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Commentary: Princeton Review Said To Promote Inequity

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According to an essay in the April 24 issue of The New Republic, the Princeton Review coaching course for the Scholastic Aptitude Test only heightens the educational injustices that its founder claims to be combating.

John Katzman, who established the course nine years ago, has argued that the sat is biased against minorities and that it measures test-taking ability rather than likelihood of college success, writes Joshua Hammer, a general editor at Newsweek magazine.

But thousands of mostly white and affluent Princeton Review customers are paying $645 apiece, Mr. Hammer notes, "to inflate their sat scores in ways that, Katzman admits, have little to do with education."

"The subliminal message running through the Review is: ets [the Educational Testing Service, producer of the sat] is cheating us, so it's all right to cheat them," Mr. Hammer contends.

He argues that while not technically illegal, "many of the shortcuts Katzman teaches are equal in effect to common cheating."

And he finds it ironic that Mr. Katzman complains that the sat is not a good predictor of college performance while working "to make it a worse predictor."

"The whole point of the Review course is to increase the disparity between one's actual qualifications for college and one's sat scores," Mr. Hammer writes.

As wealthy white students inflate their scores and thus improve their chances for admission to prestigious colleges, they take away spaces for smart but poor minority students, he claims.

"The problem isn't so much that coaching can help as that it's mainly available to the very kids who have gotten the better half of our inequitable educational system in the first place--those who go to prep schools and tony suburban high schools," he concludes.

In the March 6 issue of the same magazine, Diane Ravitch suggests that the recent federal-court decision barring the use of the sat in awarding New York State scholarships represents a dubious victory for the "anti-testing movement."

Judge John M. Walker ruled that using the sat to distribute financial aid violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, Ms. Ravitch notes, since boys tend to score higher than girls on the tests.

"Down that path lies a great deal of foolishness," the adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University writes.

"What we shouldn't be doing," she says, "is denying that a problem exists, or jettisoning objective measures that reveal our educational shortcomings."

Ms. Ravitch contends that racial and gender disparities in scores reflect "cultural factors" discouraging academic achievement among girls and minorities. Such influences, she says,

include the attitudes of students "who jeer at those who do well in school"; parents who encourage their sons, but not their daughters, to succeed; and educators who "accept the destructive peer pressure, not acknowledging their responsibility to establish a climate in which academic achievement, hard work, and brainpower are honored."

Rather than do away with the bearers of bad news--standardized tests--schools should reverse these destructive trends, Ms. Ravitch says.

"We will continue to lose ground and squander our educational resources," she concludes, "until teenagers and their parents come to recognize that academic achievement requires the same motivation and active involvement as achievement in sports or music."

Advances in understanding children's development are causing many early-childhood educators to revise their thinking, according to Newsweek magazine's April 17 cover story.

"Studies show that the most effective way to teach young kids is to capitalize on their natural inclination to learn through play," says the magazine, which outlines some nontraditional principles of teaching advocated by experts in the field.

Hands-on learning is a vital element of the new approach. "Young children learn much more by touching and seeing and smelling and tasting than by just listening," Newsweek explains.

Social development, as well as feelings of competence and self-esteem, can directly affect children's academic progress, the article says, citing recommendations that they be encouraged to work in groups and that schools avoid obvious methods of comparison, such as posting grades.

Noting that "between the ages of 5 and 9, there is a broad range of development for children of normal intelligence," the magazine also highlights educators' support for multigrade classrooms to accommodate variances in development and avoid hurting a child's self-esteem.

But before such nontraditional teaching can be embraced, the article says, many schools will have to overcome their reliance on standardized tests, which critics say are not reliable indicators of progress.

There are other ways to tell if children are learning, according to the magazine: "If youngsters are excited by what they are doing, they're probably laughing and talking to one another and to their teacher. That communication is part of the learning process."

Having a baby may not really be a matter of choice for many teenage mothers, especially those from unstable families, Elizabeth Marek writes in the April issue of Harper's Magazine. Her conclusions come from extended visits with a group of young mothers in a community center in a poor Bronx neighborhood.

"In all their stories, I hear again and again how little volition these girls feel they have, how little control over the events of their lives," Ms. Marek writes. "Once a girl is sexually active, it is not having a baby that requires choice and conscious action, but not having one."

Ms. Marek, author of the book The Children at Santa Clara, suggests that some of the teenage mothers she interviewed and others like them may have used their pregnancy as a way of gaining the attention of their parents, who often ignored them after their own marriages collapsed.

She also writes that, in many cases, these teenagers are under pressure from their boyfriends--who want "visible proof of their virility"--not to abort their babies.

"It was like, if I had an abortion, then I didn't love him," said Lynda, a 20-year-old mother.

"Now [the baby]'s two and a half years old, and all he ever got her was a big box of Pampers and socks and T-shirts and $20 and that was it."

Perhaps the most powerful motivation for these girls to have babies, Ms. Marek observes, is the "wish to be reborn themselves, to re-create themselves as children, so they can get the love and attention they feel they were denied."

"He's my friend, this little guy," said 17-year-old Janelle of her 3-month-old son. "He keeps me so busy that I never have time to get into trouble. And before, I never really had a reason to get up in the morning, to go to school, whatever. But now, because of him, I do."

In an unusually frank interview in the March issue of Harper's, four Los Angeles street-gang members talk about the twisted code of honor that governs their lives.

"The highest honor you can give for your set is death," says one young man, referring to the record number of gang-related deaths in his hometown. "When you die, when you go out in a blaze of glory, you are respected. When you kill for your set, you earn your stripes--you put your work in."

Conducted by Leon Bing, a Los Angeles-based journalist, the interview features two members of the city's notorious Crips gang and two from their equally infamous rival group, the Bloods.

In the course of their wide-ranging conversation, the four youths--identified as Li'l Monster, Rat-Neck, Tee Rodgers, and B-Dog--describe the weapons they use, the "colors" or distinguishing apparel they wear, and the funerals they arrange for fellow gang members who are killed by rival gangs.

They also explain why they join gangs and why they can never leave.

As one of the gang members puts it, "If a homeboy [gang member] rises up--and it's not so much jealousy as it is the fear of him leaving me--I want to come up with him, but when he reaches the top of the barrel, I grab him by the pants leg and I pull him down."

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