The Test and the Art of Thinking

A rite of passage for high school seniors.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Akil Bello, Howard Gardner, Greg Hanlon, Jonathan Arak, Susan Cole, Jamie Macy, Eric Hoover, Chris Ajemian, Charles Murray, Nicholas Lemann, Tania Blair, Dan Edmonds, Glenn Ribotsky, Erica Meltzer, Kristin Tichenor, Nick Blair, Jed Applerouth, Danielle Allen, David Coleman, William Fitzsimmons, Scott Jaschik, Susan Cole, John Mahone, Debbie Stier. Directed by Arlen Davis

 

Three of the scariest letters to any high school student are “S.A.T.” Although they once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, they now stand for nothing, which is apropos according to this chilling documentary

It’s hard to understate the importance of the SAT and the ACT tests when it comes to college admissions. Nearly every college requires one or the other in order to consider an applicant for admission. Most colleges also have minimum scores requires for admission consideration. A high score on the test can get you into a better school. A low score may prevent you from attending college at all.

Initially, the tests were a way for Ivy League schools to find students that didn’t necessarily attend reputable prep schools in the Northeast. It gave students from public high schools and from other parts of the country an opportunity to get a quality higher education. But as schools discovered that they, too, could use the same test that Harvard used to measure prospective students, there was a not-so-subtle change in how the test was used.

It is also worth noting that the men who created the tests were believers in eugenics, the idea that there are “superior” genes that create superior people. It’s the kind of thinking that the Nazi party in Germany embraced and has largely been debunked since, but there remains an essential cultural bias to the test.

Worse yet, the test really isn’t a measure of a student’s potential to learn, or ability to think. It simply measures if they are able to game the system and ace the test. A cottage industry has sprung up around tutors who are paid – in some cases, extremely well – to prepare a student for the test. Nearly all of them don’t recommend studying actual knowledge for the test, but techniques in how to figure out which answer is the correct one. It also shows how an essay riddled with factual errors still got a high score because it hit all the metrics that the testers were looking for.

There is a good deal of talking head interviews, mainly with educators, test coaches, students and parents. The approach is a little bit hit and miss, and the going can be turgid from time to time; stick with it though because even though the anecdotes start to wear a little thin, the point is a very necessary one. And that point is if you want a country to have superior achievements, it has to start with superior students. The inevitable, inescapable conclusion is that the current model of testing does not achieve that goal.

Like everything else in this country, the admissions tests are big business – the College Board, which owns and administers the test, is a billion-dollar company. The filmmakers also posit a chilling thought near the end of the film – perhaps the test is actually successful in determining which students are less likely to question authority because that’s what business wants. That would actually explain a whole lot about the state of the union.

REASONS TO SEE: Should be required viewing for high school seniors and their parents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very dry and sometimes a bit hard to slog through.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 3.5 million students graduate from high school every year; approximately 80% of them will end up taking either the ACT or SAT tests.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Wetware

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