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S.A.T. To Realign Scores for First Time in Half a Century

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Scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test will rise automatically as the result of the test's first scoring realignment in half a century, College Board officials announced here last week.

The "recentering'' of scores on the S.A.T., the yardstick for generations of college-bound students, will begin with the high school graduating class of 1996.

The plan will shift the reference group used as the statistical foundation for scores from an elite cadre of students who took the test on the eve of World War II to a far larger and more diverse group of test-takers in 1990.

Because of that shift, a student who scored a 420 on the verbal section of the test under the current system, for example, will receive a 500 under the reconfigured system. Other test-takers' scores will increase accordingly.

Although students will receive higher S.A.T. scores, officials explained, their ranking among other students who take the examination, and the percentiles into which they fall, will remain the same.

Critics charged that the changes represent a politically expedient inflation of scores. But Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board, pledged at a briefing that the S.A.T. "will maintain the same high standard of quality.''

Easing Interpretation

The revamped scale follows the introduction this spring of a reformatted S.A.T. designed to correspond with educational reforms that emphasize critical-thinking skills and analysis. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

The recalibrated scale will be used for the first time with the Preliminary S.A.T./National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test given to this fall's crop of juniors.

Equivalence tables will be generated to prevent a break in the data collected for trend purposes.

Officials said they decided to shift the measuring scale to clear up confusion and misunderstanding in the interpretation of results.

Many young people, parents, and teachers incorrectly believe that if students score less than 500, they are below-average achievers and not college material.

Many also believe--again incorrectly--that a 450 on the mathematics section of the exam and a 450 on the verbal are equivalent. Consequently, a student who received those scores might believe he or she has to focus equally on both areas, when in fact the below-average math score would suggest greater effort on that subject.

Because of the recentering, public perceptions about scores that currently are incorrect will become correct, according to Bradley J. Quin, a senior project director at the College Board.

"It means an easier job of interpreting to students and parents what the score means,'' said Shirley Binder, the associate vice president of student affairs and director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin.

Ms. Binder said the changes would be especially beneficial in schools where there are few guidance counselors to interpret results.

Upping the Average

The new system will yield an upward shift in average scores to the midpoint of the 200-to-800 scale.

At present, the average score for verbal is 424, while the average math score is 478. The average scores for both will move to 500, rounding out a curve that has pitched toward the lower end of the scale during the past two decades.

The revised scale is based on a far different population from the 10,000 test-takers of 1941.

At that time, students seeking entrance to college were mostly white and attended private schools.

Their high school courses usually included four years of English, two to four years of a foreign language, and three years of math, according to Sylvia Johnson, a professor of research methodology and statistics at Howard University.

The students who took the S.A.T. in 1990, by contrast, numbered more than one million and came from all socioeconomic groups.

The recentered test will have a slight impact on minority students' scores in the math section. Because minority students as a group fall below the average, their scores will rise an additional five to 10 points on average, according to Linda Cook, the executive director of admissions and guidance programs for the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which produces the test for the College Board.

College Board officials acknowledged there were risks associated with the changes.

"We assume there will be critics who will take after this,'' said Mr. Stewart. "What I don't want is the accusation of political correctness.''

Routine Readjustment

Wayne E. Becraft, the executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the change will be a routine readjustment for admissions officers.

"The institutions would just need to adjust their [cut-off] numbers,'' Mr. Becraft said.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is changing its freshman-eligibility standards, is working with test officials. "We realize we have to change our scores in order for them to mean the same things,'' Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for the association, said.

Pamela H. Zappardino, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., said the recalibration does not address exam bias.

"What the E.T.S. is doing is putting a tremendous amount of energy into a cosmetic change, making it appear that women and minorities are getting higher scores,'' she said, "when in fact nothing has been done to change the inherent biases in the test.''

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