secrets of the sat
absolutely nothing here
What are your views on the importance of the SAT score?  And, should colleges and universities take race into account as a plus factor in admissions decisions?
navigation, see text below


I was quite moved by the story. I have always believed a standardized test can NOT measure my intelligence or what I am capable of doing in my career.

Briefly, I attended a predominantly white junior high and high school in Jackson, Mississippi. I was involved in student council and various clubs. I was voted Most Loyal and Wittiest in junior high and high school. In 1983, I entered two art pieces in the Scholastic Art Competition and won a Gold Key and a Certificate of Merit for the art pieces I created in pencil and stipple. Also, I won various other awards for my leadership skills and was recognized for my academics.

In 1981, my peers voted in a school held election and I became the first Black, female Vice-President and President of the student body from 1981-1983. Meanwhile, I maintained a B average and was ranked 27th in a class of 211 students.

When I took the ACT and SAT test, I was nervous and some how felt the tests were unfair. I will never forget what my high school counselor told me after he received my scores, "your test scores reveal you should BE..." I was furious and thought to myself, how can this counselor tell me what I will become based on my ACT and SAT scores. I became more determined to show him and the testing center what I thought.

In 1987, I became the first person in my immediate family to graduate from a university or college. I EARNED a Bachelor of Science degree in Management with a minor in Healthcare Administration from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. While working a full-time job at MDHS, I EARNED a Masters degree in Public Policy and Administration from Jackson State University in 1997. Currently, I am employed with MSDH.

I am NO WAY bragging about what I have accomplished but I want someone to know that standardize testing should not be a way to indicate what a person is capable of doing in college or graduate school.

The pressure on young children and teenagers is great. When a high school shooting occurs, the media and community automatically want to know the reason why teenagers are resulting to violent behavior to be noticed as someone. How can society tell children and teenagers not to judge their peers or label some teenagers as outcasts when SOCIETY tells us what our intelligence is worth based on how well we score on standardized tests?

My common sense, determination, and academics proved my high school counselor wrong as well as the officials at the ACT and SAT testing centers. How many high students will listen to rhetoric about standardized tests and become discouraged?

Keisi D.V. Ward
Jackson, Mississippi


I knew the race/ethnic background of almost all of the 5 sample applications [on the web site's WHO WAS GOOD ENOUGH? section] b/c the applicant him/herself brought it out somewhere in the application. As long as some low scores, like those in the 800's, are admitted due to some spectacular achievement or effort level, and a few are admitted based solely on their high intelligence, and these are the two ends of the spectrum, why complain?

I'd like to add a personal note: I am an Asian-American female and a Post-Graduate professional. Perhaps my ethnicity was considered at some point along the way. But as long as being a woman and an Asian person and many other things are part of who I am, they will always play a role in my Application, probably both positively and negatively in different instances.

However, the bottom line is evident.
A Intelligence + B Motivation/Special Personal Traits = C Success. A or B but not both may = some C. But neither A nor B = Never C, unless you win the lottery! It will all take care of itself. Chill out!

xxx, East Texas


Why is it necessary to include the family income of the applicant? If the applicant comes from a poor family or a rich family, he feels prejudged.

Why not let the process go forward without family income as a criteria? Is there a reason to have economic warfare when so many people are moving in and out of wealth? Also, why penalize the child either because he is wealthy or poor? Most had nothing to do with their financial circumstance. Just as we have race blind consideration we should have economic blind consideration.

Wayne Stephens


I watched your show and I must applaud you for taking on a very difficult subject. As an African-American male it reminded me very much of my obssession with the SAT when I wanted to go to college. for those non liberals who may be wondering, I was an honor student in high school and went to the University of Pennsylvania!

I firmly believe that the SAT has been over emphasized in the admission process and has been a lightning rod for those that want to frame the debate against affirmative action. I was very happy to see that despite Prop 209 Berkley still valued diversity on it's campus. But, I like some of those that have commented, was disturbed by the students obssesion with the school. There are many excellent schools in this country. These students needed to broaden their horizons, success in life is not determined by getting accepted or rejected by one particular academic institution!

D Brooks


The SAT measures certain kinds of aptitudes, and also tests one's testing skills. I doubt whether intelligence can be added by Princeton Review or Kaplan courses, but they can certainly enhance one's test taking abilities. In any case, the SATs and ACTs are one of the last bastions of some standard way to measure achievement...and more importantly, as a sound predictor of future academic attainment.

If SAT-point-adding affirmative action is giving the less talented / less knowledgeable an artificial boost in order to play "catch up" in college then perhaps we should instead focus on earlier intervention and reevaluate the way we educate our children, fund their education, and whether people have the fundamental right to have children regardless of their ability to nurture and educate them.

David Ochroch


Your program on the SAT did not address the available statistics showing that admitees under race preferences who otherwise would not have been admitted under objective standards have a far worse drop-out rate. In neglecting to discuss the other fine but less famous institutions these students would have attended, and more likely have flourished, you fail to illustrate how race preferences can hurt those they are intended to help.

The brief admission that the SAT predicts 15% of the variance in freshman grades failed to acknowledge that this is not only a significant factor in the eyes of a trained statistician, but it is the *best* predictor available. Furthermore, performance on the SAT is an even stronbger predictor for preferenced minorities than for whites and asians.

Bennet langlotz
portland, OR


Provocative. Substitute "IQ Test" for "SAT" and you've got "The Bell Curve".
I have a personal anecdote, and a remark.
I mentioned once to my spouse - who has no college background - that one of my life's biggest disappointments was not being admitted to MIT. Like some of the students that you profiled, I wanted to attend an "elite" since I was in elementary school. My wife's response: What's MIT? She was literally unaware of that institution.

And you know what? She's right. You see, I ended-up attending a university the college of which Gasp! drew heavily from working-class families. Happily, I discovered the school, Pitt, had one of the finest Philosophy Departments in the world.

I studied Logic, and, despite the fact that I am decidedly not successful in our popular culture's orhodox sense, I have never regretted it.

My remark: as to the "successful" writer who lamented that maybe he should "...make my kids work after school selling french fries", that might not be a bad idea. He and his children may learn some valuable lessons.

Richard Russell Wood
McKees Rocks, PA


No matter what we do as a nation, kids are going to be competing for admission to the top notch universities. The nature of our society in America is based on individualism--commitment to personal initiative, self-sufficiency, and material accumulation--the individual is the foundation of society. This embrace of individualism is also why America is the EASIEST place in the world to get a college education--we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to make their own life better and their dreams a reality.

More minorities should have the same opportunities as majority groups, but to achieve this society as a whole needs to shift its attitudes so that people won't feel like they have to live up to demeaning stereotypes--be they fat, skinny, white, black, nerd, or jock. American society is based on individualism, but equally important, it is based on diversity.

Marchese Jonathon


Cut me a break. The study showing blacks choking on the test based on whether they thought they were being compared to whites or not is just the latest weak attempt to explain black-white differences.

It has been said that measurement of I.Q., which correlates with SATs, it one of the greatest achievements of social science. It does predict success in school and life. This so called experiment must be peer reviewed and repeated before being believed; and Frontline provided no evidence that it has.

For Frontline to present this unbelieveable evidence without colaborating evidence, or counter arguments, is all too typical of Liberal PBS and its most Liberal arm, Frontline. Come on, the guy got an 880; you get 400 for just sitting down and signing the test.

Lets strive to get blacks to achieve their potential by putting them in appropriate schools based on their merit and graduating them. Lets put them in appropriate jobs based on their grades in college. Lets eliminate racial quotas in construction and hiring in Detroit schools so the poor kids can go to schools with heat and toilet paper.
In the long run, we'll all be better off, including blacks.

I'll never know what it is like to be black, but I like to think I would be a lot happier knowing what I had achieved was based on merit, not skin color.

[ED. NOTE: A list of Claude Steele's peer-reviewed articles documenting the "stereotype threat" in test-taking, can be found at the end of Steele's interview in the "INTERVIEWS" section of this web site.]

Mike Calahan
Ferndale, Mich


As a high school senior dealing with the pressure of being good enough to get into a good college, I empathized with the students featured on your show.

On the wealth issue, I strongly believe the SAT is not an equal-opportunity test. I attend an elite independent school, where most of my classmates have paid hundreds of dollars to improve their test scores. How can anyone say that the test is fair when the rich can get guarantees of doing hundreds of points better and the poor are left to do the best they can on their own?
On the racial issue, I am still grieving over the end of affirmative action. Simply put, life is harder for minorities. Teachers expect less of you, your parents are more likely to be less educated and poorer than those of your peers, and so on. How can race be ignored in the admissions process? The same level of achievement for a white student and a member of a minority often mean different things-that minority student probably had to work twice as hard to get to the same place.

Context must be considered. If college admissions becomes a completely race-blind process, colleges will become blind to the situations in our society- only the priviliged will be able to attend, and who will tell them about the violence, the poverty, and all the other problems so many Americans face each day? How will they be able to better our country if no one is there to tell them it needs bettering?

College is supposed to train the future leaders of our nation; it will fail in this purpose if the leaders do not know or understand who they are leading. Minorities must be given the opportunity to attend college, not by being admitted with lower test scores, but by rooting out the problem where it begins. Lack of AP courses, absence of guidance at an earlier age, no access to technology, etc. all create the disadvantage so many minorities and poorer people face. Solving these problems first will help even the playing field, but until then, the disparity between the challenges high school students have faced in their lives, especially those caused by race or lack of wealth, need to be taken into account to make the college process fair.

Melissa Eccleston


As a teacher in a school district with a large minority population, I have witnessed first-hand the consequences of placing diligent but unprepared students in advanced academic environments.

Invariably these students, however well motivated, slow down the class and cause the true advanced students to learn at an artifically for them slow pace. The teacher, in an effort to accomodate these hard-working students and always aware of the omnipresent "failure rate", lowers class standards and covers less of the curriculum.

The great equalizer is the SAT and/or ACT. Students who THINK they possess a superior educational background by virtue of their impressive array of honors and AP classes are often surprised dismayed when their test scores indicate how unprepared they really are. The student who made an 850 on the SAT is in for a tough time at Berkley...

RoseAnn Yearick


Dear PBS,

I took the test to see if I could guess if the 5 applicants would make it to CAL - Berkley. What a social engineering project. Every disadvantaged student was admitted while an applicant with a 1550 SAT wasn't. Your independent adjudicator is definetly a social scientist liberal.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The applicant with the 1550 score DID get admitted.]

tom smith
burke, va


I thought your report was very captivating. I do agree with the premise that the SAT can be culturally bias.

I also think that the 5 students' cases illustrated how this "cultural bias" draw back of the SAT is being overcome in liberal, politically correct, public university systems.

Michael Khan
lawndale, Ca


I want to commend you for choosing to do a story on a topic that receives little press scrutiny considering its importance to education in this country.

As one who has worked on both sides of the admissions process, both as an admissions officer and a college counselor, and understands all too well what impact SAT scores have on young people, I am happy to see any attempt by journalists to expose the failings of this test run amok. I only wish you had been more aggessive in uncovering the facts behind the dicrepency of claims for improved test scores put forth by commercial test-prep companies such as Kaplan, versus statements from the College Board that scores can be improved on average only about 25 points for the combined SAT.

I've done some informal investigating myself, and it's obvious to me that student's scores tend to improve-- without the benefit of coaching-- simply upon retesting. Not all, but for a significant number of students, especially those retesting in the fall of their senior year after an initial test in the spring of the junior year, the scores will jump up.

I hate to see these companies who feed upon the fear of college-bound students and their parents and likewise benefit financially from an impovement that will likely occur without their "expert" coaching. Aside from the point made in your program by the student who elected to seek test preparation via a relatively inexpensive CDRom as opposed to an $800 coaching program, your program failed to report that students can acquire test familiarization and learn test-taking strategies and tips free of charge via the prep booklets supplied in bulk to every high school in the U.S. by the College Board.

You could have also pointed out that several highly selective colleges, such as Bates and Middlebury, make perfectly sound admissions decisions on a significant proportion of their applicant pools without the use of SAT I scores.

Phil Hooper
Memphis, Tennessee


A great show last night. It was almost disturbing for me to see just how important it was for some of the young people to get into Berkeley. It was as if they would not be complete, or they would be a failure if they did not get in.

Just as disturbing was the importance of high SAT scores.
It was also really interesting that the program focused on the most elite school in the public university system. The short flashbacks to the 60s showed how it became that way. If I was younger, I probably would have set my sights on Berkeley because of the diversity and challenge it offers to young people.
Education is important.

But are we setting our young people up for failure by expecting them to compete and get into certain schools when they're so very young? I'm referring to the younger kids who were taking the SAT class. They sounded like they were mimicking their parents in the answers they provided to the program on the importance of getting high scores on the SATs.

Leonora Florendo


home | discussion | who got in? | interviews | the race issue | sat & test prep | history of the sat
the screening process | test score gap | getting in to berkeley | bibliography | links | video excerpt
tapes & transcripts | press | links

FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation



Solitary NationApril 22nd


../test/ ../talk/ ../race/ ../interviews/ ../who/ ../