(submitted in response to Dick Feagler's September 19, 1999 Plain Dealer commentary

 "Striving is fine, but correct answers are better")


September 19, 1999


Dear Editor,


Dick Feagler’s September 19, 1999 commentary entitled “Striving is fine, but correct answers are better” suffers from an outright lie and a major flaw in reasoning.


Feagler states that a student identified as a “striver” by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) “could get an extra 200 points tacked on to his SAT score.”  But neither Amy Dockser Marcus’ August 31 Wall Street Journal article nor any ETS press releases mention any such notion.  Anthony Carnevale of ETS is heading a project studying the background information provided by SAT I candidates (which has been collected by ETS since 1976) whose composite scores fell between 1000 and 1190.  Based on this information, a formula for calculating a predicted score for these demographic groups will be developed (the final report on this is still at least two months from completion).  Students in these groups who score 200 points higher than this predicted score will be identified as “strivers.”  The purpose of this identification is to provide college admissions officials with a clearer context in which to interpret SAT I composite scores.  There would be no change in the composite scores of any SAT I candidate.  Perhaps much of the confusion stemmed from some Wall Street Journal editor’s unfortunate decision to give Ms. Marcus’ piece the erroneous headline “New Weights Can Alter SAT Scores As Family Factors Determine ‘Strivers’” even though anyone who bothered to read the actual text would find no mention such “weights” or “alterations.”   As a result ETS has needed to issue at least two clarifications on the subsequent “misleading” news coverage.


Feagler further implies that the SAT I is a “standard of achievement” and that the Strivers program is an idea that “approaches educational treason” and “encourage[s] the dumbing-down of America.”  The Scholastic Assessment Test I has never been designed or intended to be used as a standard of achievement.  The test contains 138 questions dealing with only two academic disciplines: 78 questions on verbal skills and 60 questions on mathematics.  It is designed to predict how well a student will do in first-year college studies based on these two skills.  It is created specifically to avoid measuring how much a student may have learned within a specific English or Math curriculum or in a specific field such as science or history.  The SAT II or “subject” tests were created for this purpose.   In fact, ETS changed the name from Scholastic Aptitude Test to the Scholastic Assessment Test for these very reasons.


Students with a composite score of 1200 or higher (on the 400 to 1600 scale) are predicted to do very well in first-year courses.  Because of the relatively small number of questions on the two-hour test and the complicated formula used for calculating the scores, one incorrect answer can result in a fifty to one hundred point drop from a perfect score of 1600.  As a result, less than 20% of students had a composite score between 1200 and 1600 and only 14% had a composite score between 400 and 790 last year.  32% were between 1000 and 1190 and 31% scored between 800 and 990.  Using Feagler’s flawed “reverse theory,” a student with 200 subtracted from a perfect score would only fall from the upper 1% of all students to the upper 4% and a student with a composite score of 1500 would drop from the upper 1% to the upper 10%.


The truth of the matter is that the SAT alone has never been what “determines which kids get into college.”  It is merely one of several factors.  High school grades and the weight of a student’s schedule (such as how many advanced, honors, or AP courses in “solid” academic areas such as math, science, history, and foreign languages) are often the most important factors.  For example, a student with a high SAT I composite score and a C average will be seen as a lazy student while a student with a 1000 composite score and an A average with courses in Physics, Calculus, and advanced foreign language will be seen as a hard worker or overachiever.  In addition, background factors (such as extra-curricular activities, work or travel experience, artistic or athletic ability, relationship to major benefactors and “legacies,” the relatives of alumni) have always been given special consideration in the college admissions process.


Milton Alan Turner