Sticking It To the Man

By Wayne Au

According to Kyle, the protagonist of the Paramount/MTV release The Perfect Score , SAT actually stands for “Suck-Ass Test.” To be sure, this is mainstream Hollywood schlock through and through, but in the midst of mediocre writing, acting, directing, and cinematography, The Perfect Score manages to provide a series of surprisingly biting critiques of the SAT, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the College Board.

The Perfect Score is worth seeing for at least two scenes. In the movie’s opening, Kyle makes some searing observations. While he narrates that the SAT “Sees us all the same,” the screen cycles through images of a pregnant teenager sitting down to take the exam, a typical prep-school student going to a well-funded classroom, and a student who has to go through metal detectors to get into school, highlighting just how different all students are. The scene ends on an even more serious note when Kyle solemnly observes that the SAT is “not about who you are. It’s about who you’ll be.”

Later, as Kyle is deciding whether or not to take part in the college exam caper, he comes home to his mom, who is a teacher. Mom jokingly asks Kyle if he wants to help her grade and adds with a wry smile, “We’re teaching the first graders to bubble.” Kyle responds, “Mom, first graders can’t read.” To which mom solemnly replies, “I hate to say it. There’s more money in filling in bubbles than reading these days.” Kyle concludes, “Standardized testing is taking over.”

There are other more specific critiques of the SAT peppered throughout The Perfect Score . At varying points the test is labeled as “anti-girl” for underscoring women on the math sections, having a bias toward National Merit Scholars, and being racist. The script writers even managed to squeeze in the term “stereotype vulnerability,” which refers to the theory that students are vulnerable to stereotypes regarding achievement: meaning, for instance, that African-American students will perform more poorly on the SAT because they know that African-American students traditionally score lower than white students on the test. Fortunately, when another student raises this issue with The Perfect Score ‘s only African-American student, Desmond, he says he couldn’t care less about the stereotype since he needs to take care of business and go to college. Later it comes out that Desmond breaks the stereotype of being a dumb, black jock because, much to the surprise of his movie-mates, he is a whiz in math.

Thankfully, as in Desmond’s case, broken stereotypes are generally left strewn along the edges of the storyline by the end of The Perfect Score . The Asian-American stoner-slacker-underachiever, Roy, proves to be quite intelligent, just unhappy and unmotivated. The “perfect” 4.0 student, Anna, suffers from test anxiety and overburdening parents, but figures out how to make her own choices. Matt, the average Joe who lives for his girlfriend who is already at college, decides it’s okay to live for himself. Kyle does fine on his re-take and gets into college, and the rich “bad” girl, Francesca, whose dad conveniently owns the building that houses ETS, sees that she may not need the love of her father in order to be a whole person. Hollywood or not, what The Perfect Score does well is effectively equate the standardized SAT with the stereotyping and external expectations placed on students. It shouts that we are not numbers, and our intelligence and worth cannot be measured and quantified by these types of tests.

The Perfect Score does not score perfectly though. The audience is supposed to laugh at Roy’s sexist behavior, and in one joke the movie leans on criminal stereotypes of Mexicans for comedic fodder. And Desmond’s mother fits all too neatly into the stereotype of the African-American matriarch who not only takes care of her own kids, but ends up mothering motherless Roy as well.

Finally, while I grinned ear-to-ear hearing all those critiques of the SAT spilling forth from a mainstream movie, most of the points came in the form of zippy one-liners and lacked any real sustained argument. Not surprisingly then, The Perfect Score leaves us with no sense of collective student action against standardized tests. Instead its solution relies on a small group of individual students operating mainly out of individual self-interest of varying flavors. So while their critiques of the SAT are based on real social issues, the action that grows out of that critique is ultimately self-centered.

Speaking purely in terms of film quality, School of Rock and The Perfect Score cannot compare. While The Perfect Score is just a plain-old badly written movie with bad acting, School of Rock works as a refreshingly respectful and amusing “kid power” flick with much more imaginative writing and acting. Quality aside, ETS did decide to take The Perfect Score somewhat seriously. In an odd, slightly paranoid move, it decided to increase building security in case students got any ideas from watching the movie.

As artistically divergent as both movies are, they do share similar political sensibilities. The moral of both is that grades and test scores don’t represent real learning, and they certainly don’t represent all that is human and important about students and education. This may be a surprising message coming from mainstream Hollywood, but given the current context of No Child Left Behind, budget cuts, and the continual hyper-quantification of students á la high stakes tests and GPAs, the rebellious spirit of both School of Rock and The Perfect Score is more than welcome.

Wayne Au ( is a former high school teacher who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an editorial associate for Rethinking Schools and is on the steering committee of the National Coalition of Education Activists.