A Challenge Over a Challenged SAT Score

A student's score went way up the second time she took the SAT. A civil rights lawyer is demanding that ETS and College Board validate the second score.

January 7, 2019
 
Kamilah Campbell with supporters at a press conference

Kamilah Campbell is an 18-year-old high school student in Florida who first took the SAT in March 2018 and earned a score of 900. According to her lawyer, she took the SAT that time without any preparation, on her counselor's recommendation, merely to establish a "baseline" and to figure out what additional work she needed to do. Campbell is a dancer who wants to enroll in Florida State University's dance program, and a 900 SAT score would be unlikely to impress admissions officers there.

So like countless other students who were not happy with their first SAT scores, she went to work. She studied, did practice tests, received tutoring and spent a lot of time with Khan Academy resources (which are endorsed by the College Board). In October she took the SAT again and earned a score of 1230, a competitive score for a Florida State applicant.

That's not the happy ending to this story.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board, has refused to validate Campbell's second score. According to Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who is representing Campbell, an ETS official first told her that she must have had "prior knowledge" of the test, based on the substantial increase she achieved. Now, in written communication, ETS has said that it believes her scores should be invalidated because of "substantial agreement" between some of her answers and some of the answers of other test takers. According to Crump, ETS has provided no evidence that Campbell cheated in any way. Rather, he said that ETS appears to assume there is no legitimate way she could have increased her score as much as she did.

The process has "defamed" Campbell, according to a letter Crump sent ETS on her behalf. And the process is endangering her future goals. Florida State requires applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. SAT scores are also part of the eligibility process for Bright Futures, a Florida scholarship program through which Campbell hopes to pay for college.

"Although Kamilah provided a sound explanation and evidence for her improvement, ETS has refused to relent, denying the promising and dedicated student access to a college education, the funds to pay for it, and fulfillment of her dreams," the letter says. "ETS has wielded this arbitrary and excessive power with an absolute lack of transparency, citing trade secrets to avoid sharing the basis for its denial of Kamilah's score. In doing so, ETS has violated Kamilah's constitutional right to be considered innocent until proven guilty."

Crump, who is well-known in Florida, held a press conference last week to draw attention to the case. He vowed, if Campbell's scores are not quickly validated, to seek others who have their scores canceled and to pursue legal remedies.

The College Board faces criticism both over canceled scores and those that have not been canceled. When reports circulated that the August SAT featured questions available beforehand (and used on prior SATs) in Asia, many demanded to know why the scores weren't being canceled to avoid an unfair advantage to those who may have seen the questions in advance.

While the College Board does not discuss specific students' cases, it did release a statement "clarifying" the way it reviews scores.

"We take extremely seriously the concerns raised about our score review process. Behind every score is a young person with a future ahead of them. We take the utmost care because students’ lives are directly involved," said the statement. "In the review process, we give the benefit of the doubt to the student and we never hold or cancel scores unless there is very strong evidence. We do our best to honor the work students do and ensure we have all the evidence that should inform decisions about score reviews."

Score gains alone are never the reason for a score to be questioned, the statement said. "We strongly celebrate students of all backgrounds soaring on the SAT and claiming their future. We created Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy to give all students the chance to receive free, personalized practice. We recently celebrated that 100,000 students improved their SAT score by 200 points through free practice on Khan Academy."

Some of the discussion about Campbell's case (and the letter from her lawyer) have noted that she is an African American student.

The College Board statement said that its policies for reviewing scores are identical for those of all races and backgrounds.

What can trigger a score review or having a score held? These are reasons cited by the College Board statement:

  • "A student’s answer sheet resembles another student’s, or more concerningly, a group of students who have very similar answers, including the same wrong answers."
  • "The same group includes students whose scores have been canceled for irregularities in the past."
  • "The group of students’ answers match not only one another’s, but an answer key or 'cheat sheet' that has been found circulating among students."
  • "There is an absence of any scratch work in the student’s testing booklet."

If a score is challenged, the board statement said, "any student can confirm their original score by promptly taking a retest, and the student only needs to score within the range of the original score to have it released. For example, in many cases, if a student scores within 120-150 points of their reviewed score in both the reading and math sections, the student can confirm the score that was under review."

Further, "students can also submit evidence throughout the review process, and they always have the option of a hearing with a neutral arbitrator. We want to ensure that all of the evidence is considered before making determinations that can impact a student’s score."

The statement concluded by saying, "We would prefer never to have to hold or cancel scores, but we must hold students to certain standards to ensure that all students have a fair chance to show their best work and that the scores we deliver to colleges are valid."

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