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Generous Curve?

April 12, 2005

Those in the test-prep industry know that two groups of students call their SAT tutors on the day results are released: those who are thrilled with their scores and those who are devastated.

Paul Kanarek, who runs the Princeton Review's California operations, said that those calls are usually split 50-50. But on Monday, the day scores were released for the SAT's first use of its revised test, he said 90 percent of the calls were from happy test-takers -- very happy test takers.

"People are getting absurdly good test results, much better than we predicted, especially on the writing test," Kanarek said. Typically, students increase by about 30 points between their last practice test and the actual test, but most students seem to be doing at least 100 points better, and many students are reporting 400 point increases from early practice tests to their actual scores, he said.

"We had long suspected that the first example of the new test would be reasonably easy and that scoring was going to be generous, and it looks like that's what happened," he added.

Any sort of scientifically valid analysis of SAT scores was impossible yesterday. The College Board does not release score averages for any single administration of the test, and provides data only for an entire cohort of high school graduates. But Kanarek's views were shared by a number of other testing experts who heard from students Monday about their scores. Some reported that students were doing about as well as expected, and many said that students were doing better than expected. But the usual group of people who are crushed by their scores was not evident, leading many to speculate that the scoring was generous.

College Board officials scoff at that view. "That's nonsense," said Amy Schmidt, who as executive director of higher education research for the College Board oversaw all work on the scale for the new test. "The score users -- the colleges -- told us that one of the main things that they wanted was that the scores would remain stable, and we did that," she said.

Schmidt, who has seen aggregate score results for the debut of the new SAT, said, "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the scales have remained stable, that the test was of the same difficulty and the same distribution of difficulty."

During the last two seeks, Schmidt said, outside testing experts reviewed the results to make sure that there were no problems. And she said that the inclusion of some questions from previous SAT's helps the College Board  keep scores level.

The students who received scores yesterday took the SAT on March 12, the first time the test included an essay question, which was part of an additional section of the test. Other changes that were first present in the SAT on that day -- such as the elimination of the notorious analogy section -- were designed to make the SAT less coachable.

But Jennifer Karan, director of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, thinks that the opposite may be true.

"Initial feedback from our students on their scores has been overwhelmingly positive," said Karan. Since many people who took the test March 12 complained about its length and difficulty, she said, "we suspect that the new test has exacerbated the gap between those who prep and those who don't."

Karan -- and everyone interviewed for this article -- stressed that they would need more time to do thorough analysis of their students' scores. But the initial reactions that people were receiving were remarkably similar.

Kristen Brown, director of StudySmart's Westchester County, N.Y., office, said, "Most of the students are a lot more pleased than they thought they would be. I've noticed increases in all of the sections, and most of the students who were worried about the writing test did very well."

David Younghans, founder of Gorilla Test Prep -- which operates in Boulder, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle -- said that his students were reporting gains similar to what people achieved on the old version of the SAT.

"The new SAT is not quite as different as it's made out to be," he said. "The tricks that worked for the math section before still work now."

Dana Wieluns, director of one-on-one programs for Ivy West, a test-prep company in California, said that she hadn't heard from a single unhappy person. "The tone of the calls has been pleasantly surprised," she said.

Wieluns and others in the test-prep industry said that all of the hype about the changes in the SAT added to anxiety about the test and the scores.

Kanarek, of the Princeton Review, said that the mother of one of his students started checking the College Board's Web site at 1 a.m. Monday, and checked every 10 minutes until the scores were posted shortly after 5 a.m. She was happy with the scores.

 

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