Honey, They Shrunk Your Score

updated 04/10/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/2006 01:00AM

Amanda Hellerman gave up on her dream school, Brown University, without even applying. She scored 1,770 out of a possible 2,400 on the SAT last October but figured it wasn't good enough for the Ivy League. Hellerman's October score was lower than her first attempt at the test last May, when she scored a solid 2,050, but Amanda, 17, a senior at Yorktown High School in suburban New York, never imagined the reason behind the precipitous drop. "It didn't occur to me," she says, "that they'd made a mistake."

But they did make a mistake—a big one. Last month Hellerman was one of 4,400 college-bound students to receive notice from the College Board, the company that administers the SAT, announcing that scores on the October test had been miscalculated. An undisclosed number of students were awarded more points than they actually earned; the others were short-changed—most by 40 or 50 points, but some by as many as 400. The revelation sent shock waves through high schools and homes, while colleges scrambled to reassess rejected candidates and students held out hope of winning a second chance. "This has played havoc with this year's admission process," says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, "and raised the anger level of parents and students."

Distrust is rising too. The College Board isn't telling which tests were mistakenly scored higher, because it doesn't punish students for factors they can't control. But administrators now wonder if they allowed in less-than-worthy students. "That applicant may be taking a spot that could have gone to a more qualified student," says Jack Blackburn, the dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. "That's the nasty part of this." Meanwhile, students like Amanda Hellerman—who learned she had actually scored 2,090, 320 points higher than first reported—worried about what might have been. Because of the miscalculation, she didn't consider applying to her first choice.

As for the cause of the problem, Pearson Education Management, which grades the test, blames the rain. Soggy weather last fall, the company says, caused some test forms to expand, leading highly calibrated machinery to misread results, and other malfunctions may have played a role. The errors went unnoticed until December, when two students asked that their tests be hand-graded (an option open to all test takers for a $50 fee). When the review revealed grading errors, Pearson rechecked 1.5 million tests taken from October through January, a process not completed until late February. The College Board is asking universities to reconsider the applications of the 4,400 students. "We will go to bat for them, if possible," says Board spokesman Brian O'Reilly. "We want them to get a fair chance."

This year's debacle might hold valuable lessons for next year's seniors: Don't put too much weight on your SAT score—and take the test more than once. The University of Virginia has decided not to reverse decisions for the 99 applicants affected by the scandal, largely because most took the test multiple times and the scoring differences were minimal. And universities like Georgetown, Cornell and Brown haven't made many reversals either. "There is no minimum SAT at Brown," says spokesman Mark Nickel, explaining that test scores are only one factor in a student's application. "People with low SATs have been admitted and people with high SATs have been rejected."

That's small comfort to students like Jake DeLillo. A 17-year-old lacrosse player at Yorktown High School, he says about 20 college coaches contacted him last summer, several saying they could offer a scholarship if he scored above 1,600. Jake took the test last October and was told he had earned only a 1,470, so he didn't apply to the bigger schools, instead accepting a scholarship from the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. Then, last month, he learned his real score—1,640, a 170-point leap. "I'm really happy with my decision, but I definitely would have liked to see what my other options would have been," he says. "There's not a lot you can do."

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