Flunking the Tester

updated 02/24/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 01:00AM

DAVID AND GOLIATH. DANIEL AND the lions. And now Colin and the College Board. Living out the fantasy of high school kids everywhere, Colin Rizzio, 18, brought the testers of scholastic achievement to their knees this month and forced them to admit they'd blown it. "It seemed like nothing at the time," he says modestly.

His victory over the Educational Testing Service, whose exams help colleges decide whom to admit, began with the SAT I: Reasoning Test administered last Oct. 12. Rizzio, a senior at Contoocook Valley Regional High School in Peterborough, N.H., noted that a math problem involving the unknown number "a" would yield different answers depending on whether "a" was positive or negative and on how the numbers were sequenced—the ETS hadn't been specific. "I thought it was a little more difficult than ETS had intended it to be," he says.

Two days later he explained the ambiguity in an e-mail to ETS, figuring that if he were wrong, "nothing would happen." Nothing did—until nearly four months later, on Feb. 4, when ETS admitted Colin was right. For the first time in 14 years, an SAT question had been found to be flawed, and Rizzio and about 45,000 of the 350,000 students who took the Oct. 12 test would have their scores raised. "I just love that it was a student, not some stuffy professor, who found the error," says College Board official Gretchen W. Rigol.

So did the morning talk shows. ABC's Good Morning America got him first, then NBC's Today show. What they found in Rizzio, the younger son of a chemical engineer father and a postal clerk mother, was a math whiz with a difference. Or as former girlfriend Tiana Brockelbank puts it, "Not one of those geeky kids." Call him a problem solver. This semester, Rizzio's physics class got a new textbook. He has already found 12 errors in it.

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