Preparing for the SAT. Controversial course claims to boost scores by 150 points or more

JOHN KATZMAN is the man who bruised the beast for thousands of high schoolers throughout the country. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) had become the object of reverential awe. Who was smart and who wasn't, who dared apply to Yale and who would slouch off to community college, came to depend in large measure upon this test. Because it measured your ``aptitude,'' the authorities said, you couldn't greatly improve your score by study. It was predestination over free will. The die was cast.

Then along came Katzman with his Princeton Review, an SAT prep course that increases student scores by -- he claims, and nobody has disproven -- an average of 150 points, thus challenging the very premise of the test. Where others were respectful of the SAT, Katzman was iconoclastic. ``The SAT isn't a test of how smart you are,'' he has written. ``It's simply a test of how good you are at taking ETS [Educational Testing Service] tests.'' Starting in New York City in 1981, the Review's six-week course is now available in 26 cities, at a cost of between $500 and $600. Katzman claims it has surpassed the more conventional Stanley Kaplan courses, along with the bevy of others that have sprung up around the test, in the cities where they go head-to-head.

ETS was worried enough to take Katzman to court for allegedly lifting questions from actual SATs. (Katzman counters that the relative handful of instances was accidental, and that he corrected the mistakes as soon as ETS pointed them out.) Now, Katzman and his sometime collaborator Adam Robinson have put their test-taking lore into a new book called ``Cracking the System: The SAT'' (Villard Books, $9.95) that will arrive on bookstore shelves just in time for the annual fall panic. And while the College Board and ETS absorb this latest blow to their prestige, Katzman is starting to consider how his experience with the Princeton Review might help the public schools.

The real problem with the SAT, he says, is that it gets everyone's ``eye off the ball,'' so that people are thinking more about test scores than they are about education.

``Over the last five years we've seen a real mounting of anxiety'' over the SAT, Robinson explained in an interview in Boston. ``We get calls from parents of pre-teens. I'm talking 9- and 10-year-olds.'' But the race for the Ivy League schools is just one factor behind the Princeton Review's success. Probably more important is a witty and irreverent approach that turns a grim ritual almost into a game.

The first order of business is to cut Goliath down to size. ``The test is put together so shoddily and so predictably badly,'' Katzman said over lunch in New York, ``that the very first thing you should do to raise your score is to put away your awe of it.'' He and Robinson point out that the test is not written by learned authorities on high, but by ``ordinary company employees or by college students and others hired part-time.'' Instead of talking about ``right'' answers, the Princeton Review refers to ``Pam's answer'' and ``Jim's answer,'' after the ETS employees who are responsible for the verbal and math sections, respectively.

The central lesson of ``Cracking the System'' is that students can learn to avoid the traps that, the authors say, the SAT deliberately sets in their path.

In each test section, for example, questions start easy and become increasingly difficult. Which is not to say that they necessarily require more insight or understanding. ``A question is `difficult' only because the wrong choices seem so good,'' Robinson said. In other words, as a student moves through the test, the traps, or ``attractors,'' become progressively more subtle.

Enter Joe Bloggs, the hypothetical lummox that Princeton Review students keep by their side. Joe gets the easy questions right -- because he always chooses the answer that looks right -- and for this very reason he gets the hard questions wrong. Hence a basic lesson of the Princeton Review: On the easy questions, pick the answer Joe Bloggs would pick. But on the harder questions, eliminate it.

``Cracking the System'' elaborates upon this principle for each test section. And it identifies other SAT proclivities that students may find helpful. On reading comprehension passages, for example, ``Pam'' avoids strong emotions. ``Gentle criticism'' is more likely to describe a test passage than is ``unrestrained amusement.'' The so-called ``ethnic passage'' will, the authors say, always be complimentary to the racial or ethnic group in question. Using hints like these, it is sometimes possible to choose a right answer even without reading the passage.

A representative of the College Board, which sponsors the SAT, said the organization holds to the view that preparation doesn't improve scores significantly. One spokesperson suggested gently that Katzman's motives just might be pecuniary. If that's the case, then he and Robinson show remarkably little concern about killing the goose that lays their golden eggs. The authors openly criticize the SAT. Robinson says that a rival test, produced by the American College Testing Service (ACT) is better, because it doesn't purport to measure ``aptitude.'' And they deplore the way the test has become a barometer for entire school systems. Of a much-acclaimed score hike in South Carolina, for example, Robinson says, ``The SAT scores went up but the standards went down. [They've] diverted kids' time from Shakespeare and Faulkner to word analogies.''

An amiable and candid young man who gives off a kind of rambunctious energy, Katzman thinks there may be lessons for the public schools from the Princeton Review's success.

The key, he says, is paying high salaries that will attract excellent teachers. The public schools should do that, he thinks, and open up the teaching ranks to bright young people who don't want a five-class-a-day load. (The Princeton Review hires many aspiring writers and actors for whom part-time teaching is an ideal way to make ends meet.)

To skeptics who question whether an SAT prep course has any relation at all to the world of the inner-city schools, Katzman points to an experiment in Washington, D.C., in which he helped raise SAT scores by as much as 200 points among inner-city youth.

The New York City schools were eager to enlist his services, he said, but the project has been put on hold until the ETS lawsuit is settled. The main difference in working in the inner city, he says, is that you have to pay more attention to basic skills. Plus, the students ``have to believe they are going to go to college.''

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