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The Working Class SAT

Elite private school educations leave students unprepared for a standardized test with which their public school counterparts are innately familiar.

My high school English teacher liked to read Elle while she graded our final exams. There was nary a red pen involved in the process. The Scan-Tron machine puttered and whined in the corner of an empty room, spewing copious slips of paper with a few pencils' worth of graphite on them. This was a public school, and each teacher had one hundred and fifty students' exams to grade: there were no essays on our final. Instead, our GPAs were determined by sequences of A, B, C, D, and E, which we sorted into correct sequences of answers, but never into words.

Between distended class sizes and educational funding schemes based on performance on standardized tests, public schools have become multiple-choice centered. Those wealthy enough to attend elite private schools rightly argue that such a reliance on multiple choice tests can hardly encourage independent thinking - and, pragmatically, note that elite universities eschew such tests as well. Therefore high schools grooming children for the Ivy League conduct classes as junior versions of those at top universities.

As someone who attended six different public schools across America, went to Harvard, and subsequently became a tutor in Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side, I've witnessed firsthand the differences in learning styles between public school educations and private. Students in elite high schools take seminars - their foreign language class may as likely be titled "Gender and Colonialism in the Caribbean" as "French IV." In short, "prep" school is an accurate moniker: these students have already undertaken four years of college-level work before they arrive at the real thing.

Meanwhile, some of my fellow public school graduates hit Harvard without having written an essay or offered their viewpoint in a class. And those students got to Harvard only because of the SAT.

April 1st marks the one-year anniversary of the new SAT. Over a million high school juniors will take a test dominated by multiple choice questions, mitigated only by a formulaic essay section that lasts twenty-five minutes and counts for only one-ninth of the score. Consider two students of equal intelligence and imagine which one will be more in his element: the abstract thinker from a prestigious prep school, or the knowledge-regurgitating public school kid who's been taking multiple choice tests his whole life?

I've seen the evidence in my tutoring work: straight A students at top private schools fall to pieces when confronted with a test that isn't looking for original thought but rather the ability to pick out a pre-determined answer. Questions in the critical reading section generally fall into the realm of plot summary: "The author's primary purpose in lines 4-8 is...", or "the last sentence of the passage serves to...." Desperate to exhibit the thinking that has rewarded them in the past, private school students over-think the problem, trying to make the kinds of broad connections and analyses that are entirely inappropriate for a standardized test designed to be accessible to the lowest common denominator. Therefore they turn to SAT tutors, who charge up to $1,000 an hour to familiarize them with the test.

Here's the rub: The most important factor in college admissions is a test that benefits those who are least prepared for college. It's the tale of the tax-funded Tortoise and the affluent Hare: the thousands of dollars that allow for tiny class sizes and PhD-educated teachers, that buy a private school kid the opportunity to think broadly, to argue nuance and forge unique connections, put him at a disadvantage in the final lap, when the plodding public school kid who has been drowning in stultifying but predictable standardized tests sails through.

The SAT allows less-privileged students access to universities that previously were the bastions of the wealthy. Without the SAT, a university like Georgetown would have no objective means of judging an application from, say, a young Bill Clinton of Hot Springs [Public] High School in Arkansas. The test, or a test like it, must exist for the meritocratic and democratic ideals of American education to flourish. It does, however, take the American ideal of fairness to an extreme: no subjective interpretations are allowed, whether on the part of tester or test-taker. The irony is that the Manhattan elite, after spending over $150,000 for four years of top-flight education for their children, will then be obligated to shell out up to $1,000 an hour to buy those same children familiarity with a mode of testing that limits the educations of the American lower classes for free.

There is plenty of use for intelligence on the SAT, but little for wisdom.

ELIOT SCHREFER's debut novel about tutoring the children of Manhattan's elite, Glamorous Disasters, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.