The New York Times, November 21, 1998

"Bring a No.2 Pencil and $6,000 "


MUNICH -- The American school system is diverse by design. An "A" from Bronx Science does not compare with one from Ozark High. Hence, the common yardstick of standardized exams like the Scholastic Assessment Test. But ever since these tests were introduced, they have been bad-mouthed. They are said to discriminate by sex, race and culture.

As a foreigner, the mother of a British-educated teen-ager who wants to go to college in the United States, I have flipped through the S.A.T. practice books. The stuff is a bit exotic for somebody who has gone through a British or European system, but hardly biased. If there is discrimination, it is of the financial kind.

Everybody -- friends, teachers, students -- has urged my daughter to get a coach. She has been given the names of highly recommended tutors who will bring her up to speed. She can write timed essays on Henry V's financial politics or Othello's jealousy. Alas, she has never taken a multiple-choice test by blackening little bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

So I call one of these ("he is the best") supertutors, recommended by a Princeton student. Yes, he could take my daughter under his wing. But he would rather talk first about money. So how much would it cost to bring my 17-year-old up to S.A.T. snuff? "I charge 490 bucks." For the whole course? No, no -- for one session of 100 minutes. And how many sessions does she need? Ten at least, plus practice and diagnostic tests, books and software, and transportation. With my No. 2 pencil, I total it all up: $6,000 minimum.

Who is willing (because I am not) to hand over such a small fortune? Lots of people. My man is busy coaching students until 11 at night.

What a paradox. Intended as the great equalizer that would give everybody of talent a shot at the best schools, the S.A.T. looks like the great differentiator. Moneyed parents send their kids to the right prep schools or hire tutors at $490 a throw. Poorer parents will have to run up debts even before their offspring make it into the Ivy League -- or they go the somewhat cheaper route of group classes from businesses like Kaplan's and The Princeton Review.

And the kid from Ozark High? He won't be coached. He probably never heard of Kaplan's. He'll score 1,200 points -- not enough for the best schools. He might be smart, even very smart. But if he is not initiated into the arcane arts of S.A.T.-taking, he will be seriously disadvantaged.

Foreigners are heartened by the college handbooks that tell them that their French baccalaureates and English "A" levels might give them a year's worth of advanced standing, saving them the tuition for freshman year. But to reap the credit, they have to take some more tests, the S.A.T. II's, which are supposed to measure achievement in certain subjects.

Alas, it seems that the S.A.T. II is not really after knowledge. "The French S.A.T. II," says The Princeton Review's crammer, "does not care whether you speak the language or whether you'd know a croissant from an Egg McMuffin." Apparently, the only measure is the ability to crack a test, not the mastery of the subjonctif or of Proust.

My daughter's tutor assured me, after glancing at her old English scores and talking to her, that if she worked, he would be able to raise her score on the S.A.T. I by 200 points at least. (Needless to say, he claimed, "I am the best.") And what will she have proved? That she has learned with the help of a tutor (and her father's money) to become an expert test taker, a guesser and trickster. Looking from the outside, this seems very contrary to the aims of American education: to be objective, to be academically sound -- and, most important, to give everyone an equal chance.

Christine Brinck, a Munich journalist, writes on society and culture.