Scoring the SAT’s

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(HOST) Students applying to college early action or early decision find out in December whether they’ve been accepted. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, and commentator Allen Gilbert wonders how a student’s talents can be accurately measured.

(GILBERT) The fate of high school seniors could be in the hands of people who answer an Internet ad.

The College Board is looking for people to score the new writing portion of the SAT. You can go to and apply online.

The writing portion of the college aptitude test is worth one-third of a student’s score. The scorers evaluate the quality of the essay that students write on a given topic – a “prompt,” as a topic is called. The essay is one section in the new writing portion.

I’ve been a test scorer, although not for the SAT. For three years I scored “Staatsexamen,” or “state exams,” in Germany. I was teaching at a Bavarian university. The system worked this way: I received a batch of exams in the mail, with no names or schools attached. I scored the exams from “1” to “5.” I then sent the exams to a second reader. He or she would also score them, but without the knowledge of my score. Then, when done, we’d compare grades. If we were within one grade, we’d discuss the student’s work and try to agree on a single grade. If we were two or more grades apart, a third reader would be brought in and would make the final grade determination.

The process was a bit cumbersome and time-consuming, but I was convinced it was relatively fair. Key to fairness, though, was knowledge of the standards that students were expected to meet.

Will the people who respond to the College Board’s Web ad know the expectations for a really good student essay vs. a mediocre one? One topic last year was, “Is majority rule a fair way to govern?” If students wrote a technically correct essay but didn’t exhibit any knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, would they still get a high score? What if they knew a lot about the Constitution but couldn’t write particularly well?

The new SAT test was developed after complaints from certain universities, especially the University of California, that the SAT was testing irrelevant skills. The College Board agreed to scuttle analogies and add essays. Eventually, students’ essays will be posted directly on a secure Web site, so college admissions officers can see applicants’ work for themselves.

How, finally, does a college judge academic quality? And how important is academic quality when there are other factors to consider, such as athletic prowess, musical skill, dramatic talent, and even ability to pay tuition bills?

The drawing of the curtain behind the wizard in the Wizard of Oz ends an illusion in that famous story. If you want to believe that the wizard is – well, a wizard, you hate the scene. Similarly, might the reality of college admissions be a bit disappointing if we knew the truth of how decisions are made? What if an unknown stranger sitting at her kitchen table in Grand Junction, Colorado, grading essays sunk your chance to go to Princeton?

It’s probably best not to know.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues, and he spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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