'The Test & the Art of Thinking': Film Review

Persuasive, but who needs convincing?
4/27/2018

Michael Arlen Davis' doc explains everything that's wrong with using the SAT in the college admission process.

Who, at this point, thinks the SAT is a good way of deciding who gets to go to what college? The people who make the test, sure. Probably many admissions officers, whose jobs are simplified by having a score they can pretend is an objective measurement. And surely the vast number of people involved in the test-prep industry, who would hate to see that gravy train dry up. Those groups are likely immune to the persuasive arguments of Michael Arlen Davis' The Test & the Art of Thinking, which explains how the SAT became ubiquitous and why it needs to be killed. Students, parents and teachers will likely respond with a "well, duh," but they may at least find the documentary useful in arguments with school officials and policymakers. In any case, video and institutional bookings seem most appropriate for this well made but hardly groundbreaking film.

Viewers may be curious to learn of standardized testing's origins, as a "crackpot utopian scheme" meant to make it easier, not harder, to find talented youths to enroll in elite colleges. But after the G.I. Bill created a boom in higher education, institutions like UC Berkeley wanted to demonstrate that they were on par with the Ivy League. It only made sense, the thinking went, to use the same admissions test as Harvard. Soon everybody was doing it.

From the start, though, those who thought seriously about it understood that what became the SAT (which initially stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test) was a poor quantifier of the varied kinds of intelligence students possess. And in their attempt to cram maximum challenge into minimum testing time, test-makers started looking for ways to trick students into giving wrong answers even when they might know the right ones.

To demonstrate how the test does this, Davis observes tutors who know how to beat the tricks. One describes a "black magic" technique he claims can often point to the right multiple-choice answer even if you don't read the question. Throughout the doc we meet tutors, prep-book publishers and others who are part of this ecosystem — one speaker says there are four distinct billion-dollar industries involved in college admissions — all of whom see the SAT as an enemy that can be defeated with tricks and strategies as much as knowledge. At a roundtable of full-time tutors, one argues that the biggest proof tests don't measure actual intelligence is the fact that "I can raise a [student's] score in six weeks...if this test measured anything meaningful, that would not be the case."

It's no news to anybody that over the years, schools have devoted more and more valuable classroom time to training that has nothing to do with knowledge or reasoning and is only applicable to boosting test scores. Many viewers, though, will have missed recent developments that actually expanded the SAT's power, using it to replace assessments that were previously designed by individual states.

This debut doc would have benefited from some statistics to back up its ample expert testimony. Numbers would be useful, for instance, to show how SAT scores fail to correlate with college performance or success later in life. It also would be more rounded if it gave time to the SAT's advocates instead of using footage of old speeches to represent their side.

At its most provocative, the doc briefly challenges the assumptions underlying our present higher education system, where annual college rankings perpetuate the testing problem, and where families go deep into debt in hopes that their kids will find the increasingly scarce jobs that pay a living wage. In a country that has yet to acknowledge the conflicts between democracy and capitalism, our institutions are designed to treat students like one more product headed to market. As one smart but frustrated New York teen puts it here, "I don't know if I'm a good investment."

Production company: Canobie Films
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Michael Arlen Davis
Producers: Michael Arlen Davis, Jyll Johnstone
Directors of photography: Nick Blair, Chikara Montomura
Composer: Joel Goodman

85 minutes