secrets of the sat
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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?
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Dear FRONTLINE,

I have to give Frontline the guts award. Last night I watched the program. My heart was broken watching the views of the law professor, Mr. Yoo talk about his opposition against affirmative action.

As an African American male I wanted to force him to take the 'have you walked in my shoes' test. I read his interview with Frontline on the Web page and for someone to say affirmative action was a failure it's obvious he hasn't lived the 'black experience' in the US. Did he listen to one of the seniors on the program who said this admission to the Berkeley campus will change her entire life. The Hispanic female teenager from Richmond was in tears with her mother in the living room for Pete's sake. The affluent white female teenager's attitude was a little vain because she was 'only' accepted to X out of FOURTEEN??

My point is many families want the best for their children. This notion of the best brains of a public campus geared to compete with the best private institutions in the country is great. However, the key word is PUBLIC institution. If the California families' tax dollars are used to fund Mr. Yoo's salary, then their kids should have every right to be able to walk on that campus if the public school system can produce the students. If they cannot, I wonder why?

I just want the same books and training in the classrooms that the kids in Beverly Hills has for their kids. Furthermore, the training and preparation affluent kids have available for them should be available for all the kids in the not so affluent areas of the entire US. How are the affluent able to afford this luxury? Because their parents' income produces the tax revenue back into the school system/district enabling the quality of education to rise. The circle effect has to start somewhere. In this case, the admission to Berkeley is the starting point for the education which leads to the job, leading to the gross income in the household, to the house/neighborhood, to the taxes generated, leading back to the children in most cases. Get with the program Mr. Yoo. How can you feel the way you do??? It's time for you to take some tanning pills and live as a 'minority' looked upon as a criminal being harrassed by the police,security guards in department stores and face the disrimination of redlining. Oh yeah, while this is going on I have to get a quality education also. Until then, remember, you just don't know.

c c

Dear FRONTLINE,


Thank you for your program on SAT's and college admissions. As a senior English teacher, I was interested to see what admissions committees are looking for in incoming freshmen. My classes at Contra Costa Christian High School just turned in their first paper cycle, their college essays. I will certainly keep in mind many of the comments of the Berkeley admissions committee members as I reread my students' essays.

As I was discussing your program with our school's academic dean, I thought of one question your program neither raised nor answered. What about tests like the ACT? I realize you can only scratch the surface of a complex and charged topic in a one hour program. However, I would be interested in knowing whether the ACT's or any other standarized test provides any more accurate information to admissions teams.

Thanks again for your intriguing and helpful program.


Elisabeth Brooke
walnut creek, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

October 6, 1999

To begin with I am not a member of PBS and I have long since removed the channel from my remote. However, I read about the program, Secrets of the SATs, and I had to see how you would handle the topic. I must say I was in no way surprised by Frontlines treatment. It was clearly the same guilt-ridden liberal, pity and sympathy treatment for the downtrodden and underclass for which PBS is notorious.

Do SATs test ěintelligenceî? Yes. They clearly show skills in problem solving within time constrains; a great evolutionary survival skill in adapting and improving your environment. As with the ěDonutî example, even learning how to reason about reasoning is a sign of higher intelligence.

You had a student who was the son of an immigrant farm worker and for this he believes he should get into Berkley even without the grades. Clearly, he doesnít understand the concept of ěpaying your duesî even in the large context of society. If his father never had the means to attend college but his son is now able to do so, the son can attend the best college comparable with his skills. If the son succeeds and gets a good job, his children can perhaps attend Berkley. The United States of America is the land of opportunity, not guarantees. How in the world did we ever get to the point where everyone is supposed to be equal in talent and abilities at every moment? We all know itís not true but we seem desperate to believe it's supposed to be.

Critics of the SATs concerning race and ethnicity love to deride the affluent for having the money advantage to pay for supplemental coaching. The claim is that the rich can pay to be smart. This is as backward as claiming poverty produces crime when, in fact, high levels of crime drive out businesses and people leading to poverty. The reason affluent people have money is because they have the intelligence to gain and retain wealth. People who are not intelligent donít have money because they lack the intelligence to attain it or hold on to it. We can do all we want to tweak the system and by putting more students of color, diversity, and ethnicity in schools and then give them jobs through affirmative action but these people of mediocre intelligence will only pass on their mediocre genetic intelligence to their own children. This is the ultimate in the genetic dumbing-down of America. The Minnesota Twin study clearly showed that IQ is more closely related to genetics than environment. The sad part is that the best students will be sacrificed at the altar of ědiversityî and ěcultural enrichment". The less gifted would fail later in life if they didnít have the affirmative action system in place to perpetuate the farce. A true American tragedy. In the long run, society will loose out because of ědiversityî. I hope Frontline does a follow up in four years just to see how the less able did. I know and I strongly suspect most others know the answer but they are too afraid to admit to themselves what they know to be the truth.

As for Mr. Steelesí ěStereotype Threatî which I read in the Atlantic Monthly, Iím still waiting to read his study and data in a peer review journal. His argument is weak if he even has one. If there is a ěChokeî Factor, as I would call it, it too represents a threat to social progress and safety. Do we really want to put a black pilot in a cockpit of a passenger airline and hope he doesnít choke when heís feeling ějudgedî or under pressure? Can we ever achieve a society where people donít feel pressured to succeed? Isnít that pressure and competition a great drive for advancement and innovation?

The collegiate ědiversityî zealots have us on a dangerous path leading to mediocrity. What we are creating is a unproductive, self-obsessed bureaucratic class that write meaningless, long-winded tomes which praise, champion, and exult their own petty contributions to society i.e. Henry Gates Jr..

We can fudge numbers to get less qualified engineering students into MIT but they will be unable to build a better super computer.

Give me standardized tests and meritocracy any day.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: A list of peer reviewed articles documenting Steele's findings can be found at the end of Steele's interview in the "INTERVIEWS" section of this web site.]


David Gancarz
Buffalo, New York

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was dismayed at the attitude of the father of the young man who, denied admission to Berkeley, resorted to a community college not a bad choice in itself, but seemingly strange in light of all the parental hullabaloo portrayed in the segment. The father stated, in effect, that his son's rejection was a negation of the American dream -- in essence, what is the point of working hard for a goal if one must face failure?
How is a young person to prepare for disappointment if such is the attitude his own parent takes? There are no guarantees in life, nor should a person -- of any socioeconomic or demographic group -- expect everything to be delivered on the proverbial "silver platter".
How unfortunate that school guidance in the case of this candidate seemed not to have pointed him to other college options that would take him behond the "all or nothing" aproach some of these applicants had toward Berkeley. And certainly such an approach embodies a "snobbism" of the worst possible kind -- for what can be worse than academic snobbism? One can see it quite clearly in the case of the young woman not happy enough to be accepted to Berkeley and other Ivies because Harvard denied her application.

In many cases, it appears that the parents' ego -- and own obvious refusal to guide their offspring in practical fashion as they foolishly misidentify the American dream with the "right school" and "right profession" -- is the prime factor in such pointless disappointment for the fine young people who are aiming to please them.

The best approach for parents and guidance counselors is to encourage students to apply to a variety of schools -- from "stretch to safety" -- aiming for those institutions where there is both a realistic possibility for admission as well as a chance for a "good match" between student and school.
I write as a graduate and alumni admissions interviewer for one of the most selective liberal arts' colleges in the nation. My own outstanding Senior student and SAT-taker has warned me, quite bluntly, not to downgrade or belittle schools that are not Ivy League or state flagship institutions. I am proud of his mature attitude.
After all, college admission should be about the student, not the parent!

D. Guerra

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank-you for last night's "Frontline" program and the supplementary content here on the Web. I think this is a fine example of synergy between the two media and wish you continued success with it.

One tidbit I had hoped to glean from the broadcast was a current estimate of the predictive validity of the SAT. Bob Schaeffer of FairTest provided when when he mentioned that the test accounts for about 15% of the variance in first-year college GPA. My recollection is that earlier estimates, circa 1970, were much lower -- in the 6-8% range -- but this might be explained by different motivations of many students during the Vietnam era.

In any event, it's worth pointing out that most of the variance in first-year grades, after factoring out test scores and high school GPA, is a result of "statistical error" such as motivation, emotional maturity, and the like.

In light of this, I've always been a lukewarm supporter of the SAT, feeling that it adds a little bit of predictive power at the margins of the admissions process at a negligible cost. I was disturbed, then, by the implication in the "Who Got In" section of the website that a 1500+ score still seems to be a free pass to some competitive schools even when the rest of the applicant's record indicates underachievement. In fairness to the admissions reader, after reading her comments it was easy to picture her holding her nose as she made the "Admit" recommendation.


tommy kevin

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was an "affirmative action" baby who had low SAT scores that attended UC Berkeley. The SAT DOES NOT predict college success. I graduated from CAL in Dec 1998 with a 3.6 gpa while, at the same time, raising my daughter. It horrifies me to know that students are feeling like failures just b/c they did not get into this institution.

I would like to know where the guy from San Francisco who stated that 80% of students admitted w/ low test dropped out, got his stats from? ALL of the students of color that I entered CAL with have graduated, many of whom are in GRADUATE school now!!!! Standardized testing is a measure used to weed out certain individuals from having access to certain institutions and is very class-based. I strongly believe that a person's motivation and perseverance will take them much further in life than a stupid test. I am living proof of this!!!!!


Nicole Collins
Berkeley, Ca

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for a wonderful introduction to a very troubling problem. As a Professor at a small public rural community college I see many students every term that had a dream of attending some trophy university. For a number of reasons they did not make the cut and they end up in my classes. Not only are these students gifted and bright, but they also have the added advantage of having learned that failure is not fatal. Taken as a group our transfer students do statistically significantly better than the native student of our three state universities and therefore have not been harmed, but rather helped by our college and at a much lower cost. The core assumption of this episode, that only an education from "University X", will lead to absolute success is not only wrong-headed and incorrect, it is also anti-democratic and elitist in the worst possible way. As a Professor at what the Truman Commission called Democracy's College I urge and invite all prospective college students and their parents to seek out America's best educational buy their local community college. A student who takes that advice and invests the huge cost savings in a no-load mutual fund will reap not only a superb education, but also a significant increase in the expected value of their lifetime earnings.

Terry Lovell
Prescott, AZ

Dear FRONTLINE,

My husband and I called in our 16 year old junior to watch your program. It turned out to be the best insight to understanding the college application process.

The Stanford Professor who did the studies with the success rate of the different demographics was at first unsettling because he showed how mind over matter can make a difference. But that singular point gave my husband and I the opportunity to show our son how he not only needs to present himself but how to think of the SATS.
I am sorry that the student who was not accepted into Berkeley went on to the community college. California's University system has to be one of the few states in our country that is so "user unfriendly" to its own populace applying to the UC system.

In closing, I have one question. Students that go to private schools--are their GPAs given higher points because private schools are "more advanced"; ie. a student at a private school with a GPA of 3.8 would be considered a 3.9 whereas a student from a public school with a GPA of 3.8 would not be given the same advantage.
Believe it or not, this discussion is going on and I think it is rediculous but is this another mind over mattter thing?

Charlotte McCarty
Northridge, California

Dear FRONTLINE,

I believe you covered as much as possible in an hour time-slot. However, I would have liked to see an additional hour devoted to testing in general. I am a perfect example of a person who did not perform well in academia when testing was the primary means of evaluation. However, I was fortunate to find colleges late in life that evaluated students on the basis of their written work, i.e. research papers, verbatims, theses, etc.

In New York State, Empire State College has a fine reputation for graduating students on the basis of written work and one-on-one meetings with professors. Having graduated from Empire in 1992, I moved on to graduate studies at St. Bernard's Institute and graduated with an M.A. in Theology. The grading criteria was based on reading assignments and written work, combined with an ability to verbally articulate course material. I am currently studying for an M.Div.

I use my example to illustrate that high schools and colleges need to take into consideration various learning styles. Exams, whether they be the SAT or other formats, incorrectly categorize students as having similar study methodologies. This is obviously not the case, as proven in your documentary.

Nevertheless, your documentary was exemplary.


Raymond Grosswirth
Rochester, New York

Dear FRONTLINE,

I thought the show was excellent, and it begged several issues.
The first issue implied is the phenomenon in our culture that success is only for some. The fact that only some applicants are accepted means that by some criteria or other, there is a rationing of success. As a Jamaican living in Canada once put it in a public radio show, someone's got to be the nigger. As long as we live this way, there will be inequity.
Another issue raised by implication is the all-or-nothing nature of the selection process. Modern perception is binary to an absurd degree. The alternatives presented were Cal Berkeley or Burger King. What's wrong with going to St. Cloud State or Slippery Rock? There's plenty of success available to be had from studying at these institutions.
Another question begged is just what great benefit to the world is guaranteed by graduating from the lofty institutions that so exclusively choose their students. Has any Harvard or Berkeley graduate solved the problem of the ozone shield or global warming? Have any economists from these hallowed halls found a way to guarantee infinite growth of output that our system needs to survive? Not that I have heard.
It could be that we become so good at selecting for the elites that we fail to select for what is really important: our own survival.


John Hamilton
Madison, WI

Dear FRONTLINE,

The most frightening aspects of the broadcast, in my view, were two assumptions. One, that "elite schools" hold a monopoly on "success" never defined -- we assume it's money and statusand that those who don't obtain the brass ring might just as well give up any hope of a satisfying life. The other is the assumption that learning and thinking fall so far behind the goal of careerism that they are never even mentioned as reasons for wanting to attend the superschools, the likes of which can be found nowhere. It's Berkeley or Harvard and neurosurgery or nothing.

kenneth briggs
easton, pa

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a a non-traditional student, and a high school teacher, I say that we cannot measure intelligence or apptitude with standardized testing. Intelligence and apptitude cannot be standardized. As a person who has been placed on the National Deans list for three separate years, and who perfomed miserably on the GRE, I know and can empathize with those young students who have not performed well. My message to them is:"kids, don't be discouraged, and do not allow your test scores to ruin your dreams; nothing is impossible! There are good institutions out there that will give you the same type of education as an Ivy league school-what you are paying for is the name of the product."
Armand Peloquin

Armand Peloquin
Alamosa, Colorado

Dear FRONTLINE,

I would like to see a program about getting beyond the SAT's and getting beyond the stranglehold the ivies seem to have in the American dream. Particularly disturbing for me, in the show, was that two young men chose to go to community college when they didn't get into Berkely. The California public university system is vast. Why do these young men see Berkely as their only four year option? Why do we allow young people to consider themselves failures if they didn't get into the most competitive school in the country? The SATs have profound impacts well beyond admission decisions. They frame the way young people aspire to achievement, along with denigrating all the perfectly wonderful educations available with an average score. We have to change how and why we value education, take a deep look at the perception of added value at an elite school versus an excellent school not in the ivies.

My child is currently a sophomore in a private college. She had a 4.0 her freshman year in college. She has received numerous academic scholarships. She has been identified as exceptionally gifted since she was 18 months old. She has never taken the SAT. And I prayed that she wouldn't get into the race for the ivies when she looked at colleges because I wanted her to go right on thinking she was smart, gifted and with much to offer the world. And guess what? She does.

therese fitzpatrick
amherst, massachusetts

Dear FRONTLINE,

To turn away an applicant who has a SAT of 1550 just because he is devoted to science almost to the exclusion of other subjects reveals that the admissions officer at the UC Berkeley campus is also an engineer--a social engineer. Reading through the applicationsl, evaluating them with some professional expertise and then noticing who was admitted and who was not, I was struck by the thought that proposition 209 has produced results contrary to the intention of the voters who approved it. The selection favors race over every other factor. Admitting someone, no matter how good their self promotory essay and extra curricular activities, no matter how hard their circumstances have been--someone who cumulative SAT is 850--is absurd. It only asks for trouble. One thing the SAT does is to predict success or failure in college level courses during the freshman year. UC Berkeley does not offer basketweaving. If this young person flunks out after a year, who is to blame? The admissions committee. Who pays the bill for the wasted effort? The youngster and the people of the state of California.

To claim that UC Berkeley has an exclusive selection profile based upon the fact that it admits only 8,000 from a pool of over 30,000 applicants is a joke. Play Russian roulette and you would have more rhyme, more reason that that selection committee displayed. The officers of the school are legally free to adopt any standard except one based upon skin color. The trouble is that skin color, or the shape of a last name are all too easy to summon as criteria for inclusion just as they have been historically for exclusion from the white culture. Skin color has no place in anyone's decision making. Race is a figment of our color vision; genetically there is much more difference between a Caucasian male and a Caucasian female than there is between two males, one African, one Caucasian. I repeat: race is a figment, and any action taken on its basis is ipso facto racism. Therefore the voters of California were quite just in the outcome of their vote on 209 regardless of the motivation behind their individual decisions. So the admission committee needs to put back on its thinking cap easily done in the milieu of the greatest University in the world and find a way to quantify social disadvantage as a criterion for preferred admission. Affirmative action yes, but not based on racism. If those who claim that generations of white racism has disadvantaged people with other skin color, then the social disadvantage preferment will set the scales in balance. Conversely peoples of color whose background has not been disadvantaged, like many Chinese Americans to wit the young lady from San Francisco who admitted that education was pushed, pushed, pushed in her household, then they will not be preferred over some white kid from an impoverished background. Justice would be served much better in this way.

Now as for the SAT. Well, it is SAT or some other test devised by ETS who has a monopoly on such testmaking. Tests are necessary. They motivate achievement and they do, whatever their imperfections, separate the gifted goats from the sheep who should go to junior college. Period.

thom worthen
tucson, AZ

Dear FRONTLINE,

Tonight's Frontline was excellent! Standardized testing is an important and relevant issue facing our society and is greatly controversial. However, I believe that tests such as the SAT, CANNOT validly assess students across the nation withough considering the environment.You cannot 'accurately' conduct any tests without considering the impact of environment. The SAT is not systematically correct because it does not take the reality of diversity and multiculturalism and background into consideration. Such test results are misleading and invalid. An example of a more valid assessment is a group of students taking a final exam in the same course, with the same instructor, in the same school disctrict, with the same preparation. Regarding the SAT, however, it is actually absurd to test such measures and claim that the results are valid. Therefore, regardless of the "race issue" and taking in consideration the environment of the student, it is clear that the SAT or such tests is not reflective of a student's true abilities or profile. Again, this was a great program.

Leti L.

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