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Film Review: In “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” We Get What We Designed

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 19th, 2020

Film poster: “The Test and the Art of Thinking”

The Test and the Art of Thinking (Michael Arlen Davis, 2018) out of 4 stars.

First given to aspiring college students in 1926, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), adapted from an army IQ test, was adopted by Harvard University president James Bryant Conant in 1933 as a way to even the playing field for applicants, given that it ostensibly assessed intelligence, rather than education. From Harvard, the use of the SAT spread nationwide, eventually becoming the standard entrance exam for most institutions of higher learning. Administered by the College Board, its growth led to an eventual vast test-preparation industry, which today completely subverts Conant’s stated intent (itself refuted by studies of establishment academics’ racism, intentional or not). Wherever one falls on the value of the SAT as a measure of ability, it is hard to justify the reality that students who study for it – especially those who pay quite a lot of money for private tutors – usually do better on it than those who don’t. That, at least, is the premise of The Test and the Art of Thinking, from first-time director Michael Arlen Davis, a documentary that explores, in great depth, the flaws of our current system. Time, it seems, to move on.

Filled with onscreen statistics and interviews with current and past college students and administrators, as well as college-prep professionals, the film provides plenty of evidence to back up its central tenet that where we are now is not where we should be. Not only may the actual SAT (and its rival, the ACT) be riven by biases, hidden and otherwise, but it is possible to deconstruct its solutions by patterns, thereby rendering the questions, themselves, meaningless. We watch as Chris Ajemian, of Cates Tutoring, teaches a pupil how to avoid thinking about the content and focus on the sequences within the answers. Who cares about actual math or reading comprehension? All you need is the magic formula, and you’ll do fine. That is certainly some kind of skill, but does it predict success in college? And does it not favor the wealthy above the rest, perpetuating an elite class of student? The answer, resoundingly, is yes.

Still from THE TEST AND THE ART OF THINKING ©Abramorama

Ajemian is hardly the only one doing that here, and he is refreshingly willing to talk about his methods on camera, as are Akil Bello, of Bell Curves, John Katzman, of The Princeton Review, Steven Ma, of Think Tank Learning (which filed for bankruptcy this year, so there’s that), and others. Everyone accepts that the exam is, to some degree, a scam, and they are there not only to profit, but to help students navigate the process. Joining them in front of the camera are folks like Bard University president Leon Botstein and former University of California system president Richard Atkinson, both of whom abandoned the acceptance of standardized test results for admission to their institutions. Others have followed, though we also hear the pushback from, predictably, those invested in the tests, such as the College Board. Perhaps the most interesting query posed at the end, however, comes not from the vantage point of outrage, but of cynicism. Former University of Chicago Dean of Admissions Ted O’Neill asks whether or not we have achieved the results the country actually wants: creating cunning manipulators, rather than thoughtful scholars. Look around you; could he be right? Meanwhile, there’s another test to take, so sign up for that prep course!

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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