In this well-researched, compelling, and surprisingly human documentary The Test & The Art of Thinking, filmmaker Michael Arlen Davis takes on a Goliath of the education world: the SAT. The primary question Davis’s film aims to explore is the usefulness and validity of a test that has taken such a prominent place in American educational assessment. Davis explores the notorious exam through such lenses as history, pedagogy, sociology, economy, and democracy, without the documentary ever seeming weighed down by the sheer amount of education it offers. This film attempts to expose the complex and far-reaching behind the scenes world of a test that holds the potential to make or break countless students’ futures each year, asking audiences to question the assumptions we may have about the test so many of us have taken, but may have never really understood.
The film opens with a litany of educational goals the SAT does not accomplish, challenging our assumptions about the tools we so routinely use to measure students’ aptitude and achievements. Among others, the SAT does not measure success in specific content areas, it does not measure natural aptitude, and it does not in any way reflect what is taught in high school classrooms across America. The question emerges: what is the purpose and validity of the SAT? What does this seemingly vital test actually accomplish? Audiences are quickly drawn into the compelling realization that we don’t know these answers, and that we may have never even asked the questions.
The Test & The Art of Thinking shines in its portraits of the vastly diverse students and educators whose educational careers are all capped by, defined by, or limited by their relationships to the SAT. In these snapshots of the students currently grappling with the test, the historical and academic worlds from whence the test appeared become human and relatable. We meet Alexis and Roxanne, framed as low-income students who, in a conversation on SAT tutoring, “don’t know if I’m that good of an investment” and wonder “can we afford it?” Mere moments later, we learn that there are currently four billion-dollar test preparation companies, and that Steven Ma, founder of ThinkTank Learning, once personally charged an undisclosed client a million dollars for a course of individual SAT tutoring. We meet successful college students who, midway through the film it is revealed, opted not to share their SAT scores with the colleges of their choice. We meet tutor Chris Ajemian of Cates Tutoring, who in individual sessions teaches student Stefan “Black Magic” to answer questions based on patterns without ever reading the questions themselves, and states that the SAT “is not a test of what you know, but a test of how you think.”
We meet Milo Beckman, Harvard alum who discovered that regardless of content, there is a causational relationship between essay word count and score. We meet multiple tutors who all assert that the test is about patterns and not content, including tutor Greg Hanlon who poses that the SAT is “a get the answer test.” We learn the SAT was originally written by known eugenicist Carl C. Brigham. As this film peels back the layers that compose the SAT’s identity and history in American education, the picture becomes increasingly complex and troubling. Audiences are forced to consider that the “truths” we have been fed about the objectivity and validity of the all-important SAT have been nothing more than myths propagated by the competitive, and capitalist, machine that is higher education in America.
These disparate scenes come together in a mosaic to reveal the troubling thesis statement that the SAT is not a valid measure of aptitude or competency at all, and due to socioeconomic segregation is not even truly standardized–and that the powers that be are aware of this. If scores can be bought with sufficient test prep, then what do the scores really mean? If the test is truly set up as a trick, or a game that can be won by learning unfamiliar patterns that are never taught in school and don’t reflect the actual education taking place in public schools across America, then can this assessment ever truly be reflective of democracy, or even meritocracy? The connections between the history of our Constitutional democracy, public education, the economy, and sociology that this film manages to weave together are truly fascinating. The film retains a lucid, clear, and captivating thread that cuts to the heart of what the College Board perhaps doesn’t want us to know. This test is not objective, and is not the be-all and end-all it postures as.
The Test & The Art of Thinking ends on a call to audiences to self-reflect not just on the SAT as a test, but on the very foundation of what America values. In perhaps the most sobering moment of the documentary, Dean of Admissions Emeritus of the University of Chicago Ted O’Neill states that the trickiness the SAT requires does not reflect what he as an educator values. The film ends with O’Neill visibly troubled as he asks if perhaps the SAT is actually measuring what our country values. Perhaps America values “being cagey rather than thoughtful…maybe [the SAT has] given us exactly what we want.” In the choice to end the film on this note, Davis has asked the audience the same question. What do we, as Americans, value? How do the goals and structures of the SAT and our educational system at large reflect the character of our society? These are questions much loftier and more substantial than one may expect from a documentary about a test, and they are what make the film truly worth a watch.