WASHINGTON — THE main reason the College Board is ``recalibrating'' its Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), taken by college-bound students, officials explain, is so a verbal or math score of 500 will once again become the average.
Some education reformers are not buying the explanation. They say the changes, which will take the current average verbal score of 424 and math score of 478 and make them both 500, will ``dumb down'' the test. (Weighter academics, Page 14.)
College admissions officers, however, counter this charge, saying the changes will make no difference. They say students will still perform at the same percentile level in respect to others taking the test and that no one will be misled. A verbal score of 424 in 1994 and of 500 in 1996 - after the change goes into effect - will still put a student in the 50th percentile. ``It's just a different number,'' says Charles Coe, director of admissions at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
But some reformers say numbers do matter: ``[Students are] being told, in effect, that not as much is as expected of them as was of their parents,'' insists Chester Finn of the Edison Project, an education consulting firm here.
``I personally think recalibrating the SATs to give higher scores is like the Russians recalibrating their odometers to get more miles per gallon,'' says Bruno Manno, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, an education research center here.
The College Board, a private organization that administers the SAT, says the test needs to be adjusted because a different pool of students is taking the test than was taking it 50 years ago. In 1941, about 10,000 students - 60 percent of them white males and privately educated - took the SAT. Today, 1 million to 2 million students take the test each year and the students come from much more diverse backgrounds.
Test scores have fallen as more students took the test. One result has been bunching in the middle ranges, making it difficult for admissions officers to distinguish among performances in the middle. The new system will spread out the distribution of scores. ``After recentering, the SAT will maintain the same high quality. Only the numbers will change,'' says Donald Stewart, president of the College Board.
Some education scholars side with admissions officers who do not think the changes will affect anything.
Jane Hannaway, of the Urban Institute, says the reformers are overreacting. The SATs are ``a useful piece of information for universities making admissions decisions,'' Ms. Hannaway says. ``It's a standard measure [widely] used but it is not a measure of what students learn in school and it is not intended to measure that.''
Charlene Liebau, director of admissions at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Calif., says changing the test scoring may make more difference at larger public universities than at smaller, private schools like Occidental. Here ``it is but one ingredient in a student's file; it is never the sole decision,'' she says.
What the SAT should actually be used for seems to be in debate. Reformers see the SAT as a much-needed method for measuring students' performance, while many educators and policymakers believe the test should be used only as a predictor of how well a student will perform in college.
``A lot of people use it as an inappropriate measure of what students know and what students learn,'' Hannaway says. ``I think people will quickly adjust to the new scale,'' she says. ``Students judge themselves with their peers. It may be confusing for a short time, but I think the adjustment will be made fairly quickly.''