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teachers' guide: secrets of the sat


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With competition for scarce admissions spaces at the nation's elite colleges and universities at an all-time high, getting high scores on the SAT has become a national obsession. But where did this test come from and why do students take it? What does the SAT really measure?

FRONTLINE's "Secrets of the SAT" examines the importance of the SAT in the college admissions process. The film follows a group of San Francisco Bay Area high school seniors through the stressful college application process, raising troubling questions about how the most selective schools decide who gets in.

Drawing on the work of author Nicholas Lemann in his new book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, FRONTLINE looks at this never-before told story, from the SAT's origins in IQ testing to an overemphasis on standardized testing in the minds of today's students and parents. "The level of obsession over these tests is way out of proportion to what they actually measure," explains Lemann.

Originally, the SAT was designed to make the elite universities and colleges in America accessible to students based on standards of intelligence, not privilege. However, today's use of the test has fallen short of the revolutionizing effects its creators intended. SAT scores have a high correlation with family income, with young people from high-income families scoring higher than those from low income families. A large and persistent gap exists in the performance of different ethnic groups, with African-American and Latino students performing, on average, below white and Asian students [see Figure 1, "The Great Divide"].

The Great Divide [Figure 1]

  • African-American and Latino students perform, on average, below white and Asian students, with an average African-American student scoring 93 points below an average white student on the SAT I Verbal and 106 points below on the SAT I Math.
  • Women score, on average, 36 points below men on the SAT I Math and 43 points below men overall.
  • An average SAT I test-taker from a family earning less than $10,000 a year scored 871, with scores rising in correlation to income to 1130 for the average person from a family earning more than $100,000.

Source: 1999 College-Bound Seniors National Report, The College Board (1999).

The black-white test score gap, though large, eludes easy explanation. Psychology professor Claude Steele of Stanford University has conducted research that may partly explain this disparity. His studies focus on the way various groups lose confidence in their abilities under the high pressure setting of test-taking, an effect he calls "stereotype threat." "We are thinking of [the SAT] as some objective, uncontaminated measure of merit," says Steele. "It is not that."

Until recently, affirmative action policies partially compensated for racial discrepancies in test scores. Now those very same programs are under attack across the country. "It's not that these universities are evil law-breakers," says Terence Pell, a lawyer at the Center for Individual Rights, which is suing the University of Michigan over its affirmative action policy. "It's that they are faced with very real disparities in standardized test scores."

To discover just how important SAT scores are to a student's future, FRONTLINE went inside the admissions process at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the country's most prestigious public universities and the "jewel in the crown" of the UC system. Berkeley's applicant pool has skyrocketed over the last decade. With 31,000 applications for 8,500 acceptance spots, it rivals the Ivy League in selectivity.

Berkeley administrators say the admissions process is shifting away from numbers and towards a more comprehensive evaluation. "I think in every case we get past the numbers," says Berkeley Director of Admissions Bob Laird. He explains that the University now considers the full range of a student's portfolio-course of study, class rank, essays, income, grades, and test scores-everything but race, which was banned when Proposition 209 was passed by California voters in 1996. Laird also notes that it is important to look at each applicant's record and to consider many factors, including their life circumstances.

Critics believe the limitations of the SAT require that it have a lesser role in college admissions. Others fear this would lead to grade inflation and a loss of standards. "We have built the American meritocracy on the rock of test scores," says the film's producer, Michael Chandler, "and we need to ask ourselves as a society what that means for the education of all students, not just students of color."

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