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The Big Fear.

The SAT test has always been a nightmare for college-bound teenagers. Now a new book says it's also unfair.

Every year, three little letters send shivers up the spines of college-bound students across the country: SAT.

The test is one of the key measures used by colleges to determine a high schooler's math and verbal skills. More than 2 million teens this year will take the test, which aims to offer an equal, neutral way of comparing the academic ability of students from all different sorts of schools and backgrounds separate from the grades they receive. The better the SAT score, the more selective college one can attend, and thus, in theory, the better job one can ultimately get.

MERIT, NOT MONEY

Fifty years ago, the educators who promoted the SAT believed the system would help establish an educational "meritocracy." Instead of simply taking the wealthiest, best-connected students, as had been the custom, colleges would base their admissions on merit. With the SAT, it wouldn't matter what race you were or how much money you had. If the test showed you had intelligence and competence, you could attend the best schools.

Critics say the reality has proven far different from the ideal. Members of minority groups have long complained that the SAT is not neutral, that its questions are culturally biased. Now a new book goes even further. It says the SAT has done exactly the opposite of what it intended--giving unfair advantage to the rich and hurting the poor.

In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, journalist Nicholas Lemann says the SAT favors teens from high-income areas, who can pay for SAT cram courses that improve scores, while students in poor schools are left behind. "A device meant to eliminate an American class system has instead helped create a new one," he says.

Lemann's swipe at the SAT upsets many in the education world. Thomas Ewing, a spokesman for the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the SAT, defends the test as the most logical way to measure math and verbal skills, "which are what young people need to know when they become college freshmen."

BLAME THE SCHOOLS

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which contracts with ETS to write and score the tests, is more blunt. "I think [Lemann] is so far off," he told UPFRONT. "The SAT is the most scientific and fairest way to judge students." Besides, he says, the SAT is not meant to be the only measurement used to determine college admission. "You take many things into account when you judge admissions: grades, activities, the need for diversity."

Caperton, who built a national reputation for improving education while governor of West Virginia, agrees the American school system is unfair. "But the way to fix that," he says, "is you put in technology, train teachers and pay them--and build new schools. There is no silver bullet that will cure the problem."

As the debate continues, teens will continue to prep for SAT day. For now, there's no way the controversy will make that day go away.

What do you think? Do the SATs level the playing field? Or create new disparities? Write us at: nytupfront@scholastic.com

RELATED ARTICLE: Stunts and Bribes: How Not to Get Into College

BY BARBARA WHITAKER

Every week last year, a candidate applying to Harvard University sent the admissions office what are fondly remembered as "extraordinarily good pastries."

"Some were fancy yeast breads with layers and decorations, and at least one required refrigeration," recalls Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard's director of admissions.

Yummy but not at all novel. Applicants have also sent pies, chocolate chip cookies, and a variety of cakes. One aspiring student sent a one-foot-diameter Harvard shield crafted out of chocolate.

The pastry-sender "did not get in," says McGrath Lewis. "We don't make decisions based on pastries."

From a 100-pound piece of tractor bumper sent to the University of Pennsylvania (a sample of how a candidate spent her summer vacation), to the student who wrote his Harvard application holding a pen between his toes, it seems that students will stop at nothing in an attempt to call attention to themselves.

"We always think we've seen it all and then something happens we haven't seen," says McGrath Lewis.

One student sent a nicely wrapped black patent leather pump with her application to the University of Pennsylvania, along with a note explaining this was her "foot in the door." Penn admissions director Lee Stetson can't recall if it got her through it.

While such efforts can be amusing, grades, test scores, accomplishments, and community service outweigh novelty, admissions directors say. If a student can submit a videotape or portfolio that displays his or her talents, that's great. But attempts at being clever can actually hurt a candidate, if they come off as poor judgment.

Sometimes, however, doing something different works. One Harvard applicant, who had superb academic qualifications, but fairly standard distinctions as a student leader and athlete, sent in an origami lobster. "It was an exquisite work of art," says McGrath-Lewis, adding that it provided another dimension to the student. "It was lovingly presented and lovingly received."

An applicant to Rice University in Houston wrote her admission essay backward and enclosed a mirror labeled: "Open In Case Of Emergency."

"The essay was quite long and quite good," says Rice admissions director Ann Wright. The applicant got in. As she might have said, "wonk reven uoy, yeH".
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on oddball college applications; SAT and college admission
Author:JONES, PETER M.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 18, 1999
Words:911
Previous Article:The College Crunch.
Next Article:Here She Comes, Ms. America.
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