The formula for doing well on college-entrance exams used to be a good night's sleep, a hearty breakfast, and a sharp No. 2 pencil.
That was back in the days when the College Board claimed that its SAT measured "aptitude" for college work - and before private prep courses for the test you weren't supposed to be able to cram for became a billion-dollar industry.
Now the nation's top testing coach is bringing its brand of test prep to the classroom. In a "first of its kind" partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Kaplan Learning Services is offering "predictive pre-tests" for the PSAT, SAT and ACT (American College Test).
But critics of standardized testing say that such a program feeds what has become a dangerous overreliance on tests as a measure of academic potential, especially harmful to minorities and women.
The real need is not to improve test preparation, but to sharply curb the influence of tests in college-admissions decisions, they argue.
Opponents of standardized tests insist that such tests are inherently unfair to black and Latino students and should be scrapped; advocates say the need is to better prepare minorities to take the tests.
At stake is access to higher education and the high-quality jobs a good education can open up.
The new Kaplan test amounts to a pre-test for a pre-test. It will most likely be given in the sophomore year, in time to address student weaknesses before the College Board's pre-test, the PSAT.
At $30 a head, the test and its follow-up "customized assessment and feedback" is a bargain for parents, compared with the $600-plus fees charged for private test-prep classes.
For high school principals, a partnership with top testing coaches may also help avoid emergency meetings with anxious parents or real estate agents, after a dip in SAT scores sends student admission prospects and local housing values tumbling.
"We see a future world with much more testing in it. Most schools are not equipped to explain test results. Teachers need to learn how these tests work," says Seppy Basili, Kaplan's director of college programs.
For many American schoolteachers, the notion of teaching to a test has long been anathema. Some 78 percent of education professors in a recent survey described standardized tests as a "serious folly" and said that they wanted less reliance on them.
Colleges opt out of tests
But the latest assault against high-stakes, fill-in-the-bubble exams was set off by recent state decisions to abandon affirmative action in college admissions.
Minority enrollment fell off sharply in the University of California system, after that state's board of regents voted to ban racial preferences in admissions in 1995. Last fall, California voters backed a statewide ban on government affirmative-action programs, and similar votes are pending in 26 other states.
In a bid to avoid a falloff in minority enrollments after its own court decision voiding affirmative action, Texas opted in May to end test-score requirements for in-state students. Under this plan, students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes would be offered automatic admission to state schools.
Now California legislators are considering a similar plan to admit the top 12.5 percent of state students, without reference to test scores. A University of California task force on Latino college enrollments urged making the SAT optional.
"The SAT seems to have been a barrier for eligibility and participation in the University of California for Latinos, women, and other disadvantaged students," argued the Latino Eligibility Task Force in a midsummer report.
If standardized tests continue to be used, Hispanic enrollment could drop as much as 70 percent, the group concluded. California Gov. Pete Wilson opposes dropping the tests.
Anti-test groups welcome this high-stakes backlash over testing, which some describe as a perfect political irony. "You could call this the law of unintended consequences: Those opposed to affirmative action want objective measures to be used for admission to colleges. But this very movement forced policymakers to take a closer look at what these objective measures are - and the SAT doesn't stand up very well," says Laura Barrett, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), in Cambridge, Mass.
Fuel for anti-test groups
FairTest research on test bias against minorities and women was used to bolster the anti-test case by advocacy groups in both Texas and California. Some 260 undergraduate institutions now offer test-score-optional admissions, up from 100 in 1994.
The College Board is taking this new threat to standardized tests seriously. It is also stepping up its own efforts to help minorities with programs to encourage taking more rigorous courses and better preparation for tests.
"There is a clear disconnect [with] a higher-education system where there are only 3 to 4 percent Latino students and even fewer African-Americans in a state with one of the largest minority populations in the country," says College Board president Donald Stewart, describing California. But he says to accept the recommendation of California's Latino task force is "like breaking the thermometer because you don't like the temperature."
"Educators need to find ways to help students meet the standard, not simply discard it because of the need to fulfill some sort of political or social agenda, no matter how worthwhile that agenda may be," he adds.
One problem with the Texas 10-percent solution is that it could encourage students to improve their grades by taking less-rigorous courses. This strategy may help minorities get into college, but it weighs against their doing well there, he argues.
But the anti-testing backlash has not yet tempted the College Board to reach out to test-prep groups, which it has long opposed. "Coaching isn't the answer," says Mr. Stewart. "We produce our own sample practice tests, at much less cost than Stanley Kaplan or [rival Princeton Review's] John Katzman."