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The Anxiety Business

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With admissions rules and testing procedures changing seasonally as colleges struggle to adjust to the introduction of the new SAT in 2005, it's easy for the press to grow numb to the details. But this summer the College Board quietly announced a new policy that will allow students to take the SAT multiple times and only send colleges their highest score, allowing them to cherry-pick their best results.

As a private tutor, I've always told my clients to avoid taking the test more than three times, as if makes it look to colleges as though you're gaming the system. But now, those barriers are lifted, as a college will never know how many times a student took the test. Their stated objective is "to reduce student stress" (collegeboard.org), but actually it's terrific business:

1. Allowing students to submit just their highest scores means students will take the test more often. Colleges accept the highest sub-scores from different administrations. So if a student takes the SAT many times instead of once, she has a larger pool of scores from which to pick out the highest math, critical reading, and writing. And now colleges will never know she took the test a dozen times to come up with that perfect score.

2. More administrations mean more revenue. At $41.50 a pop, a student who takes the test eight times makes the College Board $332. There are over 2 million juniors who take the test each year -- multiple test dates for each of them mean profit increases in the billions.

3. More administrations also mean that wealthier students are at a huge advantage. Poorer students will only be able to afford to take the test once or maybe twice, while those who have the funds will be able to pool their scores to improve their applications. Consider this: in 2006, the average SAT score for those whose families earned less than $10,000 was 1313. For those whose families earned more than $100,000 a year, it was 1656 -- twenty-six percent higher. The new policy will only exacerbate the difference. As the joke goes, it really should be named the "Scholastic Affluence Test."

4. The new policy allows the SAT to better compete with the ACT. Formerly a test taken only by students applying to colleges in the Midwest, the ACT has made huge inroads in the testing market, and is now fully accepted by all major colleges and universities. I've seen the drift in my clients -- now over a third of them prepare for the ACT, while years ago none of them did. The ACT has long offered the ability to select which scores to send, which has made it much more desirable to anxious students. For the College Board to permit the same advantage allows it to stem the loss of market share to the ACT.

5. Students taking the test throughout the year, instead of once or twice, heightens the test obsession. The College Board is officially a non-profit. But all that means is that it doesn't have shareholders, and that their financial accountings must be available to the public; it certainly doesn't mean that they're not also into making money. The fact is that the College Board's products -- the SAT, other standardized tests, the accompanying strategy guides -- are sold at far higher than the cost to make them. The College Board is both in the business of test administration and test prep. If this feels inherently unfair, it should -- it's like a doctor whacking your knee with a sledgehammer and then offering to patch you up.

ELIOT SCHREFER's debut novel about tutoring the children of the wealthy, Glamorous Disasters, was an international bestseller. He is still a working tutor in Manhattan, and just released an SAT strategy guide, Hack the SAT (Penguin/Gotham).

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