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College Board is put to test

THE COLLEGE Board's skin is getting thin just when the fat wallet of the test industry is bursting open. The board is harassing its critics simply for quoting its SAT scores.

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has long said that standardized tests are overused to assess student potential. The test industry and test-crazy politicians have tried to laugh off FairTest as a puny little group of lefties from the People's Republic of Cambridge.

In September, FairTest posted a chart of the latest SAT and ACT scores by race and income. The College Board, which owns all rights to the SAT, cried foul, even though it freely gave out scores in August to the media. The data, of course, becomes a cash register, whipping up panic in the populace for spots in the best schools.

On Oct. 27, the College Board told FairTest it needed to ask permission to post data. Its letter referred to both the ACT and SAT scores. It said, "Your misuse overtly bypasses our ownership and significantly impacts the perceptions of students, parents, and educators regarding the services we provide. A source citation is not sufficient."

FairTest wrote back last week that it would continue to post the data. It skewered the College Board for failing to proofread its own letter, noting it was "ludicrous" for it to complain about the use of ACT scores since it does not own the ACT. As far as the SAT scores are concerned, FairTest contended they are not subject to copyright protection since the College Board made them nationally available.

With clear sarcasm, FairTest said, "We do, however, recognize that disseminating information demonstrating race, gender, and income gaps on the SAT `significantly impacts the perceptions of students, parents, and educators regarding the services we provide.' " The sarcasm is appropriate because the services provided by the test industry have nothing to do with closing the gaps. The approximately 200-point black-white SAT gaps and the gaps of approximately 130 to 150 points between white and different Latino groups have not changed since 2000.

The economic gap of the SAT has remained the same. In 2000, youth from families earning less than $10,000 a year had an average score of 872. Today, they are still scoring 872. In 2000, youth from families making more than $100,000 had an average score of 1129. Today, the average is 1,115, a tiny drop but still a 243-point gap from the poorest of youth.

Perhaps the College Board is nervous because it knows the gaps are unchangeable in a nation that refuses to seriously invest in quality schools, opting instead for the far lazier path of testing kids under deteriorating district budgets and then solely blaming their families and their cultures for failure.

On the other hand, the market for tutoring has grown to $4 billion, with 12 to 15 percent growth at least through 2007, according to government agencies and the Boston-based education consulting firm Eduventures. The revenues from K-12 tests themselves, both state and collegiate, are expected to grow from $1.8 billion last year to $2.3 billion by 2006.

The test-taking industry is so hot that Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of The Washington Post and owner of the Kaplan test preparation firm, told investors this summer, "in a few years we expect Kaplan to be our most profitable business." John Katzman, CEO of the Princeton Review test-prep firm, said in a company conference call last month, "The K-12 division has a full pipeline, happy clients, and a lot of growth." Times have been so good at the Educational Testing Service that in 2002 it paid its president, Kurt Landgraf, $800,000 after only 10 months on the job, more money than almost any college president in the nation.

The Educational Testing Service knows the real score even as it profits from the test craze. It has said we would need $40 billion in new money to provide universal preschool and an additional $52 billion to get all students up to state standards. But whether it is Massachusetts and its MCAS test or President Bush's vastly underfunded No Child Left Behind, the primary response has been the lazy road of test and blame.

The College Board went after FairTest because the hopelessness of a system of testing kids with no resources and the ridiculousness of assessing a human life through a test score has become undeniable. What the College Board might really be angry about is another list that FairTest keeps. It is a list of colleges and universities that now admit a significant number of students without the SAT or ACT. That list has grown from 288 institutions in 1998 to over 700 today.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is 

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