SAT: Right for Inner-City Youth?

The emphasis on test scores may represent a stacked deck to those who don't get coaching. SCHOLASTIC APTITUDE TESTS

ERIC Mobley is a high school All-American from the Bronx. Intelligent, well-spoken, an imposing 6 ft. 10 in., he's a basketball recruiter's dream. More than 100 colleges sought him. He's signed to go to the University of Pittsburgh.

But Eric has a problem: the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The first time he took it, he scored in the mid-600s, out of a possible 1600. He's now awaiting the results of a second try; if he didn't crack the 700 barrier he has to sit out his freshman season.

The experience has left Eric puzzled and a little angry. As a junior, he transferred out of the city schools to attend Salesian, a Roman Catholic school in New Rochelle, N.Y. He has a C average and even took special math classes on Saturdays. He doesn't pretend to be an academic whiz. But he has done what he could. ``I got out of the public schools because I wasn't concentrating,'' he says.

Eric's difficulties are common among inner-city athletes these days. Several years ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) enacted Proposition 48, the 700-or-sit rule. Last fall it went further with Proposition 42, which says athletes like Eric, who score below 700 on the test, can't get scholarships, period.

That rule has caused such controversy, it may never take effect. But it raised once again the very difficult question of how to prepare young people from the city streets for the institutions and demands of the larger society. Specifically, it called into question the role - if any - the SAT should play in that process.

For years critics have said the SAT is geared to suburban, middle-class experience, and therefore puts inner-city students at a disadvantage. Test supporters counter that these students have to learn the ways of the majority sooner or later, and excuses don't help. With the experts arguing back and forth, not much has been heard from the athletes themselves.

Several weeks ago this reporter sat down with Eric Mobley and two teammates from the Gauchos, a basketball club in the South Bronx. We went through an actual SAT, question by question, to find out why the test is so difficult for them. The meeting was at the New York headquarters of the Princeton Review, an SAT prep course the Gauchos have enlisted to help their players, starting in the fall.

Obviously, one such session can't settle any questions. But one thing was quickly apparent. The bias of the SAT isn't so much in the test questions, as in the way students from privileged backgrounds get more preparation for it. (Of course, inner-city students who are not athletes are at an even greater disadvantage.)

The young basketball players were all bright and articulate. Eric can discuss the NCAA's recruiting regulations with a lawyer's precision. Dennis McCullough, who attends Rice High School in Harlem, gets 90s in English. ``He's on the ball,'' says Jim Burbage, his coach. The third player, Brenton Birmingham, attends Brooklyn Tech and scored 940 on the SAT.

Still, they have some rather large academic gaps, and clearly their low SAT scores can't be blamed solely on test bias. A word like ``tirade'' presents problems, for example. They've heard the word ``litigation'' on ``Miami Vice,'' but don't know what it means. Dennis doesn't know that 1/4 and .25 are the same.

``He's a very diligent, dutiful student,'' Burbage says. ``But when he walks out in the afternoon, that's it. It's not sufficient just to get vocabulary words. You have to read.''

Middle-class students have academic gaps too. But they often get coaching that helps boost their scores by 100 points or more. People like Eric Mobley and Dennis McCullough generally don't. ``When you live in the Bronx and go to some of the public schools,'' Eric says, ``they don't even mention it [the SAT].''

At the margin that matters to them - the difference between a 690 and a 710 - academic coaching can make all the difference. ``These kids will do just fine if you give them the same information everyone else has,'' says Erica Gregory of the Princeton Review Foundation, which the Review supports to work with disadvantaged students.

The alleged bias of test questions themselves is a tricky issue. For example, none of the three players knew what a ``hedge'' is. There aren't many on their streets. Suburban kids, by contrast, grow up with hedges.

To some people, that's bias. Yet most suburban kids know what a skyscraper is; everyone needs to know things beyond their own experience. That said, there are few questions that harken to the world of inner-city students - no word analogies involving police locks, window gates, or bodegas. They are always playing on the other guy's court.

Sometimes, they are playing by different rules. At one point, Gregory of the Review posed a hypothetical question. What is a doctor most likely to tell a patient: that she is sick, rich, smart, or pretty? ``If he wanted to hit on her he'd say she was pretty,'' Dennis said.

Perhaps he should have known better. But Dennis has a trait that is hazardous on the SAT: He tends to look for the unexpected answer. One word analogy asked whether trees were to a forest as fish were to an aquarium. He pondered that. ``You plant them there,'' he concluded.

The correct answer was ``plants:greenhouse.'' It seemed clear enough. Had Dennis taken an SAT prep course, he would have known not to get entangled in offbeat answers to begin with. Dennis has a lot of bad information about the test. He thinks you shouldn't guess, for example. But intelligent guessing is what the SAT prep courses teach.

``Given the fact they don't get that kind of tutoring,'' says Sloane Williams, assistant principal at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., speaking of inner-city students generally, ``I'm surprised they do as well as they do.''

Dunbar has demonstrated the difference such tutoring can make. Last year the Princeton Review helped the school develop an SAT course that raised some scores by more than 250 points. One student went to Yale. ``I already knew the material,'' another told the Washington Post. ``I just needed the extra help to put it all together.''

Strangely, the original idea behind the SAT was to compensate for bias, not create it. On some math questions, for example, the test invents its own algebra language, instead of using the standard kind. That's supposed to put the student from the Bronx at the same starting line as the one from Phillips Exeter Academy.

But it confused Eric, who knew basic algebra, but had never seen it expressed this way. ``It isn't hard, once you've done a bunch of these questions,'' says John Katzman, the Review's president.

Most coaches seem to think Proposition 48 plays a useful role in getting young athletes to focus on their studies. Eric, for example, might have eased off after colleges started dangling scholarships in front of him. ``There would be no motivation for him to do the work,'' says Frank Conroy, his coach at Salesian.

But whether the SAT is the best way to to provide that incentive, is another question. Katzman contends that a simple achievement test - reading and math skills - would eliminate the little tricks that make coaching on the SAT so important. And studying for such a test, they'd learn math and English, which would help later on.

``These kids would do better on a real achievement test,'' he says. ``The gap between Exeter and Dunbar would be a lot smaller.''

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