It was graduation day for St. Frances Academy, and pride showed on the faces of the 20 seniors as they received the diplomas that marked the beginning of the next phases of their lives.
Best known of the graduates was Devin Gray, the school's star basketball player. But his smile amid the pomp and circumstance concealed the tremendous strain he had been under.
Already committed to playing for Clemson University, Gray learned five days before graduation that he had failed for the fourth time to get the 700 score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test that is required for freshman eligibility under NCAA rules.
So, while classmates passed a carefree week leading up to the big day, Gray spent his worrying. And studying. For June 1, the day before graduation, was a day that would help shape his immediate future -- it would be his last chance to "pass" the SAT.
"Pressure," said Gray, recalling how he felt before the exam. "It's hard to describe. It's more than I've ever felt before."
For Gray, much of his senior year was pressure-filled. The initial pressure was to impress the college scouts with his performance on the basketball court.
He was 6 feet 3 when he arrived four years ago, but St. Frances -- the oldest black Catholic school in the country, which specializes in helping students who struggle academically -- had neither a varsity basketball team nor a gym. He was urged to play on the newly formed junior varsity team, which went 21-0 on the way to the Catholic League championship. As Gray improved from a clumsy ninth-grader to a player who could compete against Baltimore's best, he began to consider basketball as a future.
"After my sophomore year, I started coming into my own," Grasaid. "A lot of guys told me I had potential, and I started believing in myself and thinking maybe I could get a scholarship."
As a junior, he was an All-Metro selection. By his senior year, hwas a solid, 6-6, 210-pound forward whose quick first step and powerful drives to the basket wreaked havoc in the Catholic League.
"In my 27 years, only two players have scored over 40 points against us, and that's [former Notre Dame and NBA guard] Austin Carr and Devin," said Cardinal Gibbons coach
Ray Mullis, against whose team Gray went 20-for-24 from the field for 42 points. "He's an outstanding athlete with unbelievable leaping ability. He's definitely a player."
Gray and his high school coach, William Wells, were deluged with recruiting letters. Gray considered Maryland, Towson State, Minnesota and St. John's before picking Clemson.
"My mother really wanted me to get out of the city, because people want to hold on to you," Gray said. "I chose Clemson, and she felt it was a good school.
"I don't like to compliment myself. But I always think that, if keep developing, I have at least a chance of playing in the pros."
At the time he announced his college choice on May 4, attending Clemson was not a sure thing. In three SAT attempts, his highest score was 690. So, barely an hour
after the announcement, he was in a conference room at the school in an intense, one-on-one study session with the Rev. Edward Gallagher, the school's principal and pre-calculus teacher.
"What I'm trying to do is teach him how to do the test," Gallagher said. "Not how people in general should do it, but how Devin should do it."
Not only does the SAT determine which athletes get to play as freshmen, but it's also a gauge for college acceptance. Preparation classes cost as much as $700, and some parents have their children take the test as early as the eighth grade.
Standardized tests have been accused of cultural bias, with test-takers from the inner city at a disadvantage.
"I've seen students who were honor-roll students, and the best they could do was 900 on the SAT," said Meredith Smith, Southern High basketball coach. "Some of the words in the vocabulary might as well be Russian. They never hear a word like that in the environment they come from, and they never hear the words in school."
Former St. Francis (Pa.) College guard Mike Iuzzolino says the tests simply aren't fair. A "B" student at Altoona (Pa.) High School, he "failed" the American College Test with a score of 13 (15 is required for freshman eligibility). Only after he scored 760 on the SAT was he assured of his scholarship at Penn State.
"The test scores bothered me, because I knew I was a good student, and I just don't take standardized tests well," said Iuzzolino, who transferred to St. Francis after his sophomore year at Penn State. "Just because I didn't do well, there was this fear of not being able to play.
"They ask a lot of ridiculous questions," said Iuzzolino, who graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average while majoring in secondary education. "You have to have some guidelines to allow people in school, but . . . I just don't think [standardized tests] are the best indicators."
Anne Buckley, spokeswoman of the Admissions Testing Program of the College Board, said the SAT is fair and that measures -- including research with the input of the United Negro College Fund -- are taken to eliminate potentially biased questions.
"Before any test question becomes a part of the exam, it goes through a series of screenings," Buckley said. "No way is a biased question allowed. Inequity, unfortunately, still exists in the educational system in this country. The scores often reflect the differences that exist out there, and we should focus on creating educational equality for all groups."
One of Gray's problems with the test apparently was not being taught how to take it -- for example, that not every question had to be answered. Negative comments from friends who had taken the exam didn't help his confidence.
"The first thing they tell you is that it's hard," said Gray, who had a 2.1 GPA. "And that sticks in your mind."
For two weeks leading up to the May 4 exam, Gray studied wit Gallagher for two hours a day, concentrating just on math -- Gray's favorite subject and one in which both felt 10 points could be made up easily. Two days before the real thing, Gray had improved his math exam by 10 points -- and then some.
Gray was up early on May 4 and drove from West Baltimore to Archbishop Curley High School for the 8 a.m. exam. By the time Gray left the school, he had a good feeling about himself and about his future.
"I went in confident and motivated," Gray said later. "And I think did pretty well.
"There's no pressure anymore. I don't think about the test muc anymore -- the only thing I'm looking forward to now is graduating and going on to college."
Three weeks later, Gray was worried. He got the exam results on May 28, and his best score was still 690. Suddenly he thought of attending prep school -- and not Clemson.
"It hurt. I don't know what happened," Gray said of the failed attempt. "I started thinking about prep school or maybe a junior college. A lot of prep schools and junior colleges started to call, and I was leaning toward prep school."
But there was still one last try. With an exam scheduled at Poly on June 1, graduation week turned into study week.
"In a way, it took a lot away from the final week," Gray said. "I wasn't thinking about graduation or anything, just the SAT."
The night before the test, he got some help from Marvais Wells, the wife of the basketball coach, who is a media specialist at Moravia Park Primary School and Brehms Elementary School. "He came to me, and he was concerned," she said. "I went over things I think are tricks to passing the test, like prefixes and suffixes. Once you know that, you can eliminate the wrong answers. I don't think anyone had ever done that with him. We went over those until I thought he understood.
"Still, you could see there was a lot of pressure," she added. "He was apprehensive. It was his last try."
His last attempt behind him, all Gray could do was wait. He spent his spare time working on his game and avoiding talk about the SAT.
"People always asked me how I thought I did," Gray said. "I didn't want to jinx myself, so I would say, 'No comment.' "
Then, two weeks ago, the phone rang. It was Clemson assistant coach Len Gordy, and the tone of his voice did not sound good.
"He was real down when I answered the phone," Gray said. "Then I heard, 'Congratulations, you passed.' "
His score was 750 -- 60 points over his previous best. His verbal score increased by 10 points, and his math increased by 50.
When freshman orientation begins at Clemson in August, Devin Gray will be there. The pressures from his senior year in high school over, he can face those that accompany college academics and life in the ACC.
"Knowing I'm in school," said Gray, "and that I can play is a good feeling. It was difficult, but it feels real good.
"The main thing now is to get my degree," he added. "Sure, every college player wants to go pro, but I want to stay four years in school and get my education."
The Scholastic Aptitude test often has been criticized for being culturally biased. Following are Maryland scores (in 1990) for blacks and whites and a breakdown of scores by family income:
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Percent
.. .. .. .. .. .. .Number.. ..male/female.. ..Verbal.. .Math.. Total
Blacks.. .. .. .. ..5,385.. .. .. ..42/58.. .. ..357.. ..387.. ..744
Whites.. .. .. .. .18,683.. .. .. ..47/53.. .. ..453.. ..501.. ..954
Less than $10,000.. ..717.. .. .. ..35/65.. .. ..343.. ..391.. ..734
$10,000-$20,000.. ..1,956.. .. .. ..39/61.. .. ..372.. ..420.. ..792
$20,000-$30,000.. ..3,084.. .. .. ..43/57.. .. ..396.. ..442.. ..838
$30,000-$40,000.. ..4,186.. .. .. ..46/54.. .. ..417.. ..463.. ..880
$40,000-$50,000.. ..3,505.. .. .. ..48/52.. .. ..434.. ..479.. ..913
$50,000-$60,000.. ..3,320.. .. .. ..48/52.. .. ..440.. ..486.. ..926
$60,000-$70,000.. ..2,392.. .. .. ..50/50.. .. ..449.. ..498.. ..947
$70,000 or more.. ..5,619.. .. .. ..51/49.. .. ..476.. ..531.. .1007