secrets of the sat
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pbs_host: While we wait for the experts to join us, please free to submit your questions about the SAT. Joining us tonight will be Michael Chandler, producer of the FRONTLINE film "Secrets of the SAT," which aired last night PBS. The film looks at the growing controversy over this college admissions standard, looking at such questions as "Are we obsessed with the SAT?" "Where did the SAT come from?" "What does it measure?" "How do stereotypes influence performance?" and "How do SAT scores influence admissions?" John Katzman founded Princeton Review in 1981. Its SAT course in now the nation's largest. He also heads the Princeton Review Foundation, a non-profit company that helps disadvantaged students prepare for college admissions. We can still take more questions. Our experts should be here in 6 minutes. Nicholas Lemann is author of "The Big Test: The Secret History of American Meritocracy," an exploration of the fifty-year history of the SAT. Mr. Lemann is also a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll be getting started in just a few minutes. To sumbit a question, type below and hit "ask." Welcome to this evening's chat "Secrets of the SAT." We're ready to go, keep on sending in your questions!

zooey_franny: What other options will be available to judge students getting into college - without the SATs?

Nicholas Lemann: There are two answers to the questions, both of which Pres. Atkinson proposed in his speech. One is to have colleges beef up their admissions officers so that each application folder can be read individually, and the admissions office can make a so called "holistic" assessment of each candidate rather than relying on just numbers. The other way to do it, mutually exclusive, is to replace the SAT with other standarized tests that measure achievement, not aptitude.

John Katzman: A lot of states, including California, require kids to take a test to graduate. And it's likely that universities in those states will simply use those scores rather than make kids take a second test.

jdia23: Whats the difference between the ACT and SAT

Nicholas Lemann: The ACT was a test founded in the late 1950's, by people who objected to the SAT. It was meant to be a different kind of test in two ways: one, it would measure achievement, not aptitude, and two it would be used mainly by schools that were not very selective, as a tool for placement rather than as a way of selecting a tiny minority of applicants for admission. And because of that, the ACT, which is an excellent test, has not generated the same controversy as the SAT.

John Katzman: Since the two tests measure slightly different skills in a slightly different way, the only important thing for kids to know is that they should take a practice SAT and a practice ACT to figure out which presents them best.

Nicholas Lemann: That's good advice. Because the ACT is a good test, all of the Ivy League Universities have announced that they will accept ACT scores instead of SAT tests. Almost no applicants have taken them up on this offer. And John is making a good suggestion, which is if you can get a good score on the ACT you should take them up on the offer.

sobriquet_films: If you've got children preparing to take the SATs should they worry less about them than before?

John Katzman: No. Nobody should worry! But the test is still as important as it ever was. If, though, your kid tests poorly, or does poorly on multiple choice tests, another option, a good option, it to sit out the whole SAT thing, and apply to some of the several hundred colleges that make the SAT optional.

zooey_franny: Are the sats going to dismantled soon?

Michael Chandler: I think if the UC system makes it no longer a requirement I think there is a very good liklihood that the SAT will fade away.

Michael Chandler: The UC system is the largest customer for the SAT, and extremely influential, not only with the public schools, but with private schools as well. It has a lot of clout in the educational world.

John Katzman: It's more than that. If the large state systems - just a few - abandon the SAT, the number of kids who will still take the SAT will drop to the point where the test is economically impossible. The SAT, to the degree it works, works because 1.7 million tests are given every year. That's what pays for ETS's duckpond.

buckley_grace_2000: Are there any tests that accurately can judge a student's college preparedness?

Nicholas Lemann: This gets into an issue that a lot of people don't understand about these tests. What college admission officers are trying to achieve here is something called predictive validity, your freshman year grade point average, not all four years, just your freshman year. The fall off in the college's ability to predict your freshman year grades without the SAT, just using other measures at their disposal, such as high school grades and scores on achievement tests, the fall-off would be minimal. There are plenty of ways to predict academic performance other than the SAT, and no single predictive measure is very powerful all by itself.

John Katzman: We need objective measures. If all colleges had were grades, then every teacher, every high school teacher in the country, would have complete control over your future. At the same time, the idea that one test is a perfect measure for several million kids going to several thousand colleges is absurd. You need a flexible system where you can be tested in the things that you are passionate about.

jgreen14_84: With the SATs covering such a wide spread amount of material, what material should I focus my studying time on for the March 31st test date?

John Katzman: The SAT doesn't cover a lot of material. Focus on middle school math. Fractions, basic geometry like the area and perimeter of a rectangle, or the circumference of a circle.... So a great short term strategy is to go slower and make sure you don't screw up the easy questions. If you don't get to the last questions in a section, don't worry, they are the toughest questions, and you probably would have gotten them wrong anyway.

buckley_grace_2000: What is the argument for discontinuing SAT testing?

Nicholas Lemann: The argument that Atkinson is making, which I think is a very strong argument, tends to be misunderstood, especially by conservatives. Conservatives usually say to me that the liberals only beef with the SAT is that minority on average get lower scores than whites. But that really misses the point that Atkinson was making. What Atkinson was saying I think is that it's unhealthy to have our national educational policy for high school kids a test that isn't linked to what you learn in school. So that preparation for the test doesn't mean studying your course material in school. The really unhealthy thing about the SAT is that it sends the wrong signal to those 1.7 million kids who take it every year.

Michael Chandler: Just to echo what Nick is saying, the conservatives against getting rid of the test... There was an interesting anecdote after one of the screenings of the show... A professor at Harvard said we did a disservice to JK, the young man in the film, because he was going to flunk out. and he is a full time student working 20 hours a week, does community service, and he is doing well in his studies, although he has to admit it's not without a lot of hard work, but he's delighted with his decision to go there.

skipi17: How can the SAT quantify how good of a student you are if you can increase your score by studying or taking "Princeton Review" classes. The ability to take the classes gives richer people a distinct advantage. As does the fact that all the SAT study books cost $20.

Nicholas Lemann: The makers of the test way back when believed sincerely that the test measured that innate capacity of your brain. One person at ETS once said to me "this is like sticking a dipstick into your brain". So it's part of the theology of the test that you can't prepare for it. The makers of the test have been insisting for 50 years at least that you can't prepare for the test, and test preps are useless and a fraud. Meanwhile test prep has grown into a sizeable industry, and the major companies guarantee a score increase. So this is one of the things wrong with the takes young kids into a kind of cynical state where the first thing they do is learn to regard the test makers as people who lie.

John Katzman: Meanwhile, the Princeton Review's toughest competitor is the College Board... who quote enormous score improvements on the cover of their own test prep books. If the SAT were any other test it would be intuitively obvious that people who prepare would do better. Whatever we use to admit kids to college, including measures of what's learned in school, has got to be something of a level playing field. We spend in public schools twice as much per student in rich areas as we do in poor areas. And we wonder why the gap between rich and poor is widening. So we are for sure part of the problem. The starting point of fixing the problem would be to test the things that schools are supposed to teach, and to give every school adequate resources to teach it. In the meantime we work with 15,000 disadvantaged students a year through our foundation programs, and offer free online preparation and books costing $20. But we're not deluded into thinking that that makes things fair.

Michael Chandler: What's the effect of using the SAT II's, and what would the effect be on racial diversity be on a campus like Berkeley?

John Katzman: The SAT II's are still crummy, one size fits all, multiple choice tests. Since they are connected a little to high school curriculae, they are a big improvement. I'm not sure, though, that the change will impact diversity.

sobriquet_films: Wouldn't it be wiser to simply give the SAT less weight than get rid of it altogether?

Nicholas Lemann: This gets to one of the really important issues here. Remember not that many people go to highly selective colleges every year. You have 1.7 million kids taking the test. And out of that group, generously 25 to 50,000 will go to highly selective colleges. So you can't make testing policy for America just based on what is convenient for highly selective colleges making their choice on whom to admit. And completely ignore the question of what effect the test you use has on the high school experience of the great majority of kids taking the test who aren't going to go to these schools. I think the way we should make educational testing policy is to say first, if we are going to have a national test that all or most high school kids are going to take, what should that test be? What test would be most healthy educationally for the millions of kids who are going to take it? Then the secondary question would be, once we have picked that test, are we allowing the Princetons and Berkeley's of the world a measuring stick for them to use in admissions. We are getting to the end of our chat....and will now take some final remarks from our guests....

Nicholas Lemann: I was thrilled by President Atkinson's speech. One reason I was thrilled selfishly, and I think I probably speak for my fellow guests on this show, we tend to often get treated as cranks....suddenly this debate becomes legitimate, because for the first time a truly major figure in the educational world has endorsed the legitimacy of the debate. Atkinson made his speech at a convention. I was invited to make a speech at the exact same convention the year before. And I literaly got booed and heckled by college presidents in the audience. The other thing that was great about Atkinson's speech -- I have found it to be and I suspect my fellow guests have too - really hard to get the debate not to be just about affirmative action. Atkinson hit on all the broad issues -- the difference between aptitude and achievement testing, and the effect of the SAT, not just on college admissions but on high school education. Things change slowly. This debate is going to be with us for awhile. But I feel like it's finally taking place in a meaningful way.

John Katzman: This isn't the start of the debate, it's the end. Five years from now there will be no SAT. And no one will mourn it. Whatever testing systems are put into place, though, will probably last the next fifty years. Every problem started life as a solution to another problem. And the time to figure out what we want our schools to be like is now. Many of the problems of the SAT are shared by other tests that states have implemented in the past five years. Like graduation tests. If we don't think things through, we will simply become a country of very good test takers. Which I guess is not so bad, if you're me. But not great, if you are anybody else. THank you for having me! and if you read Nick's book what you can see very clearly is that this is not just an educational issue, it's a societal issue. This test is seen as the gateway to advancement, and more specifically to material advancement. And both John and Nick have said that we need objective standards - and we do. The problem with the SAT is that for some admissions officers it became the dominant standard. And what started out as a noble idea 50 years ago became peverted. perverted. I am reminded of the anecdote of the frog and the boiling water. I think if the creators of the test looked at it now, they would be quite surprised. When the frog sits in the water and the heat is turned up little by little, I think what the show was trying to say is that the water is boiling. And what Atkinson did was that he questioned that. And I don't think that the debate over the test is over by a long shot. THe emphasis especially in the President's proposals for national testing standards, you have to decide what education is all about. Do you want to teach to the test, or do you want to teach and what do you want kids learning?

Thank you everybody for your great questions tonight! And thank you to our experts for joining us!

For more information on the SAT, visit the Frontline website, at
Read real admissions applications and find out who got in. View behind-the-scenes footage of an actual admissions session at UC Berkeley. Also, for teachers, access the "Secrets of the SAT" workshop facilitators guide.

Tune in to PBS on April 10 at 10 p.m. for FRONTLINE's "Medicating Kids." FRONTLINE investigates the rapidly growing use of psychoactive drugs by children and the challenges of parenting and schooling in a world of high stress and increasing family disintegration.

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