- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006


Hamilton College in upstate New York is among a growing number of colleges not to require the SAT. The test causes too much anxiety, Hamilton concluded, and there’s a risk of missing bright students who don’t test well.

On Tuesday night, Hamilton’s faculty voted unanimously to make the five-year-old policy permanent. The next morning brought a reminder that there’s another potential downside to standardized tests — news arrived that 4,000 SATs taken last October had been mis-scored.

“They do a lot of things right,” Hamilton’s dean of admission and financial aid, Monica Inzer, said of the College Board, which owns the exam. “But it shows how vulnerable we all are when we depend too much on one test.”

The error affected fewer than 1 percent of test-takers, and shouldn’t affect admissions decisions — though Miss Inzer noted it’s too late for students to apply to schools they might have considered with a higher score.

Specialists say mistakes are inevitable in any operation on the scale of grading millions of tests. Still, the episode is likely to spark wider discussion about standardized tests: Just how much risk of error is tolerable when students’ futures are at stake?

Recent years have seen a number of scoring errors on state-level tests. Some were small and caught early, others were significant. In 2003 and 2004, 4,100 people were incorrectly told by the Educational Testing Service they failed a teacher-licensing exam. In 2000, more than 8,000 Minnesota high school students were mistakenly told they had failed a state exam, and dozens missed their class graduation ceremonies.

While the SAT error was comparatively small in scale, “it is such a visible program, that people freak out,” said Scott Marion, vice president for the New Hampshire-based National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

Critics of standardized testing seized on the error as confirmation the testing industry — dominated by CTB/McGraw-Hill, Harcourt Assessment and Pearson Educational Management — is stretched too thin for the public’s good.

“The volume is way up, and the people with the competence to do this don’t exist,” said Robert Schaeffer of the group FairTest, which opposes many of the ways standardized tests are used.

Pearson says the SAT error may have been caused by excessive moisture that caused answer sheets to expand and made some marks unreadable. Spokesman David Hakensen said Friday that Pearson has invested heavily in quality and capacity.

“We take any mistake seriously, and we feel terrible about it, of course,” he said. “The people administering this test are people, too, and are aware that this is important stuff and feel bad when this happens.”

Most of the incorrect scores were off by fewer than 100 points on the 2,400-point test, and only 16 changed by 200 points or more, the College Board said.

Mr. Marion said companies such as Pearson are improving their processes, but the increased demand and time pressure may be negating the progress. In any case, perfection is impossible.

“You won’t see this mistake from Pearson again, but you’ll see a different mistake,” he said. “As long as you have humans involved, you’re going to have some mistakes.”

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