Now that he has finished with surf lessons and jujitsu lessons and driving lessons and outdoor adventure day camp, Ben Gordon has just one thing left to do: study for the new SAT. So help her, his mother will make sure of that.
There are, after all, just six months before the first administration of the revamped test, and Ben still has 700 vocabulary flashcards to memorize; five pages of Greek and Latin root words to learn each week; four SAT study guides to read; three private tutors to meet; and a costly psychological profile to send in to ensure the high school junior, who has attention-deficit disorder, gets extra time to take the test.
Though the College Board, the author of the SAT, says it's pointless to try to study for a test that measures aptitude, not knowledge, Ben's parents aren't listening. Their job, as they see it, is to pave their children's way to success. Getting them into the right college is the coup de grace to years of full extracurricular schedules and summers consumed by enrichment programs. No standardized test is going to stand in the way of this. And so the Gordons are staring down this challenge the best way they know how: with the finest study aids money can buy.
"At this point, it's really just a matter of making the time, creating a routine," says Ben's mother, Ilana. "Expensewise, as far as we're concerned, we'll do whatever it takes."
Ben, 15, is the youngest child of Ilana and Scott Gordon, parents who are soft-spoken, loving and militant when it comes to studying for the SAT. They've been through this twice before, with daughters who both got into Emory University in Atlanta after following their own custom SAT-prep programs. Rebecca, the oldest, had two private tutors, one for verbal and one for math. Sarah, the middle child, began with private tutors and Princeton Review her junior year. After thousands of dollars, Ilana says, her score went down. So they signed her up for a Capital Educators class, which emphasized taking many practice tests before the real thing. Sarah's score jumped 200 points on the old test scale of 1,600 points. The maximum score on the new test is 2,400 points.
And so after six years Scott and Ilana have honed the regimen into a slick and exorbitant array of books, flashcards and one-on-one and group coaching sessions, which Ben began even before he started his junior year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. The couple has spent tens of thousands of dollars preparing their three children for their SATs.
Everyone labors under the tyranny of the College Board in this airy suburban house: Ilana drills Ben on vocabulary words and fills out paperwork to ensure her son gets an extra 95 minutes on the test; Scott ferries Ben from tutorial to tutorial; even Beauty, the Labrador retriever, whose walk comes second to study sessions. Ben wants to be surfing in Hawaii but instead sits in the dining room surrounded by test prep books.
The quest for a higher score begins in a sunny office in the basement of the home of Veneeta Acson, Ben's tutor for the verbal part of the SAT. She gives him a practice essay question and he talks through it. Then he talks about surf camp, about surfing, about his hopes to go back to Hawaii before school starts and collect more puka shell necklaces to wear while he still has a tan. Acson, it just so happens, will be in Hawaii the following week. She proposes they meet up for reading comprehension lessons on the beach in Waikiki.
Everywhere around them there are dictionaries, three open-faced on top of one bookcase alone. In this office, words are analyzed and deconstructed like characters in a novel. Their size and shape and composition are discussed at length, as are their tendencies in a sentence, their ancestors, their evolution. T-A-C-I-T-U-R-N, Ben writes using a No. 2 pencil taken from one of five Cuisinart Espresso Ground cans filled with writing implements. In high school, 10 SAT-derived vocabulary words are read each week over the PA system in the morning, he says. He vaguely remembers hearing this one once or twice. When Acson asks what it means, though, he is quiet.
Touring a family's comprehensive SAT prep plan is a bit like rifling through their tax returns while they stand by and try to explain. Ask about Acson, and Ben's father explains how his son's grade-point average jumped from 1.9 to 3.0 under her guidance. Ask about that Capital Educators SAT class Ben is going to take, and his mother tells how the only thing that increased her younger daughter's score was this class, so they added it to the heap. Ask about the 700 vocabulary cards, and the family rolls its collective eyes. Studying vocabulary? Seems like such a waste! But Ben will do it anyway, just to be safe. He anticipates he will do as much studying for the SAT as homework this fall. His parents blush at the thousands they're spending on preparation for a single test, at the time they'll spend drilling Ben and shuttling him to tutorials. But, they say, they'll do whatever it takes.
The new SAT, after all, is unpredictable, and the intense test-taker covers all bases. For motivation, it helps to elevate the test and its authors to epic levels of evil. Ben looks out the window at all the sunshine he's missing one Friday afternoon in August. "Who are they to decide what is standard and what is not?" he says. "Who are they to say I can only go to a good college if by some chance I should remember everything they ram down my throat?"
But by the beginning of March he'll be gathering his pencils and changing the batteries in his calculator. The SAT is maligned, but ultimately more than 2 million students submit each year, encouraged by parents and university administrators like Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California system, the test's biggest client. In 2001, Atkinson recommended that his university no longer require the SAT for admission, a move that sparked a national debate about the merits of the test and kick-started a review at the College Board. A year later, Atkinson said he was pleased with the board's proposed changes, especially with the inclusion of a short essay. They were the first adaptations to the test since 1994.
"Most tests change on a regular basis," says Amy Schmidt, executive director of higher education research at the College Board. "The fact that the SAT changes as seldom as it does is a reflection of the iconic status it has in the world. It affects people's lives and we have to be careful with it."
Ben scoffs. Critics are exasperated, some claiming this test is more coachable and therefore more economically biased than the previous version. The College Board maintains the SAT is not a coachable test, but the Princeton Review, whose SAT classes cost between $900 and $5,400, is so confident it can teach students to crack the new test that it has upped its promised score increase to 200 points for the class of 2006, from 100 for 2005. Meanwhile, Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a standardized testing watchdog group, points to dozens of independent studies that contend the SAT is, among other things, more highly correlated with parental income than with a student's high school grades.
Ben's father, who owns a video transcription company, nods wearily at any mention of the new SAT. One recent night, he arrived to pick up Ben from an hour-long session with his verbal tutor and mustered the single question that haunts the hyper-involved SAT parent: "So, how's it looking?"
Acson, keenly aware of the countdown to the March 12 test date, reassures him. They still have plenty of time, she says. "I've given him a good rundown of the torture at hand."