Stress Test

Forget all the talk about the SAT being obsolete, the "most important test of your life" is alive and scarier than ever -- just ask the average college hopeful searching for a way to make the grade.

Family Matters

April 29, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Welcome to high school math class on steroids.

It's 6:30 on a Tuesday night and a group of teens is not home listening to CDs, watching television or trading e-mail with friends. They are stuck in a classroom in the middle of a Columbia office park studying with an intensity usually reserved for video games.

In minutes, their marker-wielding instructor has filled a wall with numbers. For three hours, she drills them in ratios, percentages, algebra, geometry, word problems -- the substance of several years of high school math.

Nobody talks, or passes notes, or even asks to use the restroom. Like soldiers on a battlefield, they are at full alert, energized by fear, united against a common foe -- namely, the college entrance exam known as the SAT.

"It doesn't impress anyone if you can get the answer in class in five minutes," their teacher, Mary Sharper, chides when they are slow to complete sample SAT questions.

In February, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson made headlines across the country by proposing to stop using SAT scores as an admissions requirement at any of the system's eight campuses.

UC is not the first school to explore such an option, but it is one of the largest and most influential. The announcement touched off another round in the longstanding public debate over the fairness of standardized testing -- chiefly whether the SAT favors the rich and the white at the expense of the poor and minorities.

"Should SATs matter?" Time magazine asked in a recent cover story. Critics talked about moving toward a comprehensive, holistic approach to reviewing college applicants. Good-bye, SAT number crunching. Hello, "Let's talk about it."

But don't tell that to the troops at ground-zero of the SAT world, where high school juniors enrolled in an $800, 12-session prep course are just days away from taking the most important exam of their lives.

"My parents want me to do better and give it all I have," says Robert Douglas, 16, a student at Archbishop Spalding High in Severn who worries that unless he improves on his 1070 PSAT score, he won't get into the school of his choice. "It can be a little intimidating."

There was a time when a test prep class was the sole province of candidates for law or medical school. Today, preparing high school students for standardized tests is a billion-dollar business -- and the most obvious sign of the SAT's significance to the average teen -- even those with fairly modest college aspirations.

This particular course is sponsored by Kaplan Inc., one of the largest test-prep companies and a subsidiary of The Washington Post. There are others, Princeton Review and Baltimore's Sylvan Learning Systems among them, as well as books, videos, tapes, and internet sites.

Kaplan officials estimate that enrollment in SAT classes has increased 50 percent in the last decade. They claim to boost SAT scores by 120 points (the average SAT score is about 1,019).

That's what has brought students like Mike Frankos here. A student at Hammond High School in Columbia, he has taken the SAT twice already and his top score is 1020. That's well below the 1260 he thinks he'll need to get into Syracuse University or the University of Maryland College Park where he wants to major in biology.

"I look at the classes I'm taking and the grades I get and I just think I should have done much better," says Frankos, 17, an A and B student from Laurel with a 3.57 grade point average. "It doesn't reflect what I really can do."

Chris Rutland, 16, a varsity basketball player at Spalding hopes someday to play for an Ivy League school. He's taken the SAT once already but fears his score, 620 on the verbal portion and 560 on math for a combined 1180, is about 170 points short of where he needs to be.

"This is pretty boring. I'm not going to lie, but I think the class is helping," says Rutland, a 6-foot, 3-inch point guard who lives in Severna Park. "You have to tell yourself it's for a good cause."

The fact that high school juniors must suffer through the SAT is nothing new -- many of their parents underwent the same thing -- but the lengths to which students now go to gain an edge on the exam certainly is.

The Kaplan course, for instance, involves not only 36 hours in the classroom, but an equal amount of homework. Two decades ago, few if any public school systems bothered to prepare students for the SAT, now most do.

Twenty years ago, most college applicants took the SAT just once, according to the College Board, the non-profit organization which sponsors the exam. Today, roughly half take it at least twice -- so they can throw out their lowest scores.

"When I started at Kaplan seven years ago, the average students was probably a high school achiever," says Liz Smith, manager of the company's Baltimore office. "Now, we're just seeing more kids from all over. I get calls from concerned parents (asking) 'What else can we do?' "

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