De-emphasizing the SAT

March 13, 2006

Imagine that you're a high school senior on pins and needles waiting to learn if you've been accepted or rejected by colleges, and you hear that the College Board - which administers the SAT - confessed last week to a foul-up in the scoring of a recent exam. Or imagine that you're a high school junior about to subject yourself to the whole arduous process of preparing for and taking the SAT, including a new, somewhat subjectively graded essay section.

Feeling more than a little queasy?

You should.

To begin with, the entire process of gaining entrance to college these days is out of control in its complexity, competition and pressures - and that includes far too much emphasis by too many colleges on students' SAT scores. And now at least some uncertainty about the basic integrity of those test scores has been highlighted: The SAT glitch, though very small, was the largest-scale scoring mistake in the reasoning test's 80-year history.

According to the College Board, the impact was limited to about 4,000 students who took last October's exam, less than 1 percent of all. The board said most were erroneously docked 10 points to 40 points on the test's new 2,400-point scale, but some lost as many as 400 points - enough to potentially make a big difference in their chances not only for admission but also for merit aid.

Only 137 of 16,342 Maryland test-takers were affected, the College Board says. At the University of Maryland, College Park, only 158 of more than 20,000 applicants for admission next fall were affected, spokeswoman Cassandra Robinson says, and UM, like colleges across the country, is scurrying to review its files. She adds that the College Park admission office doesn't rely on the SAT to sort applicants; it's just one of many factors. But of course UM, like most colleges, requires the SAT (or ACT) of applicants and brags mightily when its enrollees' average SAT scores rise.

A growing minority of colleges - more than 700, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing - don't require the tests for all or some applicants; the best-known of these in Maryland are Coppin State University, St. John's College and McDaniel College. Long before this scoring problem, the center challenged the validity of the SAT - and colleges' overreliance on them.

The best outcome of last week's limited problem would be that it will cause more colleges to de-emphasize the role of such tests in sorting through their applicants - and instead focus more on students' other attributes.

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