As if it weren’t feared and hated enough already, the SAT
is about to become even worse. In an effort to more accurately
measure students’ achievement, the College Entrance
Examination Board will unveil a new, supposedly improved SAT this
spring. The new exam will do away with the infamous analogies and
replace quantitative comparisons with questions from algebra II. It
will also include a new writing section, which will require
students to write a persuasive essay as well as answer questions on
grammar. In order to accommodate these changes, the length of this
three-hour test will grow by 45 minutes.
Needless to say, the difficulty level of the SAT will increase
dramatically. And during a time when students’ scores can
determine so much of their future, the pressure to perform well can
become overwhelming. Quite understandably, high school students
across the country have already started pouring money into test
preparation companies in a desperate attempt to discover the secret
to earning that sacred new score, a perfect 2400. According to the
Detroit Free Press, the Princeton Review, a company that charges
upwards of $1000 per class, has already seen different aspects of
its business double.
It shouldn’t be like this. In an ideal world, the SAT
would be a sort of I.Q. test that systematically selects the most
qualified students from all social classes and backgrounds to
attend the nation’s top universities. Once there, they would
be trained to enter the ruling class, creating a true American
meritocracy. In fact, during the 1940s, former Harvard President
James Conant originally began to administer the SAT on a large
scale in order to do just that. His goal was to prevent the United
States from becoming an aristocratic society by using higher
education to replace the white, Protestant ruling class with a
group of naturally talented individuals. And the process of
selecting these deserving students would begin with the SAT.
But now, in suburban communities where parents recognize the SAT
as their children’s ticket to the upper-middle class, things
have begun to spiral out of control. Students and parents alike are
willing to do whatever it takes to earn a high score. As the
competition becomes more and more fierce, it’s no longer so
unusual to see students begin to prepare as early as middle school.
And with the help of Kaplan and Princeton Review, good scores are
being bought and sold for outrageously high prices. Natural talent
and ability have taken a backseat to how much time and money one
has to study.
There’s nothing wrong with preparing well for an important
exam. There is something wrong, however, with the fact that only a
certain type of person has the time and resources to do so. The
students who can’t afford to sacrifice $1000 for a class or
spend an entire summer studying rather than working are left
dreadfully unprepared. It is these underprivileged students who
will have a disadvantage while applying to college — a
disadvantage that could very well continue to follow them if they
are not accepted to a good university, creating a vicious cycle for
them and their children. Ironically, Conant’s plan to
overthrow the American aristocracy is now creating one.
Luckily, it’s still possible to earn a high score without
the help of a test prep company. I took Princeton Review courses
for both the SAT I and II and know from experience that their
students are not privy to any secret knowledge. During class, I
kept expecting a grandiose revelation that would make the course
worth my while, like a subliminal message hidden in the test pages
that only Princeton Review students knew how to recognize. Needless
to say, I was woefully disappointed.
That’s not to say that Princeton Review classes
don’t work. They do. They improved my score by hundreds of
points, but only because the environment of a formal classroom
forced me to work hard. It motivated me to actually study the
vocabulary words, drill myself on analogies and complete practice
test after practice test, until I finally got it right.
Technically, a highly motivated student could achieve the same
thing by buying an SAT practice book for $20 and studying hard.
Technically, an American meritocracy is still possible. It’s
just not very likely.