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Documentary on College Admissions Tests Scores Pretty High on Some Questions

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The SAT and ACT college admissions tests have been ripe for serious examination in documentary film, with the questions they raise about fairness, equity, and whether they test what they purport to measure. 

Michael Arlen Davis's new film, "The Test & the Art of Thinking," scores pretty well in several areas, but could benefit from some additional study in others.

The 90-minute film, which opens for a limited run in New York City on Friday, is a considerate, relatively gentle, indictment of the two admissions tests (with far more of a focus on the SAT over the rival ACT).

"It's not a math test, it's not a reading test, it's a get-the-answer test," one test tutor says during the film, in reference to the SAT.

Davis's film includes a large number of interviews, with admissions deans, college presidents, testing experts, tutors, parents, students, and journalists, including—full disclosure—Education Week's Catherine Gewertz.

Davis says in the film's notes that "we were motivated to embark upon this project while watching our two daughters engage with the SAT/ACT college entrance exams" and refers to the parents' (presumably) frustrating efforts to prepare their girls for the tests themselves.

So Davis, being a documentary filmmaker, decided to train his cameras on the admissions tests and their never-ending controversies.

We see and hear about the history of the SAT, including from Nicholas Lemann, the author of The Big Test, a history of that assessment.

"The people who brought you the SAT didn't have a commercial bone in their body," Lemann says in the film. "It was more of a crackpot utopian scheme."

A major focus of the film is the test-prep industry, including a roundtable of tutoring veterans who voice numerous criticisms of the admissions tests, dissect various changes, and explain how they are immune to coaching.

One tutor says the "greatest indictment" of the SAT and ACT is that "any single one of us can raise a score in six weeks."

The curtain is pulled back on a few of the coaching tips and tricks, and we meet tutors such as the quirky Greg, a guru-like man with a Santa beard. Several parents who have hired him admit they don't even know that much about his background, only that his coaching works.

And early on we meet Chris Ajemian, a New York City tutor who throughout the film we see helping a student named Stefan. The young man would like to improve his SAT scores enough to get into his stretch school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

We see Stefan learning how to eliminate some of the multiple choice answer possibilities and use other methods to arrive at a correct answer, even sometimes without having to consider the question. (This has long been one of the secret tips of the test coaching world.)

While we see Stefan improve significantly on a practice test, the film does not reveal how the student did on his subsequent real test or whether he got into MIT.

The film explores a few other areas when the tests made the news, such as when a student and later an MIT researcher discovered that longer essays got higher scores, and when the then-president of the University of California system in 2001, Richard Atkinson, decided to drop the SAT.

More recently, some states have been adopting the ACT or SAT as their state tests for federal accountability, as the Every Student Succeeds Act permits. (That is the point covered in the film by Education Week's Gewertz.)

While "The Test & the Art of Thinking" covers a lot of ground, it was disappointing to see that it does not have an interview with a strong defender of the admissions tests. There is an interview with Wayne Camara, a former vice president of the College Board, who says, "I believe they have validity, but also believe they don't measure as well as we would like them to."

And we see College Board President and CEO David Coleman speaking at a 2014 event to announce the new version of the SAT (or the latest new version of the test). But did the filmmakers seek an interview with Coleman? The documentary doesn't say.

There's no rule that a documentary has to be as balanced as a news show should be. It can have a point of view. But this generally strong exploration of the admissions testing world would be even stronger if had given a more direct voice to the tests' developers.

Still, documentaries are a good forum for telling complex education stories, ones with lots of controversies, viewpoints, and puzzle pieces. "The Test & the Art of Thinking" merits a pretty good score overall.

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