What Does It Take To Ace The SAT?

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More than a million students take the SAT every year, but fewer than 1 percent score a perfect 2400 on the college entrance exam. So what goes into acing the SAT? One public school has had a remarkable rate of SAT perfection.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is the day the College Board releases its annual report on how high school students performed on the SAT test. A year ago, less than one half of 1 percent of students got a perfect score - 2400 - in the combined, math, verbal and writing sections. It's hard not to be impressed when somebody does that, but there is a school where this happens with regularity. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on how they do it.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: There's a small high school program in Baltimore, Maryland, where getting perfect SAT scores has become, well, kind of old-hat.

(Soundbite of door opening)

SANCHEZ: Excuse me. I'm looking for the folks on the Ingenuity Project.

Unidentified Speaker: It's next door (inaudible)

SANCHEZ: OK. Thank you.

Housed in Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute, the Ingenuity Project has attracted some of the city's brightest public school students. Since 2001, the program has produced 13 perfect SAT scores, and one man gets lots of the credit.

Mr. MICHAEL GOLDENBERG (Ingenuity Project): My name is Michael Goldenberg, and I was born in Ukraine.

SANCHEZ: Goldenberg, a gifted mathematician, once taught mathematics in Moscow's best schools. He immigrated to the U.S., settled in Baltimore, and was hired by the Ingenuity Project in 1997. Here Goldenberg has mentored several students who got perfect SAT scores, although truth be told he doesn't think much of the SAT.

Mr. GOLDENBERG: It's extremely easy.

SANCHEZ: Maybe, compared to the rigorous coursework students here take. Beginning in ninth and tenth grade, advanced calculus, trigonometry, physics, advanced biology, chemistry, technology and the classics in literature. On the other hand, says Goldenberg, the SAT is a measure of a student's patience, persistence, even maturity.

Mr. GOLDENBERG: And that is why finally I like the test. It's a good predictor of how developed a person is.

SANCHEZ: Well-rounded, says Goldenberg, that's a better word. One student immediately comes to mind, Robert Watkins III. He had a perfect score back in 2001, when the SAT still had two sections worth 1600.

Mr. ROBERT WATKINS III: There was nothing on it like we didn't know.

SANCHEZ: Watkins credits Professor Goldenberg and the academic rigor and challenging work at the Ingenuity Project.

Mr. WATKINS: As far as the perfect score thing, I mean it's a lot about well you take tests, but it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of, like, you know, predicting what someone's future will be or what they'll do.

SANCHEZ: What Robert did was go on to Yale, then law school at Columbia University. Now he's a patent lawyer in New York City. Did Robert's SAT score help open each one of these doors? Absolutely, says Seppy Basili, an expert with Kaplan, the test preparation company. But, he adds, we've gone overboard attaching a lot of other things that the SAT just doesn't measure.

Mr. SEPPY BASILI (Kaplan Test Preparation): We've heard about investment banks that ask you for your SAT scores. And my mom, who's a realtor, makes sure that on the front brochure of her hometown she proudly displays the average SAT score of the local high school, because we're obsessed with numbers. I mean, the SAT, it's really only designed to do one thing - to tell colleges how students will do in their first year of college.

SANCHEZ: And that's it?

Mr. BASILI: And that's it.

SANCHEZ: And even that, experts say, is debatable. So it's unlikely we'll ever know if success on the SAT has anything to do with success in life. Still, at the Ingenuity Project, this year there's a tenth grader who's already gotten a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT. And no one at the school is about to play that down. After all, she could be the next perfect 2400.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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