"Some of my peers in the so-called 'smart' classes say, 'Oh, I'd never take a prep course.' They say it's morally unsound. But I look at it as a 'survival of the fittest' kind of thing . . . I don't look at it as buying a grade. There are so many things you can do to get better scores. You can get a book from the library . . ." -- Jennifer Copaken, 16, a junior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac

Test coach Stanley Kaplan claims near-perfect scores: see what 40 years of practice can do you. Exam critic David Owen isn't telling what he got. Lore has it that JFK's scores were so embarrassing he had the records expunged. And Langley High School guidance counselor Loyd Johnson, like so many of his peers, never went through it. "I went to school in 1956. It was a different world then. You pretty much wrote to a college and said, 'I want to come,' and they said, 'Come on.' "

The subject is THE EXAM -- the fearsome leveler of student performance, the taking of which has become an American rite of passage -- you spell it S for Scholastic, A for Aptitude, T for Test.

Saturday, hundreds of thousands of white-knuckled juniors in Washington and across the nation put No. 2 pencils to paper and became the latest to coast or sweat through the ordeal, now in its 59th year.

From all indications, students are feeling more pressured than ever to excel on the SAT at the very time when it's come under increased fire as an allegedly poor predictor of future performance.

David Owen's book attacking the test (None of the Above, Houghton Mifflin, $16.95) has received wide critical notice.

Recent years have brought the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the test's publisher, embarrassed attention for repeated errors in scoring.

Today, however, while observers say some colleges are relying less on the test as a consequence, student competition and even panic have not seen a corresponding decrease. Instead, new study guides cram bookstore shelves and student enrollment in pricey prep courses is climbing nationwide.

Guidance counselor Loyd Johnson is struck by the irony. "We're hearing now how the SAT testing is less important than at any point in the past," he says. "Colleges have real questions about whether they measure what they purport to measure. At the same time, kids are getting more nervous . . . Lots of people are supporting themselves out there coaching . . . For kids, the progression used to be: You'd take the college boards SATs plus achievement tests and if you weren't satisfied with the results, then you'd get coached and take them again. Now, kids are getting coached before they take the tests."

High schoolers routinely take the test two and three times now (it's offered six times a year), trying to boost their scores. A perfect score is 1,600: 800 each on the math and verbal sections. Kids trade scores like baseball cards, along with college acceptances or rejections (as in, says one parent, "So-and-so didn't get accepted at Yale and he had a 1,400.") They reassess each other by the outcome (results are mailed home six weeks after the test); parents reward and punish by it (one of Jennifer Copaken's friends was told her curfew will hinge on the results).

Copaken, who hopes to follow her older sister to Harvard, enrolled in an 11-week $350 prep course before Saturday's test. She said earlier, "I can't deny the fact I'm very nervous about the whole thing. I do consider myself a high achiever. I do well in school. I'm in the honor society. But I'm not as good a test-taker as my abilities show.

"Test-taking is a hard thing for me. I figured this should ease some of my anxiety and enable me to focus totally on the material instead of the whole idea of 'Oh my God. This is the SATs. What do I do? What are the directions? Should I guess or shouldn't I guess?"

Her mother, Marjorie Copaken, is sympathetic. "There's a lot of nervousness, especially in the area we live in -- the whole Potomac, Bethesda, Chevy Chase area -- where everybody's a bright kid. . . Some of the pressure is self-pressure. Some is because of expectations I think their parents have for them."

For the kids with good grades, pressure often comes before the test. For kids with so-so grades, it can come after.

Sam Levinson, a psychologist with a private practice in Potomac and Alexandria, recalls this aspect when his teen-agers took the test.

"Occasionally a kid who's getting mediocre grades does very well on the SATs and it drives the parents up the wall. The parents are relieved he got a decent SAT score, but say, 'If you're so smart, why are you bringing home Cs and Ds?' "

The flourishing of the test-coaching businesses, says Levinson, is a manifestation of the anxiety kids and parents feel over the test. The phenomenon was almost certainly not anticipated when the SAT was devised in 1926 as a means to uphold elitist standards in American universities.

John Katzman, 25, whose 4-year-old Princeton Review opened its first class in Washington this spring, claims the $495 he charges will produce an average 150-point gain.

Stanley Kaplan, 65, the undisputed leader of the coaching business, is untroubled by the competition. "The more people who take it coaching , the more want to take it . . . They figure, 'If he has got that advantage, I want it too.' " Kaplan says 15,000 students nationwide took his $395 course last year -- an increase of 20 percent. Their average gain, he says: 120 or 130 points.

The recording of such sizable gains from coaching, charges David Owen in his book, undermines the worth of a test supposed to measure strictly scholastic aptitude. In fact, for years ETS publicly proclaimed that coaching was a waste of time and money. However, since 1980, ETS has published its own study guides and practice tests.

Many school districts offer prep courses for the SATs as well. Between 1,600 and 2,000 students a year, for example, take the course given by the Montgomery County Public School system, at a cost of $40, says Sandy Horowitz, with the system's Department of Adult Education.

Like Katzman and Kaplan, Horowitz believes coaching -- either in paid, group sessions, or alone, using ETS sample tests -- pays off. "It does help, if only because one doesn't have surprises. You're prepared for the timing, for the way they score. You know when it's worthwhile to skip and when it's not."

But, says Horowitz, there are no guarantees.

"I do have a strong feeling that kids are scared and parents are very, very worried. Very often, parents will have an unrealistic view of what a kid's scores should be and they feel taking the course will bring about this effect. None of this is magic."

SAT horror stories: Once, during the administration of SATs at Langley High School in McLean, the lights went out in a winter snowstorm. The students were sent home and the test rescheduled. At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, there was a storm of protest when students' answer forms were lost in the mail en route to Princeton to be scored. Students had to take the test again.

What about after the tests are over? Years after? Do people look back and laugh?

Apparently not. In what was to have been a project for Esquire years ago, Owen called up a few dozen of New York's cultural heavies to ask them to retake the test, just for fun. The general reaction, as described in Owen's new book, was one of horror.

"That's the cruelest idea I ever heard of. Not since the Chinese water torture . . ." said David Halberstam.

"You must be crazy! I'd be too scared," said George Plimpton.

Jules Feiffer: "Not on your life. Not even as a gag, not even for money would I do it."

"That's exactly the grip this test has on us," says Owen. "Kids and their parents don't think of it as just another test. Instead they think, 'This is the truth. This is the magic mirror.' They're afraid the test will show they were frauds."