Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michael Arlen Davis
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/29/20
Opens: November 17, 2020


As a guy who taught in high schools for 32 years, I couldn’t help getting a charge out of this cartoon in a journal, New Yorker, maybe. A middle-aged man says, “Yet another day that I didn’t need trigonometry.” The idea, of course, is that he, like every poor shlub who needs a high school diploma, had to give up a movie, a TV sitcom, a one-on-one basketball game, to study his butt off for a useless subject. What for? I never found out, though luckily I taught things that you needed for work during today’s technological times; like The French Revolution, The Congress of Vienna, the Code of Hammurabi. Anybody who really wants to revolutionize the high school curriculum would do well to put teenage minds to better use by teaching a second foreign language, current politics, something more useful to everyone than geometry, trig, and algebra.

This brings us to “The Test & the Art of Thinking,” whose talking heads are almost unanimous in supporting a lesser revolution that the one I outlined above. That is, they question the worth that so many colleges put on the SAT, which used to be an abbreviation for Scholastic Aptitude Test but now stands for…SAT. Most colleges seem to require this, thinking that the score indicates students’ chances at their halls of academe. As we speak, the SAT is being changed, with some colleges chucking the whole thing and looking only at high school grades or whether a kid can fill a much-needed spot with the French horn to play with the band on the football field. (I think I got into Tufts University by playing second clarinet in my high school orchestra.)

The folks at the College Board, which administers the test, had always insisted that SAT scores tell not about what a student has learned in high school, but something more like the quality of the teenager’s mind. While the College Board appears in this film to be shifting its attention, looking more in the direction of what was learned, for decades the Board seems to focus its intention on making sure parents are shelling out for test prep tutors.

Tutoring: therein lies the biggest point made in Michael Arlen Davis’s documentary, which is, if a kid’s score can change 100, 200, 300 points in one year simply because he or she has been tutored, then the test is in no way a measurement of anything but how many hours were spent in the tutor’s office. If that’s the case, what is the real reason that colleges value the SAT? According to director Davis, in his freshman film which has him heading to the barricades to smash the test, universities sum up each year’s scores to impress the magazine U.S. News, which regularly ranks colleges for quality. The higher the cumulative SAT scores of the students they accept, and the more youngsters they can drive to depression by rejecting them, the higher is the place in the journal’s rankings—the academy awards for academics. Princeton, by the way, not Harvard or Yale, has been ranking #1.

The most interesting concept brought out by some tutors is their boast that they can get their charges to find the correct answers even if the students did not even look at the question.

The many talking heads include high school seniors, parents they are bankrupting, committees of tutors who want to remain passengers on the gravy train, and just a few defenders of the institution, namely members of the College Board. There are key omissions, though granted that an 83-minute film cannot cover everything. One is that standardized tests of this sort shaft members of minority groups with poor finances may have upbringings do not have them in contact with the culture that such exams explore. Another oversight is the lack of actual exploration: for example, during the past ten years, look at the dropout rate at specific colleges and compare the SAT scores of those who couldn’t cut the mustard—though some of them are possibly entrepreneurs with crackerjack ideas on milking money with new computer software. Who needs college if you’re a seventeen-year-old millionaire?

A lively doc featuring purported experts in the field and the youngsters who are pushed by their parents to give up their youth to study for the test.

85 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B+