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.''
``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.''
Pressure to pump up SAT scores is coming both from parents (who, Fleischman says, ``Are going crazy -- even in the sixth and seventh grades'') and from school administrators, who are increasingly judged by a test that was supposed to rate their students. Annual release of SAT scores has become a minor press Mardi Gras in many areas. ``We always fear it's going to be in the newspapers that Watertown schools fail,'' Dr. Manson Hall, principal of Watertown High School, said. Private coaching `industry'
An aspect of the SAT ``cult'' causing particular concern is private coaching.
Just as the tax laws have given us an army of tax preparers, so the SAT has spawned a thriving, multimillion-dollar industry preparing students to take the test. The Kaplan centers -- the H & R Block of the SAT-prep world -- have grown from 30 in 1974 to 124 today -- 275 in peak testing periods. John Katzman, the brash new kid on the prep-business block, says that his Princeton Review has doubled its enrollment every semester since it opened in 1981 and that he expects to surpass Kaplan in annual enroll ment next spring.
There are even private tutors, who have joined hairdressers and tummy flatteners as topics of suburban cocktail party patter. ``The newest tutor-coach on the scene now charges $60 per hour for SAT tutoring, and she is completely booked,'' Fleischman says, regarding his Greenwich district.
Some educators defend private coaching on grounds that it teaches kids ``thinking'' and ``problem solving'' skills, but Mr. Katzman, who has every reason to agree, is not impressed. ``No real education is done in my course,'' he says. Students learn, among other things, test-taking tricks: On the toughest math questions, for example, one should look for the obvious answer, then choose its opposite. Are less affluent at double disadvantage?
There is growing concern that the coaching boom tilts the tables still further against students, minority or otherwise, who don't have this advantage. Katzman claims that the Princeton Review raises test scores by 100 points or more (on a scale of 1,600, split evenly between verbal and math skills). With tuition running in the $350-to-$500 range, the students who avail themselves of his and other coaching generally are not poor. Kaplan tutored one girl from Harlem in a special program called ``Do uble Discovery,'' sponsored by Columbia University, and the course helped raise her math scores from 250 to a respectable 550. While such attention is almost commonplace in many suburbs, it is still a rare exception in places like Harlem. ``Those who need the preparation the most can least afford it,'' Mr. Kaplan says.
Katzman puts it more bluntly: ``Most of our kids are wealthy,'' he told David Owen, author of ``None of the Above,'' the recent book disparaging standardized tests. ``Those are the kids who have an advantage to begin with. And we're moving them up another level.''
There are still people who think the SAT can lower the education ladder rather than pull it up. Tom Parker, assistant admissions director at Williams College, for example, thinks the test can still help applicants who don't have well-connected alumni in their corner. ``The only lobby they have is the SAT,'' he says. But even he is concerned that coaching raises ``real problems of socioeconomic importance.''
A new organization called FairTest, based in Cambridge, Mass., has been formed to confront these concerns. A number of schools have taken the fairness and other issues seriously enough to drop the SAT requirement. One of these is Bates College in Maine, which took this step last year. Bates had determined in its own case what a number of scholars have argued generally that the SAT isn't really an important gauge of how well a student is likely to do in college.
The Bates faculty was worried about using a test that rich kids could prepare for and poor kids could not. And admissions director William Hiss comes back to what is becoming a dominant concern of many. ``SATs were causing kids to misuse their time,'' he says. ``We [are] saying, `Don't spend 400 hours studying word analogies with Brother [Stanley] Kaplan. Read Shakespeare, Dickens; work in a soup kitchen.' ''
Even Katzman, who is doing very well by the SAT, says he could not agree more. ``I'd be delighted to teach real literature,'' he says.