What if a eugenics experiment took over American society, monetizing a pointless game that restricts who can succeed in society. This dystopian vision is not of some new sci-fi film, but the concept of the SAT and ACT presented in The Test and The Art of Thinking. This perception may be surprising to many who know little about how the SAT works and its history, and this documentary understands that.
The movie uses much of its runtime building its case through the personal experiences of test prep tutors, students, and parents, as well as current and former employees of college recruitment offices and the College Board (which owns and runs the SAT). It also examines the surprisingly murky origins of the SAT and the concept of the standardized test. I was impressed by how unflinching director Michael Arlen Davis in exploring this topic. He does not hold back in exploring the immense power of the College Board and the U.S. News rankings of universities and colleges, the contradictions of democracy and capitalism, and how successful a business the SAT and ACT are.
“…examines the surprisingly murky origins of the SAT and the concept of the standardized test.”
The insanity of what is presented can hardly be believed. Apparently, the College Board measures something called someone’s “g-factor.” What is someone’s “g-factor?” Supposedly, it identifies a person’s intelligence, and the process to calculate that just so happens to be the SAT and tests like it. While some scientists believe the “g-factor” is real, its ambiguity on how it works biologically has led many to criticize it, saying that the “g-factor” is a narrow view of what the idea of intelligence means, as there are many things it can’t account for. Also, most colleges are aware the SAT and ACT are unhelpful and harmful given that they are easily gameable with enough tutoring, but these tests have somehow become more widespread since that has been found out, and now that the College Board offers test prep, the test has become (according to test prep tutors) even riper for fraud.
While everything falls under the umbrella category of “The Test,” The Test and The Art of Thinking explored so many different stories and narratives that it feels scattershot in its presentation. Despite this, I was never unengaged because with every interview and anecdote, there was a new piece of information to add to this puzzle. I think that the filmmaker included many interesting details in the final product, but I also feel that a more streamlined narrative, alongside the tangential explorations, would have made for a more emotionally effective and impactful movie.
The scariest part is the question the audience is left with, proposed in the final moments of the film. “What if this is exactly what makes this country what it is?… Maybe [these tests have] given us exactly what we want.” Essentially, what if this absurd system continues to exist because it holds a place in our society that is not immediately apparent? What if the College Board is promoting people who think quickly but not deeply and who can memorize well but won’t question what is being memorized because that’s what the workers’ companies and corporations want? While on its own an absurd idea, in the context of the rest of The Test and The Art of Thinking, it is a chillingly realistic suggestion.
"…most colleges are aware the SAT and ACT are unhelpful and harmful..."