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SAT errors should not be tolerated

It's hard to believe but it's true -- I'm not making this up. It's the first time I've heard this excuse for errors by responsible officials, errors that affect the lives of a great many young people in our nation. Here it is: The College Board's scoring contractor says damp conditions threw off the scanners that read the answer sheets of those who took the SAT exam in October.

The College Board is the nonprofit association of colleges and high schools that oversees and administers the exam that is a key factor in the consideration of college admissions officers in determining those who will be admitted to their institutions.

The College Board said initially that the problem affected less than 1 percent of the 495,000 students who took the October test. The errors, said the board, understated the students' scores by 10 to 40 points across the three sections of the SAT reasoning test -- writing, critical reading and math. That made up 83 percent of the errors found in scoring the test.

An additional 12 percent had scores 50 to 90 points lower than they should have been. More seriously, 5 percent of the errors understated the scores by 100 points or more. Those students who applied for early admission may have already been rejected because of the erroneous low scores they were given. And many did not apply to some schools they preferred because they feared their erroneous low SAT scores didn't give them a chance for admission to premier institutions.

Given the significance of the SAT scores in college acceptance, I have to wonder about the so-called "damp conditions" that threw off the accuracy of the computers used to score the tests. The "abnormally" high moisture in the answer sheets blamed for the scoring errors could be rectified in the future by storing those answer sheets in places that shield them from moisture.

Also cited by the company that scans the SAT for the College Board was the fact that some students used pencils to fill in the bubbles that indicated their answers to the questions. If indeed that was a factor, all students should be advised in advance that proper writing instruments must be used. The College Board can supply these at minimal cost to all who are being tested.

The erroneous scoring was uncovered when two alert Minnesota students protested their scores and asked that they be recalculated by hand. Given the number of students who take the SAT exam each year, hand recalculation is not practical, but human double-checking of all the tests is needed to eliminate or at least minimize future scoring problems.

Some guidance counselors are now reportedly urging the test takers to pay extra for backup scoring services to verify their test results. Given that each student who takes the SAT exam must pay $41.50, I don't feel that a payment of what can be up to $100 for backup scoring is warranted, but for those who can afford it, it might be the only answer. Once again, it comes down to money, and those who have it can protect themselves.

Further eroding the credibility of the SAT marking system was the last-minute report that the College Board found that 1,600 exams had been overlooked and were not checked for errors. At the same time, colleges were notified that the SAT scores of 4,000 students had been graded incorrectly by the board's scanning facility.

In fact, the board reported that in some rare cases, the scores reported were 400 points short of what the student actually scored. Errors beyond the range of 20 to 50 points can be costly in a student's quest for admission to a college of his or her choice. This is unacceptable.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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