The College Board's Real Mistake

March 23, 2006

The latest exhibit in an increasingly frustrating pattern of eroding public trust is that of the College Board's misrepresentation of 4,000 students' SAT scores. The fact that the mistake occurred, while significant and unfortunate, is not really at the heart of the public's concern. As the College Board stated in its initial press release, the students affected by this error represent only eight-tenths of one percent of the more than 400,000 students who took the test in October.

But statistics don't tell the full story. What is significant about this event is that it falls into an increasingly predictable pattern -- a largely autonomous and uniquely powerful entity abuses its power or commits an error, and then seeks to justify its position, rationalize the outcome, or obfuscate the facts, never fully addressing the real pain of those who lost pensions, livelihoods, or opportunities. Such behavior has become a disturbing and recurring theme in our cultural landscape.

The College Board characterized the event as a minor glitch, an irrelevant statistical anomaly in the grand machinery of standardization. After all, how serious can a mistake that affects only eight-tenths of one percent really be? And the continuing bits and pieces of information that dribbled out over the following days in the national press, culminating in a dog-ate-my-homework excuse of wet test papers as the probable cause, only added to the sense that perhaps we still don't have the whole truth.

But to every student seeking to enroll in college, this is a personal and highly charged issue. So what is missing in this debate is the College Board's failure to realize that the public views it as a gatekeeper to higher education -- that the SAT holds the key to access and scholarships.

In taking the SAT, students begins to define the perimeters of their potential college world. Their score either confirms, limits, or expands the perceived options students have, and so begins the process of self-editing their futures. The SAT has the potential to frame the rest of a student's life, career, success, and happiness.

Success on the SAT has become imbued with near-mythic capabilities. Though perhaps not altogether true or justified, this is the perception (and therefore the reality) of families facing the college decision process. Consequently, once a mistake was made by the College Board, a satisfactory response required something other than a rational explanation, an intellectual justification, and a trust-us-it-won't-happen-again parting shot. The SAT process is fraught with emotion. When scores are misreported, it cuts to the very core of family dreams and public trust. The situation requires an acknowledgement that damage has been done.

Perhaps apologies have fallen out of favor because we've become such a litigious society. Or perhaps we became a litigious society because we have forgotten how to apologize. In the case of the SAT snafu, lawyers are already opening up storefronts seeking clients willing to sue. This is an understandable response, given the College Board's reluctance to fess up to its mistakes.

But what if people believed that the College Board really felt their pain? What if they felt that the board acknowledged its error, did everything possible to address the issue as early as was practical, and tried to put things right?

The College Board's eight-tenths statistic and wet-paper explanation missed the mark -- not necessarily because they weren't true, but because they were too rational, too self-serving, and too late. Every student applying to college, every student thinking about applying to college, and everyone who cares about a student applying to college realizes that serious injury was done. Not just to the students affected by these scoring errors but to the trust we place in a process that should be fair, just, and accountable.

What is needed is a heartfelt response -- a good old-fashioned apology.


Dennis Trotter is the vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Franklin & Marshall College.

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