! I'm proud of you, Jenny!

JENNY LEE: Thank you, Daddy.

NARRATOR: Jonathan Antenore had already been accepted at U.C. Santa Cruz, but Cal was still his first choice.

JONATHAN ANTENORE, Wallenberg High School: Nope. I can always appeal. That's it. [reads] "We realize that many applicants will be disappointed to learn that they have not been accepted at U.C. Berkeley"-

NARRATOR: Jonathan decided to appeal Berkeley's decision. A month later, he was admitted.

Back in Orinda, Fred An is waiting to find out if his two-year solitary life in California will pay off.

FRED AN, Miramonte High School: When I got the letter, I knew that I didn't get in. I had a lot of feelings in my head, but I had to call my parents. I talked to both of them- you know, my mom and dad. They didn't, you know, put me down or anything. They were just supportive the whole time.

OMAR RODRIGUEZ, San Benito High School: I'm not accepted.

OMAR'S FATHER: We're disappointed. We were teaching him that you work hard and you get rewarded. And it's kind of hard to tell him that now when, you know, he gets a letter saying he's not being accepted someplace.

OMAR RODRIGUEZ: I'm not sure if all my effort in school was worth it right now. But I guess I wasn't good enough, or I didn't meet their expectations.

NARRATOR: Omar Rodriguez did not appeal and, like Fred, decided to go to a community college.

J.K. DELANE: It's got to be a joke, man. [reads] "Congratulations." Oh, my God! Oh, man! "Congratulations." I got in!

NARRATOR: The students we followed showed unexpected results when it came to SAT scores. Low-scoring students were admitted, and some high-scoring ones were not. Though Berkeley's minority numbers were up slightly this year compared to the years before Prop 209, they are substantially down.

NICHOLAS LEMANN, Author, "The Big Test": People forget this. The kids who get into Berkeley not on the basis of the SAT scores are still super, outstanding kids who have gone through life acing everything, and are considered by their high schools to be their best kids. Berkeley is still operating on the principle of merit. They're just defining merit more broadly than just that one number, the test score. And I suspect that the whole country is also going to move in that direction as this fight plays out over the years.

But buckle your seat belts because the ride is going to get very rocky on this question of what is merit and who gets to have membership in this meritocratic elite.

 

CREDITS DURING PREVIEW

SECRETS OF THE SAT

 

WRITTEN, PRODUCED

AND DIRECTED BY

Michael Chandler

 

SENIOR PRODUCER

Sharon Tiller

 

EDITED BY

Wendy Wank

 

ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS

Camille Servan-Schreiber

Gabriela Quiros

Andy Gilbert

 

ASSISTANT PRODUCERS

Saidah Said

Sapana Sakya

 

NARRATOR

Will Lyman

 

CONSULTANTS

Nicholas Lemann

Lydia Chavez

 

CAMERA

Tony Pagano

David Dellaria

Camille Servan-Schreiber

 

ADDITIONAL CAMERA

T. Robin Hirsh

Josiah Hooper

Stephen Lighthill

Norman Lloyd

Vicki McClure

Peter Nicks

John Rogers

 

STEADYCAM

Alec Jarnagin

 

SOUND

David Baumgartner

Rick Juliano

Andrew Gilbert

Saidah Said

 

ADDITIONAL SOUND

Matthew Chandler

Sarah Chinn

James Lindsey

Witt Monts

Richard Tropiano

Katrina Friedman

Mark Wilson

Ed Wong

 

ORIGINAL MUSIC

Jim Sullivan

 

ONLINE EDITOR

Michael A. Dawson

 

SOUND MIX

Jim Sullivan

 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT

Jeffrey Chandler

 

ASSISTANT EDITOR

Gabriela Quiros

 

WEBSITE

Craig Delaval

Lisa Goldstein

Jeff Gove

Sara Maamouri

 

ARCHIVAL MATERIALS

Educational Testing Service

Harvard University Archives

University of California,

Berkeley Media Services

The College Board

Kaplan Educational Centers

Massachusetts Historical Society

Berkeley in the Sixties,

KRON and Mark Kitchell

KTVU

 

THANKS TO

Timothy Corlis, Educational Testing Services

The Antenore, Delane, Lee,

Rodriguez, Ruiz, Schindler,

and Rios families

Kimberly Noble

Yu-Hsuan Lee

Shani Chapman

John F. Kennedy, Miramonte,

Lowell, Wallenberg, and

San Benito High Schools

Kaplan Educational Centers

Melissa Mack, Kaplan

Janice Gams, The College Board

Maria Blanco, MALDEF

Jerry Blakemore

Lee Bollinger

Clint Bolick

Nathan Glazer

Jonathan Grayer

Lani Guinier

Christopher Jencks

Lauren Meggison

Abigail Thernstrom

Ling-Chi Wang

Television Race Initiative

 

SPECIAL THANKS TO

The Sandler Family

Supporting Foundation

and

The Graduate School

of Journalism, U.C. Berkeley

 

 

PRODUCTION MANAGER

Tim Mangini

 

POST PRODUCTION

PRODUCER

M.G. Rabinow

 

SENIOR EDITOR

Steve Audette

 

AVID EDITOR

Michael A. Dawson

 

POST PRODUCTION

COORDINATOR

Julie Parker O'Brien

 

SERIES MUSIC

Mason Daring

Martin Brody

 

SERIES GRAPHICS

LoConte Goldman Design

 

CLOSED CAPTIONING

The Caption Center

 

COMMUNICATIONS

MANAGER

Erin Martin

 

PUBLICIST

Christopher Kelly

 

OUTREACH

COORDINATOR

Jessica Smith

 

PROMOTION ASSISTANT

Sarah Moughty

 

SECRETARY

Anna Dvorsky

 

SENIOR STAFF ASSOCIATE

Lee Ann Donner

 

UNIT MANAGERS

Veronica Gibeault

Douglas D. Milton

 

BUSINESS MANAGER

Robert O'Connell

 

WEBSITE RESEARCH

ASSISTANT

Scott Clevenger

 

WEBSITE ASSOCIATE

PRODUCER

Stephanie Ault

 

WEBSITE PRODUCER/

DESIGNER

Sam Bailey

SPECIAL PROJECTS

ASSISTANT

Catherine Wright

 

EDITORIAL RESEARCHER

Dana Reinhardt

 

COORDINATING PRODUCER

Robin Parmelee

 

SERIES EDITOR

Karen O'Connor

 

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

Marrie Campbell

 

SERIES MANAGER

Jim Bracciale

 

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

Michael Sullivan

 

 

 

SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

David Fanning

 

 

A FRONTLINE coproduction with

Cam Bay Productions

 

© 1999

WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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