It was graduation day for St. Frances Academy, and pride showed on the faces of the 20 seniors as they received the diplomas that marked the beginning of the next phases of their lives.
Best known of the graduates was Devin Gray, the school's star basketball player. But his smile amid the pomp and circumstance concealed the tremendous strain he had been under.
Already committed to playing for Clemson University, Gray learned five days before graduation that he had failed for the fourth time to get the 700 score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test that is required for freshman eligibility under NCAA rules.
So, while classmates passed a carefree week leading up to the big day, Gray spent his worrying. And studying. For June 1, the day before graduation, was a day that would help shape his immediate future -- it would be his last chance to "pass" the SAT.
"Pressure," said Gray, recalling how he felt before the exam. "It's hard to describe. It's more than I've ever felt before."
For Gray, much of his senior year was pressure-filled. The initial pressure was to impress the college scouts with his performance on the basketball court.
He was 6 feet 3 when he arrived four years ago, but St. Frances -- the oldest black Catholic school in the country, which specializes in helping students who struggle academically -- had neither a varsity basketball team nor a gym. He was urged to play on the newly formed junior varsity team, which went 21-0 on the way to the Catholic League championship. As Gray improved from a clumsy ninth-grader to a player who could compete against Baltimore's best, he began to consider basketball as a future.
"After my sophomore year, I started coming into my own," Grasaid. "A lot of guys told me I had potential, and I started believing in myself and thinking maybe I could get a scholarship."
As a junior, he was an All-Metro selection. By his senior year, hwas a solid, 6-6, 210-pound forward whose quick first step and powerful drives to the basket wreaked havoc in the Catholic League.
"In my 27 years, only two players have scored over 40 points against us, and that's [former Notre Dame and NBA guard] Austin Carr and Devin," said Cardinal Gibbons coach
Ray Mullis, against whose team Gray went 20-for-24 from the field for 42 points. "He's an outstanding athlete with unbelievable leaping ability. He's definitely a player."
Gray and his high school coach, William Wells, were deluged with recruiting letters. Gray considered Maryland, Towson State, Minnesota and St. John's before picking Clemson.
"My mother really wanted me to get out of the city, because people want to hold on to you," Gray said. "I chose Clemson, and she felt it was a good school.
"I don't like to compliment myself. But I always think that, if keep developing, I have at least a chance of playing in the pros."
At the time he announced his college choice on May 4, attending Clemson was not a sure thing. In three SAT attempts, his highest score was 690. So, barely an hour
after the announcement, he was in a conference room at the school in an intense, one-on-one study session with the Rev. Edward Gallagher, the school's principal and pre-calculus teacher.
"What I'm trying to do is teach him how to do the test," Gallagher said. "Not how people in general should do it, but how Devin should do it."
Not only does the SAT determine which athletes get to play as freshmen, but it's also a gauge for college acceptance. Preparation classes cost as much as $700, and some parents have their children take the test as early as the eighth grade.
Standardized tests have been accused of cultural bias, with test-takers from the inner city at a disadvantage.
"I've seen students who were honor-roll students, and the best they could do was 900 on the SAT," said Meredith Smith, Southern High basketball coach. "Some of the words in the vocabulary might as well be Russian. They never hear a word like that in the environment they come from, and they never hear the words in school."
Former St. Francis (Pa.) College guard Mike Iuzzolino says the tests simply aren't fair. A "B" student at Altoona (Pa.) High School, he "failed" the American College Test with a score of 13 (15 is required for freshman eligibility). Only after he scored 760 on the SAT was he assured of his scholarship at Penn State.
"The test scores bothered me, because I knew I was a good student, and I just don't take standardized tests well," said Iuzzolino, who transferred to St. Francis after his sophomore year at Penn State. "Just because I didn't do well, there was this fear of not being able to play.
"They ask a lot of ridiculous questions," said Iuzzolino, who graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average while majoring in secondary education. "You have to have some guidelines to allow people in school, but . . . I just don't think [standardized tests] are the best indicators."