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Defensive Learning

Some students and teachers of prep courses treat the dreaded SAT with the cynicism they believe it deserves.


To use an analogy:

If preparation for the SAT is the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race, the students in Ron Corcillo's Princeton Review SAT prep course in Pasadena are naval officers aboard a nuclear sub, hoping to blow their competitors out of the water. Most come from well-to-do backgrounds where no expense has been spared for education. By the end of this course, they will have drilled this baby until it is second nature. They know who the enemy is (the Educational Testing Service, which creates the SAT), and, by the time they take the test next month, their heads will be swimming with the strategies it takes to win.

About 1.3 million students took the SAT last year, 12% of them in California. In February, UC President Richard C. Atkinson proposed nuking the test as an admissions requirement to the university's eight undergraduate campuses. The proposal comes, paradoxically, at a time when standardized testing is touted by some, including President Bush, as the answer to what ails American education.

Atkinson challenged test-makers to come up with a new test that would be directly tied to college preparatory courses rather than to what he considers "an ill-defined measure of aptitude or intelligence" like the SAT. The SAT, he says, is unfair to many students and fails to measure what they have learned in high school. He, like many critics, says the SAT measures only how well a student can take a test and is no predictor of college success.

A recent visit with a group of students taking a private SAT course did little to dispel that point of view.

"After the test is over, I will probably forget everything I learned in this SAT course and not care," says Ashley Jacobsen, 17, a junior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, a private Catholic school for girls. "And if I don't get at least a 1,300, it wasn't worth the money."


It's a lazy Sunday afternoon in spring, but dozens of high school juniors are squirreled away in small classrooms at Holliston Church in Pasadena getting ready to strain their brains for four intense hours. They have paid $899 to spend 42 hours over six weeks in an intensive prep course offered by Princeton Review, a multimillion-dollar business that prepares students to take standardized tests. The company has offices in 43 of 50 states as well as Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, India, Mexico and Canada.

The classrooms here at Holliston Church have a collegiate feel; leafy trees and Gothic architecture reminiscent of an elite New England college campus are visible through the windows.

In Corcillo's classroom, the students' backpacks are loaded with heavy books, their calculators are on the tables. Corcillo is perched on a stool at the front of the class, coffee in hand. He has bushy eyebrows and the deep, resonant voice of a radio announcer. He is funny, with the ease of a comedian; serious, with the earnestness of a preacher; and accessible, with the chumminess of an older brother.

There are five kids in this class. Three boys and two girls. These students are here to cram for the SAT, and they are focused, intent. There is no talking back, no joking, no spitballs and no flirting going on.

Here, teacher and student are engaged in a kind of intellectual combat, not against each other but against the enemy: the SAT and the people who devise it.

This is a mood Princeton Review strives to create. The defiance starts with its brochures, which state, "These tests are by their very nature, imperfect and unjust. . . ."

Becoming a Princeton Review teacher is no easy feat. Teachers must undergo at least 64 hours of paid training. Only 17% make it through. Teachers themselves must score at least 1400 (though this can be after coaching). A veteran prep teacher can potentially make as much money--or more--as a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, without the long hours and the stress of dealing with a sprawling bureaucracy.

"Everything in my business rests on my teachers," says Shawn Domzalski, managing director of course operations at Princeton Review of Los Angeles. "If I don't have great teachers, I have nothing. They have to love teaching and love beating the SAT."

He gets worked up just talking about it. There is a subversive (if slightly cultivated) feel to his spiel. "They are just jazzed about beating the SAT because it is such a stupid test."

In the coming weeks, teachers will impart the tricks and techniques to help students work fast and not make mistakes. Students will take four full-length practice tests, complete homework for each class and study stacks of vocabulary words on their own. Princeton Review claims that the amount of time and work the students do is equivalent to what they would do in a three-credit college course.

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