Ever-tougher competition for admission to top colleges has ratcheted up pressure on many Long Island students to boost their SAT scores, whatever the cost.
It's a world of high-priced tutors, admissions consultants and test preparation courses, particularly in districts where academic excellence is closely measured and parents can afford to pay. Expectations are often aimed high and set early.
"It's a toxic cocktail in certain communities," said Meryl Ain, a former assistant Smithtown school superintendent who recently set up an educational consulting service. "I know parents who are already putting pressure on their elementary school children to get into Harvard."
Last week saw the arrests of six Great Neck North High School students and the college student they each allegedly paid as much as $2,500 to take the test for them.
Officials at the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SATs, said such cheating is rare.
More common -- and at times even more expensive -- are legitimate efforts to improve student scores for the four-hour exam. Thirty-two hours of private tutoring from Kaplan can cost $4,799.
"A lot of my friends have private tutors, and that kind of forces you to study," said Lucie Galino, 16, of Huntington. "Everyone is pretty stressed."
Agonizing over scores
Still months from her own test date, the Huntington High School junior already is drilling with practice tests and prep courses. Her goal: a score of 2000 or higher out of a possible 2400 to gain entrance to the University of Virginia and Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
Educators across Long Island said they remind students that SAT tests, which many students took Saturday, are just one factor among many that determine college acceptance.
But many high schoolers remain unconvinced. They flood test preparation courses and agonize over respectable scores that fall short of a perfect score. They break down in tears before guidance counselors, struggling under the weight of their own expectations -- and those of their parents.
"It's all over their face and in everything they do," said Susan Hance, guidance department chairwoman at Sachem North High School in Lake Ronkonkoma. "If they don't score as well as they hoped, they feel their goals have been diminished, that they won't be as successful as they'd hoped."
Amy Fortsch, 25, and a private SAT tutor in Levittown, said the strains on students have intensified.
"Even over the last six years, it's become super, super competitive," Fortsch said. "I have some students starting in 10th grade and even a ninth-grader."
Richard Feldman, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology from Columbia University, has been coordinating test prep at Molloy College for a quarter century. He said more students are seeking help, and they're starting younger than ever.
"Virtually everyone is getting some prep now," said Feldman, who also operates a business that offers $1,980 tutoring and speed-reading courses.
Originally from the Midwest, Baldwin schools Superintendent James Mapes said Long Island and other Northeast suburban regions seem to place "undue importance" on the SAT. He pointed to the vast tutoring options offered here not only by private companies but by school districts themselves.
Robert Brisbane, an assistant superintendent at Westbury Union Free School District, said the drive to achieve can be a good thing. His district offers Saturday test-preparation courses and a pilot program to help 11th-graders improve their scores.
Brisbane said it's an attempt to level the playing field for his students, more than a quarter of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.
"Our children come to us by and large without the major advantages that neighboring districts have," he said. "The scores our children get here are the scores they earn."
Test-score mania seems particularly pervasive in affluent areas like those along Long Island's Gold Coast, where science awards line the mantels and students with stellar grades compete furiously for seats at top-tier universities.
"I think our parent community, our school community, has high expectations based upon their lives and the world they live in," said Jericho schools Superintendent Henry Grishman.
That pressure is compounded by demographic realities squeezing the current high school generation, Grishman said. "There are fewer scholarship dollars available, there are fewer slots in the colleges and universities available," he said.
The pressure can extend well beyond the top 5 percent of the class, said Phil Clark, a guidance counselor at Connetquot High School. He recalls a student athlete who took the SATs four times to qualify for SUNY New Paltz so she could play on its softball team.
Educators in both Long Island counties said they counsel overloaded students to take fewer Advanced Placement courses. They also try to steer students toward well-regarded schools outside the nation's top 20.
Some educational groups say the focus on SAT scores is misplaced. They point to schools such as Sarah Lawrence College and Brown University that have eliminated or reduced requirements for SATs and other standardized tests.
"It's way overused, and it's misused," said Lloyd Thacker, a former guidance counselor who is now executive director of the Education Conservancy, a Portland, Ore., admissions reform group. "Cramming for the SAT is not going to help you be a better student."
Just how admissions officers balance test scores, grades, extracurricular activities and application essays remains something of a mystery.
Thacker said colleges should talk publicly about how they select students. A number of Ivy League universities declined to talk with Newsday reporters about the process.
Robert Hornsby, a spokesman for Columbia University, wouldn't discuss admissions in detail but said in a statement that the process was "a 'holistic' one" that considers personal statements and teacher recommendations along with standardized testing and grades.
Still, some parents feel that preparing for the SAT -- just like getting good grades -- can only help their kids navigate the economic uncertainty that awaits after college.
"They are aware there are less jobs now for more candidates," said Jeff Isaacson of Plainview, whose daughter, Laura, studies with Fortsch. "It is about getting to where to they want to be."
With Joie Tyrrell
and John Hildebrand