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The Masterminds Behind the SAT

On a bucolic East Coast campus, the dreaded exam's question writers chase inspiration and endlessly tweak each sweat-inducing item.

March 27, 2001|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PRINCETON, N.J. — Each day she comes to the sprawling campus on the outskirts of this quintessential leafy college town, Anne Connell has a mission, one that could affect the educational destinies of thousands of students.

"I am the one who selects the 'Question of the Day' on the [Educational Testing Service] Web site," said Connell, her cheery eyes turning somewhat diabolical as she speaks. "When I'm working on that SAT question, I try to make sure it's just right, something that will challenge."

Those simple little letters--SAT--grind an awful lot of fear through the souls of prospective college students. And it is Connell and her cohorts in these low-slung buildings at the Educational Testing Service in the rolling central New Jersey countryside who help determine those teenagers' fate. They are the creators of the SAT, or SAT I (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test), the 138-question test most colleges still require for admission. Nearly 2.4 million SAT and 2.2 million PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, the "practice" for the SAT) tests were taken in 1999-2000. (Many students take them more than once.)

Recently, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson suggested that his university and others should de-emphasize the use of the SAT in college admissions. But as the SAT comes under renewed fire from administrators, academics, parents and students, the people who make up the test go about their jobs with calm and serious purpose, confident of the test's staying power.

After all, the recent California uproar is not the first time the SAT as a universal tester has been called into question. "It comes in waves," said Gretchen W. Rigol, vice president of higher education services at the College Board, which employs the Educational Testing Service to make the SAT and administers the test. "I'll tell you why it comes in waves. Until every discernible group in this country gets the same scores--Asian Americans, Latinos, males, females, the handicapped--people are going to say, 'Why is that?' One of the answers they like to come up with is that the instrument is biased. But we do our best to make that not be the case.

"As Fred Hargadon, dean of admissions at Princeton, told me, 'If we didn't have the SAT, we would have to invent it,' " said Rigol.

Those who create the SAT at the testing service are primarily middle-aged and middle-class, most with an educational background of some sort--teaching or administrative. Backpacks abound on the 400-acre campus, and often you will see people gazing at the greenery as they walk about, presumably for inspiration. Temperamentally, the test-makers are a bit bookish, but that is understandable, given the serious implications of their work.

"We have children, too," said Robin O'Callaghan, who creates questions, among other duties, in her job as director of math skills for the SAT. "We know how important the SAT can be in their lives."

Like any team members, they have their jargon. For instance, they would call the "Question of the Day" a misnomer.

"They are items, not questions," said Chancey Jones, the soft-spoken, grandfatherly executive director of the test division, who has been a math specialist at the teaching service for 35 years after an initial teaching career. "We are testing aptitude, not making them recall facts. So it's hard to call them questions."

These are folks who dicker with pie charts and nz and analogies and reading comprehension passages on a daily basis. They try to think like teenagers--smart teenagers, to be sure--and are dedicated to the proposition that if all kids cannot test equally, they can at least have an equal shot at getting an item solved correctly.

The nonprofit testing service, which employs 2,100 people full-time, also makes up the tests for such standardized exams as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) and the SAT II (often known as "achievement tests," those college-entrance exams that measure skills in specific academic areas). But since so many students from so many backgrounds take the SAT, a vast number of items is needed--up to 1,500 for more than 20 versions of the test in some years--and it is a major focus of the testing service.

Creating items in their final form for the test is a collaborative process, much like, say, writing a screenplay. Rarely does an item come through unedited, even from the mind of seasoned writers. A typical item can go through as many as six to eight reviews. Committees both inside the ETS and outside the campus look over every question--the committees outside comprising academics and sometimes laypeople and students around the country.

"We realize that even if we didn't come from here, we do think like people from the Northeast," said O'Callaghan. "We need to have people who live in other places review what we've done."

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