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How SATs are reshaping US schools

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Sciene Monitor / December 6, 1985


GERALD W. Bracey, an official at the Virginia Department of Education, says he sometimes gets ``two or three calls a day'' from parents moving to the state who want to know which schools have the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. High SATs have raised real estate values by as much as $20,000 in one wealthy suburb, Mr. Bracey noted in a recent article in Phi Delta Kappan, the educators' monthly. Ernest B. Fleischman, superintendent of schools in Greenwich, Conn., reports a similar experience. On the list of things parents want to know about the public schools, SAT scores ``are always first.''

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``Every suburban superintendent'' gets such inquiries, Mr. Fleischman observes.

Of course, anyone who's gone house hunting in the suburbs knows there's a connection between property values and the public schools. But the increasing focus on aptitude test scores as a barometer of the schools is a symptom of a trend that educators like Bracey and Fleischman view with concern. Fleischman caused a stir at the annual meeting of the College Board -- which sponsors the SAT -- in San Francisco last month when he spoke of the ``ever growing impact'' of the SAT ``upon the curriculum of subur ban high schools, on the lives of the students who attend them, and the views and pocketbooks of the parents who support them.''

Bill Corbett, an elementary school principal in suburban Watertown, Mass., said that preparing kids to take the SAT has become ``almost a cult.''

Roughly three-quarters of the nation's four-year colleges require SAT scores from applicants, and nearly 1.5 million high school students take the test each year. (One million others take a similar test by the American College Testing Program.) In theory, the SAT is just what its name implies, an aptitude test, which puts the kid from East St. Louis, Ill., on a rough par with his peers from Shaker Heights, Ohio. The Educational Testing Service, which produces the test, has alway s said that special coaching doesn't do much good.

Secondary school officials who believe that theory are about as common as Stutz Bearcats.

According to Fleischman, nobody has made a thorough study of the subject. But his own informal inquiries suggest that what one educator calls ``SAT intrusion'' upon the curriculum is widespread. In his speech before the college board, he cited, as one example, a school system in the New York City area that had made a detailed analysis of the SAT and had ``revamped'' its curriculum to match. This school system even sends out test scores to elementary school teachers to remind them of the bot tom line.

Fleischman has found that in some areas, SAT preparation is even ``moving down into the eighth and ninth grades.''

Calls to educators in the Boston area indicate that ``SAT intrusion'' is indeed widespread. Michael Waring, principal of Lexington High School in a comfortable Boston suburb, outlined a four-tier buffet of SAT preparation available to students at that town. There are evening courses taught by high school faculty, special math and reading courses during the school day, and SAT reviews in regular math and English courses, all on top of the private coaching that many parents arrange.

As far back as 1979, an ETS study found that one-third of the high schools surveyed in seven Northeastern states had special courses -- generally for credit -- preparing students to take the SAT. The Northeast is the seat of SAT frenzy, but coaching schools like the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers have seen recent, rapid growth in the Sunbelt.

At a time that school budgets are stretched to the limit and studies show that students aren't learning basic skills like writing, educators question this diversion of resources. ``We have kids working on improving their SAT scores three to five nights a week, at the expense of their academic performance and other important things,'' Hugh Chandler, chief of guidance at suburban Weston High School, told the Boston Globe. ``It's idiocy.''