As a new wave of high school students prepares to take the SAT exam Saturday, officials are scrambling to correct recently disclosed grading flaws that have spurred fresh criticism of the test.
The problems, which marred 5,000 SAT tests in October, have given students, parents and admissions officials yet another reason for anxiety over the pivotal college entrance exams. Some 375,000 students, including 54,600 in California, are signed up for Saturday's SAT.
Hector Martinez, director of college guidance at the private Webb Schools in Claremont, said he has tried to calm some parents and students. "People are saying, 'Gosh, have they fixed this?' " Martinez said. "I'm telling them I'm sure the College Board and everyone involved is trying to make absolutely sure this doesn't happen again."
Meanwhile, some experts in standardized testing and document scanning question whether officials identified all the causes of the errors, while critics add that the episode suggests that the SAT may be plagued by other shortcomings.
Officials of the College Board, which owns the SAT, and its test-scanning contractor, Pearson Educational Management, blamed the incorrect grading largely on answer sheets that passed through scanning machines while still moist from humid weather.
The dampness, officials said, slightly stretched the answer sheets. That, combined with answer "bubbles" that were lightly filled in, caused Pearson's scanners to miss some correct answers, officials said.
One of the main changes for this Saturday's SAT: Answer sheets will sit at least eight hours -- to dry out, if necessary -- before being scanned at Pearson's facility in Austin, Texas. The tests also will be re-scanned 24 hours later.
Other fixes could come after a consulting firm hired by the College Board, Booz Allen Hamilton, concludes its 90-day review of the handling of the SAT answer sheets.
Craig Hoyle, a research consultant at Boston College, said he welcomed the new scanning procedures, but added that they raise concerns about previous tests. "If indeed the problems with humidity are only being addressed now, one is left to wonder how many other students' scores have been inaccurately recorded," he said.
Although many testing experts say Pearson's humidity explanation is plausible, some suspect that human error played a role. Ted Selker, an MIT computer scientist who has studied optical scanning, said it "is obvious" that a scanning system operator missed the problem.
Meanwhile, in e-mails sent this week to students and SAT test center supervisors, the College Board urged test-takers to fill in answer sheet bubbles thoroughly.
Paul Kanarek, head of the Princeton Review test prep service in Southern California, said one of the few benefits of the grading errors is that they will encourage students to be careful.
They will also encourage students to request hand-scoring and other kinds of verification if their results seem wrong.
Double-checking suspect scores -- and filling in those bubbles -- "are important things to do.... For the next year or so, the kids will be saying, 'This is not lame. We should be doing this,' " he said.
By some accounts, families in recent weeks have expressed more interest in hand-scoring and other verification services, despite the extra cost.
Jennifer Karan, director of SAT programs in California for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, said she and her staff have fielded a stream of questions from students and parents lately about grading errors and score-verification options. "It's gone from being a nonissue to being a consideration," Karan said.
At a final prep class this week at Kaplan's Westwood office, only one of the five students, Marissa Srour of Beverly Hills High School, had heard about the SAT scoring problem. She said that she doubted that officials would make the same grading errors again, but that the incident "is just another thing to add to the list of why we're against the SATs."
"I don't like the test at all," she said.
Another student, Adam Greene, a junior at Palisades High School, said simply of the College Board: "It's their job. They should be able to get it right every time."
Brian O'Reilly, a College Board spokesman, said that the organization did not have up-to-date figures for hand-scoring, but that during the first half of March, including the period immediately after the first reports of the grading errors, it had received only about 100 such requests overall.
The College Board charges $50 extra for hand-scoring of the SAT's multiple-choice sections, and another $50 for reviewing the essay section. The basic test costs $41.50.
The faulty grading is another in a string of controversies bedeviling the College Board, a nonprofit group of more than 5,000 high schools, colleges and other education organizations. Critics have long questioned the SAT's value as a predictor of students' college performance.