The SAT Hysteria
How has one half-century-old
standardized test caused so many Westchester
kids, parents, and schools to go bonkers?
By Chrissie Schmidt with Marisa LaScala
Photography by Jay Muhlin
It’s Saturday afternoon, and my aunt Wendy is rushing home from the country a day early with her daughter, leaving her husband, a fabulous dinner, and a house full of relatives behind.
“Ali’s SAT tutor had a last-minute opening,” my aunt explains.
Ali Schmidt, 16, is a junior at Fieldston, a private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Like most of her friends, she is gearing up to take part in that most awful of Saturday-morning rituals: the SAT. And, like the majority of her classmates, Ali is being coached for the big day.
“Ali started to get tutoring in October of this school year, which is actually much later than many kids at her school,” Aunt Wendy tells me. “I know some parents who started their kids much, much earlier, like ninth grade.” The tutoring is likely to continue until the summer, when Ali finally takes the three-hour, 45-minute SAT (the test is offered in March, April, May, and June)—or into her senior year, depending on how she does. (Students can take the test over if they’re unhappy with their score—and 55 percent do every year—though all scores get reported to colleges).
My aunt isn’t griping about the tutoring. She thinks it’s money well spent. “If it gives Ali the skills and confidence to do her best on the SAT, it’s worth it,” she says.
Ali, on the other hand, who seems exhausted by it all, calls it, “humiliating. The whole process is totally and utterly humiliating.”
Ali Schmidt will soon be one of around 2.1 million students worldwide who will have taken the SAT this year, and she is hardly the only kid whose parents are hiring tutors. Last year, in Westchester alone, an estimated 33,400 public high school juniors took the test, in addition to hundreds of private school students. And if approximately half of Westchester’s SAT-takers last year had enrolled in Kaplan, Inc., a worldwide test-prep organization, and a quarter had spent at least 10 hours with a private tutor, last year’s SAT-takers would have cost Westchester parents upwards of $33 million.
And that’s just the dollar cost, a cost that can be calculated. The time kids spend worrying, studying, memorizing, agonizing, preparing, obsessing, and just plain stressing can’t be calculated, of course, but students, parents, and experts say it is undeniable.
“I see the anxiety in my students every day,” reports Enrique Cafaro, director of guidance and counseling for the White Plains public school system. “They come by our College and Career Center looking through our study guides and study aids. You can just see the anxiety right on their faces. Not a day goes by without someone coming in for SAT guides.”
Marilyn Brookwood, a school counselor at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, sees it, too. “The students talk to me all the time about how stressed the SATs make them,” she reports.
Sky Charry, now a freshman at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, paints a picture of SAT madness at her alma mater, Greeley: “You could feel the stress just walking around the halls. There were students who were cramming with their prep books in the library, trying to memorize more vocabulary at the last minute. And I know that there were kids who did crazy stuff, like take Ritalin the morning of the test to enhance their performance. If you let it get to you, the pressure to do well can cause even the most normal person to do crazy things.”
How did a single test, originally designed, ironically, to level the playing field, come to have such significance, both symbolic and real? Why the panic, the angst, the madness surrounding one test? Well, do the names Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford ring a bell? A high score—defined differently depending on a student’s and his parents’ ambitions—might be the ticket to a prestigious ivy-covered institution (which will set most parents back another $180,000 or so).
At least that is what many parents and students believe. Says White Plains’s Cafaro: “The stress kids feel may come from many places, but much of it also comes from what the test today symbolizes: a magic number that guarantees entry to a good school and a good future.” Is it any wonder that so many driven parents spend precious time chauffeuring, nagging, coaching, and stressing, while their anxious kids stress, obsess, and memorize such useful vocabulary words as eudaemonism (happy) and noctambulist (sleepwalker) to prepare for the test.
“The test has been fetishized,” says Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, in a PBS interview. “A whole frenzy has been built around SATs. Everybody seems to believe that it’s a measure of how smart you are or your innate worth. The level of obsession over the test is way out of proportion to what it actually measures.”
The SAT has been around for more than a half-century and—this may not surprise—SAT prep companies started cropping up soon after. These prep companies, depending on where you stand, either assuage or exploit the ever-growing mass anxiety about the SAT which, by the way, is short for nothing at all. (The initials originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test but people objected to that so the test’s name was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test. People objected to that, too, so it changed to meaningless initials.) “There is no specific time when the SAT exploded into the national consciousness,” says Robert Orrill, who acted as head of the College Board’s Office of Academic Affairs until 2000. “But the anxiety has certainly been increasing over time.”
The test itself dates back to the 1920s, when Princeton psychologist Carl Brigham developed a college admissions test that was based on Alfred Binet’s IQ test model. Brigham marketed his brainchild to various colleges, and by the 1930s the then-called Scholastic Aptitude Test was used by the admissions boards of every Ivy League school. The idea was to break the hold of America’s privileged class and build a new elite composed of intelligent, motivated men (women were not yet in the picture) of modest backgrounds. It was supposed to help colleges find the best and brightest.
Author Lemann writes in The Big Test that the SAT was originally intended to be like a “glass slipper”—a magic number that would find the hidden academic stars in every high school class. In other words, it would help give hard-working smart kids without legacy (legacy is the admissions practice of favoring children of alumni) or trust accounts the opportunity to go to a top-tier college.
Nearly a century later, the SAT remains a decisive factor in most college admissions, though in a different way: rather than identifying the unusual, smart kids to college boards, the exam essentially sorts through and ranks the entire college-bound population.
There are, of course, practical reasons for this development. Says Chiara Coletti, vice president of communications at The College Board, a Manhattan-based membership association of schools and colleges that owns and sponsors the SAT, not to be confused with the Princeton, NJ-based ETS (Educational Testing Service), which develops and administers the test, “With grade inflation, colleges need one common yardstick that can be used for all students; the SAT provides that yardstick.” Translation: without good SAT scores, doing well in high school isn’t necessarily enough to get into your top-choice college or university. This reality is engraved into the minds of virtually every college-bound student entering his or her junior year, and the result is, well, a lot of stress—even though there are 2,000 colleges in the United States, 1,950 of which are, Lemann pointed out in that PBS interview, “pretty much unselective. So,” he noted, “the SAT is a ticket to a few places.”
But, oh, those places.
Justin Dignelli, a senior at the private Hackley School in Tarrytown, says, “At Hackley, why you go there is to do well on the SATs and get into a good college. Everyone is competing to get into the best schools.”
Sky Charry, the Muhlenberg College freshman, says that her angst over the test was so great that she decided to apply to colleges that did not use the SAT as one of their central admissions criteria. As Sky’s mother, Leslie, recalls, “Sky never really got over her anxiety about the test. In the end, I went with her to her guidance counselor to discuss alternate options. That was a really good thing to do, because she applied to a school that didn’t weigh the SAT very heavily, so she was released from all this pressure and anxiety and could enjoy the rest of high school.”
Indeed, many colleges are recognizing the needs of students like Sky and dropping their SAT requirement. Among them are Bard in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Bates in Lewiston, ME; Bowdoin in Brunswick, ME; Hampshire in Amherst, MA; Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, MA; and Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, which decided to drop the test in 2003. When asked what factors were involved in Sarah Lawrence’s decision to drop the SAT, Thyra L. Briggs, dean of enrollment, says, “Testing is not the best way to evaluate a student’s potential for success. I’ve read many interesting essays on part-time jobs, but I’ve never read an interesting essay on an SAT prep course.” Plus, she says, “We were concerned about the proliferation of testing prep courses that can skew the high scores toward those who can afford to pay for them.”
In affluent Westchester, it seems everybody takes some sort of test prep. “Test prep is one of the Stations of the Cross for the upper-middle class of America,” Lemann has said. A nerve-racking station: most SAT tutors will tell you that massive test anxiety is all-too-familiar terrain. “A good part of my time is spent calming down students and parents,” says Carol Gill, an educational consultant based in Dobbs Ferry. “College admission is probably the most successfully marketed product in American history, so there is this misconception that if you don’t get into a name-brand school, you’re going to be a dismal failure.”
Jonathan Arak, a Manhattan-based tutor who has taught several Princeton Review courses in Westchester, knows the pressure kids feel, too. Thus, he says, “Sometimes I feel like a tutor and a therapist rolled into one.”
This year, on top of the usual stress, students are facing a new test as the College Board has made changes to the SAT for the first time in more than a decade (the revised SAT was taken for the first time in March). For this year’s juniors, the PSAT (Practice SAT), which was given in October, won’t even resemble the real thing.
“In terms of SAT craziness, there’s been a spike,” reports Arak. “This happened in ’93, the last time the SAT was changed,” he says, referring to a revamp of the test that removed antonyms, added longer reading passages, created a math section with student-generated answers, and allowed calculators for the first time. “These changes generate a lot of anxiety.”
“I’ve never received as many calls as I did about the new SAT I test,” says Gill. “Students, fathers, mothers—everyone was very stressed. My office even scheduled a workshop for penmanship—with a professional handwriting expert—so the students could learn to write quickly and legibly for the new essay.”
What did the College Board decide to throw out? Analogies, for one thing. Remember those questions that looked like: Paris Hilton is to brooding intellectual as hell is to _____ ? (Answer: a really warm, fabulous place.) The College Board announced its intention to drop them soon after Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California, publicly objected to analogies and other aspects of the test as biased against poor and minority students and a faulty indicator of aptitude. And since roughly 76,000 students apply every year to the University of California, bringing in an estimated $2 million in revenues for the College Board (the UC system is by far the Board’s biggest client), analogies went out the window.
The College Board didn’t stop there, though. Among the other changes: the introduction of higher algebra in the math section; an additional 45-minute section comprising multiple-choice grammar and sentence-completion questions; a 25-minute essay; and a drastic rescaling that means a perfect score is now 2400, not 1600 (or, as students have dubbed it, “double-toll free”)—a feat accomplished by only 897 students in 2003 (or .064 percent of the test-takers). Brilliant kids? Perhaps. The SATs, some people maintain, is essentially an IQ test—after all, it grew out of an IQ test. But many experts are quick to note that it’s only one measure.
But try telling that to kids who don’t score well or who think that scoring below a certain number is a disgrace. “One of the things that’s stressing me and my friends out is the new scoring system,” my cousin Ali confides. “No one knows exactly how it’s going to work, not even testing companies know. So if you go in and take a new practice test, they won’t give you an exact score, just a range of where they think you’ll fall.”
The 25-minute essay is also generating anxiety—in part because it’s one more thing kids have to study for, and in part because it’s displacing the SAT II writing test (the SAT IIs are subject tests, often required by colleges, designed to target specific academic areas) and forcing some students to look elsewhere for a third subject in which they feel proficient to take the SAT II (given in 16 subjects including biology, Japanese, world history, and physics).
But the hoopla over these changes is unfounded, some tutors say. “It turned out that there was no real reason for that anxiety,” says Gill. “The essay questions were so general that students who had any knowledge of American history or literature could easily give examples to support a thesis.” Jonathan Arak explains that the ETS has “basically rearranged the furniture. They’ve taken the SAT II writing and mushed it in, and added five to eight questions on the math that look a lot like the ones you’d find on the Math IC [SAT II]. So there’s really nothing new.”
Try telling that to my cousin, whose anxiety about those five to eight harder math problems has grown into a fixation. “I actually feel ill just thinking about it,” she tells me. “The worst part is that I’m already on the slow side and struggle to finish the math section; now, it’s going to be even more difficult to get through all the questions. I’m leaving five to seven blank on the practice tests. If I keep doing that, there’s no way I can do well.”
An entire test-prep industry has grown large, thanks to the anxiety this test generates. This industry includes classes (Princeton Review’s five-week course starts at $1,099; Kaplan’s is $999), tutoring (usually starts at $200 an hour), software (get the Vocabulary Accelerator for only $25), books (Kaplan co-publishes more than 180 books with Simon and Schuster; Princeton Review has a similar deal with Random House). What else? Help with just about any aspect of the college-admissions process, from choosing your schools (Kaplan’s 90-minute, $249 college admissions consulting package helps assess students and creates a preliminary list of colleges) to filling out the application (Kaplan’s 10-hour consulting package helps students edit the essays, create an extra-curricular resume, ace interviews, and fill out financial aid forms for $1,399). Oh, and don’t forget to pick up the annual newsstand college guide, published by Kaplan and Newsweek, which is also owned by the Washington Post Company.
In 2004, Kaplan enrolled nearly 280,000 students (including more than 87,000 who enrolled in online programs) and provided courses at 159 permanent centers in Canada, Puerto Rico, London, Paris, and throughout the United States, including White Plains. Kaplan’s Supplemental Education division—which encompasses tutors, classes, and instructional programs—took in over $470 million in revenue.
It’s a booming market, and Kaplan, Inc., and its main competitor, The Princeton Review, aren’t about to miss an opportunity to raise profits. In addition to the hundreds of books they already market, they are urging their students to check out their latest additions: online coaching, private tutoring, and, just in case someone should get the urge to prep while riding the bus or walking down the street, PDA- and cellphone-based quizzes.
Actually, Kaplan has been around for a long time. According to Jennifer Karan, national director of Kaplan’s SAT/ACT programs within test prep and admissions, the company was founded in 1938 and started coaching students for the SAT in 1946. “We created this business, we created this industry, and we’ve certainly created this market,” declares Karan. “Overall, Kaplan is the largest provider of test-prep services in the country, from getting dentists through their exams to high school juniors through the SAT.”
Clearly, then, Kaplan and other test coaching services must be doing something right. Right?
Chiara Coletti of the College Board has her doubts. “Studies have shown that test-prep classes raise SAT scores by an average of 40 points. Without singling out any coaching companies, we do think that these places tend to make extravagant claims. Maybe you’ll have that rare child who scores enormous gains, but that’s pretty darn rare.” Moreover, says Coletti, test-prep companies make profits by increasing, not decreasing, test anxiety. “The coaching industry has created an enormous amount of anxiety in families over the last 10 to 15 years, and that is unfair to young people and their parents and guardians,” Coletti says.
Dr. Tom Fischgrund, who researched students who received perfect scores for his book, 1600 Perfect Score: The 7 Secrets of Acing the SAT (Harper Academic), agrees that test prep might not be all it’s cracked up to be. “Results from my study of perfect scores suggest that doing well on the SAT isn’t all about what kind of prep work a student does,” he writes in his book. “In fact, investing in private SAT tutors or spending a small fortune on an SAT review course isn’t necessary to get a perfect score.” (He notes that only a handful of perfect-score students used these methods.) Fischgrund says that “instead of cramming for the SAT two or three months before the test, perfect-score students come by their learning naturally through a strong foundation laid by their parents.” In other words, he explains, students who have a natural curiosity about the world and a thirst for knowledge are more likely to be perfect scorers.
Robert Orrill, the fomer head of the college board’s Office of Academic Affairs, isn’t concerned about how perfect scores are achieved as much as how pressured kids feel to score well. “I see claims made by test-prep companies more broadly as a troubling cultural phenomenon,” he says, and adds, “I think it’s unfortunate that so much emphasis has been placed on a bunch of numbers. In the end, a bunch of numbers aren’t going to tell you about a person’s intelligence.”
Lynn Brodsky, a senior at Harrison High School, recalls that the pressure to do well on the SAT actually began with tutoring. “One of my best friends stayed home every single weekend junior year and prepped for the SAT. We all laughed at her, because we were like, â€˜It’s three hours of your life!’ But then I remember getting my PSAT scores and freaking out. And then I went to my tutors and they were like, â€˜Okay, we’re going to raise your scores by X amount in these places,’ and that’s when the pressure really began.”
David Kahn, who was my tutor in Manhattan, defends the practice of test prep: “Just the sheer practice and calming down students’ anxiety—that alone is worth at least 40 points.” He maintains that at-home preparation with just SAT books may not be as effective as studying with a seasoned expert who knows the test inside and out. “You could try to learn Spanish on your own, using language books,” he says, “but good luck with the pronunciation.”
What Kahn says about calming down anxiety was certainly true for me. Although I have managed to repress most memories of the SAT, I can vividly recall my own terror of the beast and Kahn’s heroic—though not always entirely successful—efforts to calm me down. I wonder if the hours logged in with Kahn and the thousands of problems we did together made the test seem like an even bigger deal. In other words, if all that money and time was required to get me in shape, maybe this test was all those things I feared.
So whether or not my hours of supervised practice soothed my anxieties is up for grabs. There was, however, one undeniable way in which Kahn added to my score: speed. He taught me tricks for recognizing patterns in certain types of problems and mastering them, and those tricks, combined with practice, gave me greater speed and accuracy. By watching me work, he was also able to see patterns in the way I made errors and to bring them to my attention.
Jonathan Arak, the Manhattan-based tutor who works with Westchester students, offers a somewhat different perspective on his role, and he doesn’t mince words: “In this age of information, practice tests, drills, and test-taking tips are available to everyone online or in books. But are you going to have the diligence to prepare by yourself?” His answer: “No, because as part of this generation you’re used to taking shortcuts.”
According to Arak, as tutoring in affluent communities has become more prevalent, increasing numbers of students are using their sessions as a substitute for study. “When I started, I used to get the gung-ho-I-want-to-pull-myself-up kids,” he says. “Now it’s a matter of course. I get these students, and I’ll say to their parents, â€˜This is a waste of your money. Your child isn’t doing the work.’ And they’ll say, â€˜We have to hire a tutor.’ It’s like a rite of passage. You get a tutor.”
According to every tutor I spoke to, the bottom line is this: there’s only so much a coach can do. At the end of the day, it’s the student who has to take the test. “We tutors sometimes wish we had a magic wand,” says Arak, “but we don’t.” So are test-prep companies and tutors bilking you out of your money? Are test prep companies’ promises to raise SAT scores bogus?
First of all, says Kahn, “these point increases really depend on where you’re starting. It’s a lot easier to increase your score by 200 if you’re starting with a 1200, not a 1400. The higher score you get, the harder it gets to improve on
And, as always, it pays to read the fine print. Kaplan promises to raise your score—as long as you hand in every homework assignment and make every class. If your score doesn’t go up the first time around, you get to take another Kaplan course for free (same deal applies with handing in all your work and showing up every time). And, if after all that your score hasn’t gone up and you haven’t died of boredom, you’re entitled to a full refund. The Princeton Review guarantees at least a 200-point jump if you take its full-length class or 18 hours of private tutoring, show up, and do all the work.
Says Arak, “After all the practice and tactics they drill into you for weeks and weeks on end, it’s no wonder that your score will improve. But how many kids actually show up for every class and do all of the work?”
After all the prepping and stressing, Westchester students fare only slightly better than the national average. For the 1,419,007 students worldwide who took the test last year, the average score was 1026. In Westchester, the average among the county’s public high school students weighed in at 1079.
Of all the students I spoke to, only one, Kendall Reicherter of John Jay High School in Cross River, studied entirely on her own for the SAT. “Whether or not to take a class or get a tutor was a huge debate in my house,” recalls Kendall. “I didn’t want a tutor; I don’t think it’s right. In my opinion, you should get your score on your own merit. I actually had a huge fight with my parents about it.”