How a Texas Town Scored (Near) Perfect On the SATs

IT'S like having three apprentice Einsteins in one physics class.

When SAT results came back to the students at Fort Bend's high schools this year, three of the Texans had nailed a 1,600 - perfection in SAT-speak.

That's a rare achievement, even in a school district known for its academic excellence. But it's not quite as rare as it used to be - consider that earning a ''perfect'' score has never been easier.

After determining that scores had been dragged down by changing demographics in recent years, SAT overseers added about 100 points to everyone's score.

Not all educators are happy about this SAT ''perfection inflation.'' And it has made some students feel ambivalent about their perfect scores - even though fewer than 1 percent of those who took the test last April earned a 1,600.

''Just knowing you're getting all this attention and it's not a perfect score, it feels a little like cheating,'' says Suneeta Fernandes, a senior at Clements High School in Fort Bend.

SAT results are not something high schoolers take lightly. The scores are an important factor in the college admissions process - and a source of pride or embarrassment to test takers.

Until this year, the scoring scale on the Scholastic Assessment Test, formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was based on test takers from the 1940s - about 10,000 white males headed to Ivy League schools each year. On that scale, 500 on the math or verbal test was deemed average.

Broad spectrum of SAT takers

By contrast, almost 1.8 million students - male and female, from across all ethnic, racial, economic, and academic lines - took the tests in 1994. The average score on the verbal portion last year was 428; on the math test, 482.

Janice Gams, spokeswoman for the College Board, the association that sponsors the SATs, says that the resulting bulge in the left side of the grade curve tended to drag down scores at the higher end so much that one wrong answer on the math portion could drop a student's score as much as 50 points.

Critics of the test's ''recentering'' complain that the shift is a blow to educational standards and contributes to the dumbing-down of American education. The readjustment will also make it more difficult to compare scores after this year with those of previous years.

But Ms. Gams insists the change does not affect student rankings. ''It's like lining everybody up and then having everybody take one step to the left,'' she says.

Under the readjustment, students can miss up to three questions on the verbal test and one on the math test and still make a 1,600.

Which is exactly what Fort Bend students Christopher Casso, at Kempner High School; Matt Hubenschmidt, at Dulles High School; and Suneeta Fernandes, at Clements High School, did this year.

All three students, who compete on their schools' academic decathlon teams, expressed surprise and some pride, at their scores.

Each credited district teachers and competitive classmates, as well as support from their parents. But all three admit disappointment about the recentering that enabled them to achieve those scores.

''I think the recentering takes away a lot,'' says Miss Fernandes, who hopes to attend Rice University as a pre-med student next year.

''Certainly, before it would have been a much greater accomplishment,'' says Mr. Hubenschmidt, a straight-A student planning a career in mathematics or computer science. ''Doing it now was much easier.''

But easier is a relative term. Only 32 seniors out of the 1 million who took the SAT in 1994 earned a combined score of 1,600. Gams estimates that 7 of every 10,000 students who took the test last April got the top score. The test is given seven times a year.

Outbreak of achievement

Fort Bend, an upper-middle-class bedroom community of Houston, is not the only locale to see an influx of perfect scores this year, though. A Chamblee, Ga., high school also made news with a set of perfect-scoring twins.

Recentering concerns aside, however, all three students in Fort Bend say the scores already have opened some doors for them.

Like Fernandes and Hubenschmidt, Mr. Casso took the SAT twice, scoring 1,450 the first time.

''I personally had never thought about applying to too many Ivy League colleges because I thought a 1,450 would never make me stand out for them,'' says the future meteorologist.

''I feel a lot more confident about applying to them. There may be a few more 1,600s, but it's still definitely an accomplishment.''

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