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teachers' guide: secrets of the sat


"I was interested in the full development of each individual. And one could learn about individuals from tests. Not just the SAT, but other tests that were being developed, too. That is still what 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."
     -Henry Chauncey, First President, Education Testing Service

The SAT began as a utopian experiment designed to break the hold of the moneyed elite on enrollment spaces in the country's prestigious universities and replace it with an elite based on intelligence-not privilege-as measured by a standardized test. Today, nearly 85% of the nation's colleges and universities use the results of the SAT as a factor in admissions; and current statistics reveal a large and persistent gap in the scores of different ethnic groups as well as disparities in scores based on gender and economic background. These findings, coupled with recent legal challenges to the use of racial preferences in college admissions, have placed the SAT at the center of a national controversy that goes to the heart of the notions of equal educational opportunity and diversity.

While the debate over the SAT and other standardized tests continues, more than two million college-bound students take the test each year. Among high school seniors in 1999, 1,220,130 took the SAT, 1,019,053 took the ACT, and many took both.1  Despite test prep courses, tutoring, educational CD-ROMs, and books, some find that their scores remain lower than they would like. Other students lack the information or financial ability to take advantage of these resources. And many anguish over their scores, concerned that a hundred points either way may define their future and, worse, their self worth. What accounts for this national obsession?

The FRONTLINE documentary "Secrets of the SAT," which first aired October 5, 1999, on PBS, follows a diverse set of high school seniors through the stressful college application process, exploring the factors that contribute to the pressure for high SAT scores and the cultural and socioeconomic circumstances affecting their performance. The film also looks at how standardized tests have altered the cultural landscape of college campuses and how the adoption of the SAT as a college admissions standard has affected the national discussion of affirmative action, diversity, and equal access to educational opportunities.

There is no simple resolution to the disparate impact of standardized tests like the SAT on college admissions. So, what can students and parents do to put the SAT in perspective when it comes to planning for one's future and the transition from high school to college? Through a new initiative funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, FRONTLINE is pleased to offer this facilitator's guide. This guide is designed to provide you with comprehensive resources to help high school students and parents better understand the SAT's role in college admissions and to motivate and empower students of every background to realize their potential.

1 1999 College-Bound Seniors National Report, The College Board (1999) and High School Graduating Class of 1999, ACT (1999).
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