Her high school classes had been so easy and her grades so good, Ruby Corral was confident she would ace her SAT test. Wrong.
"I seriously didn't think the SAT was going to be hard," she says. "I couldn't believe my score." She would have to do better to enter a top school.
She got her chance. Unlike many Hispanic inner-city students who cannot afford costly test-preparation courses, Ruby and 57 others were selected for a special program offered to urban Los Angeles schools by a test-prep company in New York.
Sure enough, by the end of the two-month course, Ruby's SAT score had risen 170 points - enough to help get her admitted to the University of California at Berkeley.
For Ruby and minority inner-city youths like her, state-subsidized preparation programs to remedy low test scores may be the wave of the future - or, depending on who you talk to, a waste of money.
Tuesday's announcement that some categories of Hispanic and Black SAT scores had fallen in the past decade revved the already hot debate over how to best prepare America's least-prepared students for the SAT, used by 90 percent of the nation's colleges in the admissions process.
So important are SATs in college admissions that California's legislature voted last year to deploy test-preparation programs in low-performing schools throughout the state.
Others, however, say that costly effort really doesn't address underlying problems. Officials for the New York-based College Board, which sponsors the SAT, point out that sagging minority SAT scores may be due to demographic shifts and a big jump in numbers of minority students taking the test.
But that's small recompense to Theresa Bustillos, a vice president at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles.
"One message getting through to Latino children is very positive: You have to take the SAT to get into college," says Ms. Bustillos. "But these kids are not getting access to key courses they need to do well on the SAT - higher-level math courses in particular."
She adds that her defense fund is looking to bring this issue to court. And this is "not limited just to access to advanced placement classes," Bustillos says, "but on the whole issue of discrimination limiting access to math for Latinos."
More legal action
Another lawsuit would not be surprising. Litigation over the use of race as a factor in college admissions are already prevalent nationwide. Eight Filipino and Latino students sued the University of California at Berkeley last February, charging discrimination kept them out.
In July, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit for four Inglewood High School students claiming a lack of advanced-placement (AP) classes in inner-city schools had denied them and thousands of other minorities access to top universities.
Many admissions officers at selective colleges consider top grades in AP courses just as important as strong SAT scores.
Critics of the SAT have long charged that it should not be used in college admissions at all because it is not a neutral measure.
They consider it biased against new immigrants and anyone slightly unfamiliar with English. When added to poor access to honors and AP classes, they see it as the crux of the problem.
"It's not that there's something just wrong with the test or just wrong with the schools - it's both," says Robert Schaeffer, public-education director for Fairtest, a Cambridge, Mass., advocacy group.
"We would like to see admissions officers invest resources to look at applicants comprehensively," he adds. "Too many large public universities are forced by legislation to use rigid formulae or even have test-score cutoffs. That misuse of the SAT erects unfair barriers to access."
One other development could deepen the debate. Educational Testing Services (ETS), which administers the SAT, is considering including a weighted "striver" score to give admissions officers another tool in evaluating students. Using demographic information, ETS would produce, in addition to an actual SAT score, an "expected" score using categories such as parents' education and family income.
ETS officials hope the two scores will give colleges both a race-blind model and one that accounts for race and ethnicity.
But college admissions personnel, at least some at selective schools, say they are already using sophisticated methods for assessing students backgrounds - without using race as a factor.
"Test scores don't drive the boat as hard people think they do," says Julie Browning, dean of undergraduate enrollment at Houston's William Marsh Rice University. "It's not new for us to consider 'overcome' factors, whether you call them strivers or not. We take the socioeconomic factors into account."
Others doubt colleges will use the new SAT mechanism for fear of being sued. Besides, they argue, changing test methods or promoting expensive test preparation misses the point: the need to fix schools to produce better students in the first place.
"We need to expect the same from all students," says Abigail Thernstrom, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "We need to tell them, you may have to work a little harder, maybe a lot harder."
Still, others see room for test preparation. Trent Anderson from Kaplan Educational Centers, says his company's services benefit kids - and cites statistics to prove it.
It was one of Kaplan's 160 centers that helped Ruby Corral boost her score.
But critics like Dr. Thernstrom say test preparation isn't enough.
"Good schools, good teachers, high standards, and accountability are the solution," she says. "There is no other solution."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society