OPINION

When Standardized Tests Penalize Kids For Scoring Too High

Florida teen Kamilah Campbell's SAT scores are under review by the College Board and the Educational Testing Service. (Screen
Florida teen Kamilah Campbell's SAT scores are under review by the College Board and the Educational Testing Service. (Screenshot: CBS Miami)

Around two million students in the class of 2018 have taken the SAT, according to the College Board. Miami high school senior Kamilah Campbell was one of them.

Like many students, Campbell took the test more than once in an effort to improve her scores. While she scored a 900 the first time she took it, she improved her score by 330 to 1230, a score high enough to earn a scholarship for students graduating from Florida high schools. But rather than celebrating, Campbell has been battling the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a nonprofit organization that administers the SAT on behalf of the College Board.

According to a letter that ETS sent to Campbell, the organization flagged her new scores due to the increase and “substantial agreement between...answers on one or more scored sections of the test and those of other test takers.” The testing company notified her it intends to cancel her scores and has not released her score reports, which meant she was unable to submit her higher scores in time to apply for her top-choice college, Florida State University (FSU).

The letter noted that Campbell had “one opportunity to send us any information that addresses our concerns,” after which a review board would decide “whether there is substantial evidence to question your test scores.” If the board concluded the evidence showed irregularities, she would have the option of canceling her scores herself, retaking the test to prove her scores, or pursuing arbitration. Instead, Campbell found civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has subsequently sent a letter to ETS requesting that her scores be released within 14 days.

Students of color, and in particular low-income students, already face an uphill battle on college admissions tests that have a long history of implicit bias. And it poses an additional barrier to higher education even for students who have done everything their college counselors have told them to do, like taking a standardized test earlier in high school to establish a baseline result.

Students of color, and in particular low-income students, already face an uphill battle on college admissions tests that have a long history of implicit bias.

The process ETS has initiated in Campbell’s case subverts due process: Rather than putting the onus on the testing bodies to prove that students cheated, it requires students to prove that they didn’t.

According to an email from the College Board, “out of 2 [million] students in the class of 2018, close to 2,000 SAT students’ scores were flagged for further review.” Another 1.9 million students in the class of 2018 took the ACT, the SAT’s main competitor. While the ACT doesn’t release statistics about flagged scores, its policies and procedures regarding testing irregularities are similar to those of the SAT.

Neither ACT nor SAT needs hard evidence that a student has cheated to cancel a student’s scores. A document detailing procedures for investigating questioned scores notes that “ACT reserves the right to cancel test scores when there is reason to believe that scores are invalid. Proof of misconduct is not required to cancel scores.” In other words, testing agencies can cancel scores even if a student didn’t actually cheat.

The blame doesn’t rest entirely on the standardized testing companies, however; the vast majority of higher education institutions rely on high stakes tests for admissions purposes. While standardized tests do provide a metric to measure student achievement across a range of high school contexts, a growing body of research has shown that they are a better predictor of where students live than of what they know.

In response to the limited uses of standardized tests, more than 1,000 higher education institutions have already adopted test-optional policies. Research has shown that universities that allow students to choose whether or not to submit their scores have the same graduation rates and are able to recruit more diverse student bodies. Test-optional policies, would provide an alternative for the thousands of other students whose standardized scores, like Campbell’s, are called into question every year.

Rather than putting the onus on the testing bodies to prove that students cheated, it requires students to prove that they didn’t.

But Abby Kuhnell, a high school senior in Walton, Kentucky, received a letter from ACT in August 2018 invalidating scores from tests she had taken in December 2017 and March 2018 ― scores she had used in her application to Morehead State University, which awarded her $32,000 in scholarships based on her 3.8 GPA and test scores.

Kuhnell had taken the test twice as a sophomore, scoring a 16 and 17 composite score, respectively, out of 36 possible points. After participating in an intensive ACT boot camp offered to all juniors at her high school, Kuhnell improved her scores on two subsequent sittings to 28 and 26. In its letter, the ACT said its decision was based on unusual response similarities with another examinee, seating proximity, mathematics computation and an unusual score increase.

The process of how questionable scores are flagged is opaque, and often based on statistical analysis that is hard for students and families to parse. Many students, like Kuhnell, are unaware that it’s even possible for their scores to be invalidated in the absence of blatant cheating. “I didn’t know that canceling scores is an actual thing,” Kuhnell said. “Me and my mom both thought it was a joke. Nobody’s ever said anything about it.”  

Kuhnell was surprised, but not worried, when she received the initial letter from ACT. She thought the investigation would be closed after she submitted a letter explaining that she had taken test prep classes at her high school, which accounted for the score increase. When ACT sent her a second letter stating it was proceeding with the cancellation, Kuhnell chose to take an independent retest to confirm her 28 and 26 rather than pursue arbitration, a process her family believed would be too expensive.

I didn’t know that canceling scores is an actual thing. Me and my mom both thought it was a joke. Abby Kuhnell

For Kuhnell, the process has had very real consequences. When she took the retest, she needed to earn at least a 23 in order for her 26 to stand. She earned a 22 ― only one point off ― and her higher scores were canceled. As a result, she says, her $8,000 per year scholarship was reduced to around $1,500.

Students like Campbell and Kuhnell feel like they’re being punished for working hard to improve their scores. When they defend themselves, they receive the implicit message that they are not good enough ― a message that the millions of students who struggle with standardized tests have already received. The result is that our college campuses are less diverse than they might be and disparities in access to higher education are perpetuated.  

Of course, we must take test security seriously and ensure the legitimacy of scores. But the current process of how scores are flagged and investigated needs to be more transparent. Kuhnell said the whole process made her feel like the ACT were not only questioning her scores, but also her character and integrity. “It makes you feel bad about yourself,” she said. “When you’re being questioned on something this big, it makes you feel like crap.” 

Charlotte West is a Seattle- and Denver-based freelance journalist who covers education, housing policy, juvenile justice and politics.

CONVERSATIONS