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SAT Takers Advised To Pay For Test Reviews In Wake Of Grading Errors, Kids Counseled To Pay College Board For Hand Grading, Answer Keys

By Anne Marie Chaker and John Hechinger

Mar 15, 2006 (WALL STREET JOURNAL) -- In the wake of grading errors that wrongly lowered the SAT scores of thousands of students, a number of guidance counselors and college test-prep services say they are urging test takers to pay extra for backup scoring services to verify results. These services, which can range from $10 to $100 on top of the $41.50 fee for the test, are available only through the College Board itself. They include sending students copies of their answer sheets that they can check themselves, or hand scoring the test, which is usually graded by machine.

Some services may not be available to all students, depending on what month they take the test. And recent test takers probably won't be able to use them to affect the current college-application season, which is in full swing. But as reports of mistakes continue, counselors and students say their confidence in the scoring process is eroding.

"This is like 'Election 2000' in Florida," says Bari Meltzer Norman, associate director of college counseling at Ben Lipson Hillel Community High School in North Miami Beach, Fla., who says she will suggest the hand-scoring service to all future test takers.

The issue arose last week, with news that 4,000 students who took the SAT last October had incorrectly received lower scores because of a technological glitch. Pearson Educational Measurement, the company that scans the SAT for the College Board, blamed "abnormally high moisture" in the answer sheets for making it difficult for scanners to read completed tests. Most of the errors were small, but some were large enough to potentially make a difference in a student's application decisions, chances of acceptance, or eligibility for scholarships or participation in athletics.

The College Board says 95% of affected students had scores lowered 10 to 90 points. Sixteen students had their scores understated by 200 or more points. In addition, the College Board now says that 600 students received scores that were actually better than they should have been. The testing firm says it doesn't want to penalize those students, so it won't alert them or their colleges about the mistake.

Chiara Coletti, the College Board's vice president for public affairs, also now says that when the October test results were reviewed -- following complaints from students -- it had Pearson rescan SATs from November, December and January, as well. The company "saw no evidence of the October problem in those subsequent administrations," says Ms. Coletti. Neither Pearson nor the College Board will say how many, if any, errors Pearson found in the review of the other months. On top of the scoring problems, yesterday the testing organization sent an email to thousands of high-school counselors and college admissions officers notifying them that 1,600 additional exams that hadn't been re-scanned for errors should have been. Officials at the College Board said that staff simply overlooked the exams, which had been set aside for review.

The College Board says some students may demand additional test-scoring services going forward. Brian O'Reilly, executive director of SAT information at the College Board, says the testing firm is encouraging colleges to reconsider the new test scores. Some students report that schools are saying they won't reconsider. Asked if the College Board has any plans to negotiate for students who are refused a second look, Mr. O'Reilly says, "I personally would be willing to do that if a student came to me."

As counselors consider remedies, some balk at the idea of telling students to pay the College Board even more to ensure their scores are accurate. "It would be a big shame if this actually turned into a moneymaker for the College Board," says Brad MacGowan, a counselor at Newton North High School, Newton, Mass.

But one private counselor in Washington, D.C., sent an email this past weekend to his students recommending the additional scoring services. "There is a chance there will be further errors," Steven Roy Goodman writes in the email. "And given that the College Board will not be notifying colleges of lower scores," he writes, "you really have nothing to lose" -- except the cost of the services.

Most of the services focus on the multiple-choice section of the SAT, as the essay portion is provided to students who request a free online report of their scores. Test-preparations companies Kaplan Inc., a unit of Washington Post Co., and Princeton Review Inc. have long recommended that students pay an extra $24 for the College Board's Question and Answer Service, which gives students a copy of the multiple-choice test they took and an electronic record of the way they answered the questions, along with additional feedback. About 10% of those taking 2.8 million SATs annually ask for the service. For an extra $10, the College Board will send an actual copy of the answer sheet -- which allows students to double-check themselves.

Students have five months from the day they sat for the exam to request this service. But it is available only for SAT tests administered in October, January and May. For the test given either in March or April and for those in November and December, the College Board won't release the questions because the tests will be reused in following years. In those cases, students can order the "student answer service," which tells them only whether they answered a question correctly, the type of question and level of difficulty. The College Board charges $10 for that service.

The College Board says that October test takers have likely just missed the deadline to request a copy of their own answers. But it's not too late to ask that the test be re-scored by hand, says Mr. O'Reilly. That service can be requested within a year of having sat for the test.

The hand-scoring service, known as "score verification," costs $50 for the multiple-choice section. For another $50, students can get a review of their essay scoring. The College Board will refund the money if it made a mistake. About 1,000 students ask for it a year, the College Board says. Francine Block, a private counselor in Holland, Pa., says one of her students was notified that his score was erroneously lowered by about 200 points. She says it may make a difference in admission to his top-choice school, Gettysburg College, where he applied early and was deferred. His application is currently being reconsidered.

Danielle Slutsky, a senior at Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, N.J., learned last week that she had initially received an incorrect score on her October SAT. After the glitch was discovered, she gained 70 points. That will likely change her scholarship prospects at state institutions she has been admitted to, says her counselor Cigus Vanni.

—Jennifer Levitz contributed to this article.

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