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Score one for the teacher

High school teacher Kevin Keegan found a mistake on the PSAT, the practice test for the SAT, and fought to make it right. Did he do it for fame? Fortune? None of the above.

Published May 22, 2003

My high school journalism teacher was on the front page of the Washington Post last week.

He found an error on the PSAT, the test high school juniors take before they take the SAT.

He is the first person in 20 years to persuade officials with the Educational Testing Service to throw out a question on the national exam.

He got the College Board to rescore all 1.8-million of the Oct. 15 tests.

Because of his challenge, almost 500,000 high school students saw their PSAT scores improve, if only slightly. Some of those students now may become National Merit commended students or semifinalists, which might help them get scholarships or be admitted to more elite universities.

"One thing that's neat about this is that I'm helping kids I don't even know," Kevin Keegan said from his classroom at James Hubert Blake High in Silver Spring, Md. "And if People magazine ever does a list of the 25 Most Intriguing Grammarians, I know I'm on it now."

So far, People's people haven't called to schedule a photo shoot. But since the story broke May 14, Mr. Keegan has been quoted in the New York Times and on CNN's Web page. He has been interviewed by television anchors, Associated Press reporters and, well, me.

The misplaced semicolon

I should have called him long ago. For years, I had been wanting to tell him that he was the toughest teacher I had. I meant to tell him that because of him, I'm writing for the St. Petersburg Times. But you know how things go.

The front page story gave me my news hook. I called Mr. Keegan in his journalism classroom.

I was afraid he wouldn't remember me. I was more afraid that I might ask him something stupid.

You see, it makes sense that Mr. Keegan beat the test-makers. He was my teacher at Rockville High School from 1982 to '85. He was an unrelenting champion of punctuation, proper usage and pronouns. He scrutinized students' articles for the school newspaper as if he were judging for the Pulitzer Prize. On one story I wrote, he dropped my grade from B to C because I used a semicolon instead of a comma. If anyone could take on the Educational Testing Service and win, it was him. (Or should I say, "It was he"?)

So I called Mr. Keegan. And I thanked him. Then I interviewed him.

(I hope he doesn't grade this story!)

Toni Morrison's genius

Mr. Keegan is tall and lanky. From what I saw in the Post's picture of him, his short brown hair is starting to slide into a widow's peak, accentuating the wrinkles that hundreds of students have etched on his forehead. He has lived in suburban Maryland for a quarter-century, but when he quotes Shakespeare and Billy Joel, he still sounds like someone from The Sopranos. He is 49. He has been teaching high school journalism for half his life.

The student newspapers he has sponsored and the academic quiz bowl teams he has coached have won dozens of national awards. He was Montgomery County's Teacher of the Year in 1992.

His greatest victory, he said, has been proving the PSAT was wrong.

About 50 people a year challenge questions on the exam, officials said. So about 1,000 people have taken on the test-makers in the last two decades. Mr. Keegan is the lone victor.

Question No. 10 in the writing portion of the Oct. 15 test asked students to find the error in this sentence: "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create (A) novels that arise from (B) and express (C) the injustices African Americans have endured (D). No error. (E)"

ETS said the answer was E, no error. Mr. Keegan said the passage marked A had an error.

So he fired off a letter to the College Board. Over three months the teacher and the test-makers exchanged 19 pages of correspondence, including citations from Webster's, Jacques Barzun and John Updike. Mr. Keegan started out sweet and passive. Or maybe sweetly and passively. Later he resorted to bold-faced type, underlined words, ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

Officials with the Educational Testing Service passed the teacher's tirades to three staff experts. The experts ended up consulting three college professors.

Ultimately, two of the professors agreed with what Mr. Keegan had been saying since Jan. 29: "Toni Morrison's" is not an antecedent noun.

But the fight isn't over.

ETS officials admitted they were wrong, Mr. Keegan said. But they're still not doing the right thing.

Waging war

The brouhaha began in January, when a high school junior asked Mr. Keegan to go over the fall PSAT. The student had just gotten his test back, along with an answer key. He had gotten Question No. 10 in the writing section wrong.

"So I'm going over this question, and there's a pronoun here that doesn't have an antecedent. So I tell the kid, "The answer's A,' " Mr. Keegan said. "And he looks at the answer key.

" "No,' the kid said. "The answer's E.' "

"Okay, so you put E," Mr. Keegan remembered saying. "I'm telling you it's A."

The kid looked again. Shook his head. "My answer was C," the kid said.

Mr. Keegan snatched the answer key. "E," it said. "No Error."

"Now I remembered that rule from freshman English 30 years ago. And I still had my old college textbook. . . . On page 282 it had the exact rule I was looking for."

So Mr. Keegan wrote the Educational Testing Service a nice, friendly letter. "I had a question about item No. 10 in the writing section. . . . The word "her' as a feminine possessive does not refer to "genius,' a word which is gender neutral."

Unfortunately, he signed his letter "Kevin N. Keegan, 25-year journaism (sic) teacher."

(Sorry, Mr. Keegan, you taught me to be accurate. Sometimes even great grammarians need copy editors.)

Their moral duty

Nontas Konstantakis, an assessment specialist with the Educational Testing Service, wrote back. Unfortunately, his salutation was "Dear Mr. Blake," which is the name of Mr. Keegan's school.

Mr. Keegan, of course, corrected the error on his next correspondence, drawing a little arrow pointing to the wrong name. "Cute!" he wrote.

The Educational Testing Service man said that the rule Mr. Keegan was challenging was ambiguous, "especially when it is clear to whom the pronoun refers." The test-maker quoted Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994). He said the meaning of the sentence in Question No. 10 was clear. "Whom would Toni Morrison's genius enable to create novels but Toni Morrison?" he asked.

That made Mr. Keegan mad.

He called his freshman English professor from the State University of New York at Cortland, who had assigned that 1966 grammar book. The prof was retired but ready to rumble. Mr. Keegan read him the question. The prof spotted the error immediately. So Mr. Keegan shot a three-page letter back to the testing service.

"I find your defense of this question and your answer of E - no error - indefensible. You are morally required to rescore your Tuesday, October 15 test and accept choice A."

This wasn't about grammar. This was about honor.

Mr. Keegan made three points on three pages. He started with ancient history and moved on to Diana Hacker's 1995 text A Writer's Reference. He pointed out that the book had sold nearly 3-million copies (underlined, italics), according to a February 2002 article in the Washington Post.

"The very integrity of your test . . . depends on your accepting choice A," he wrote.

Mr. Konstantakis passed Mr. Keegan's letters on to Rose Horch, Director of Test Development in the testing service's School and College Services Division. Ms. Horch responded on March 13, quoting John Updike, who once used a sentence construction similar to the one in Question No. 10.

"After an exhaustive google search, I have found no grammar books authored by John Updike," Mr. Keegan shot back. He didn't capitalize Google. He should have.

Then he pulled out his trump card: logic.

"Unquestionably, and by your own admission, grammar books cite this pronoun-back-to-possessive structure as a breach of grammar," Mr. Keegan wrote. "However, it is undeniable that such a rule exists - and exists by your own admission, because both sources you cite argue against the rule (you cannot challenge a rule that does not exist, true?)."

Ms. Horch didn't argue. She sent Mr. Keegan's missives to three college professors. When two of the professors sided with Mr. Keegan, she sent Mr. Keegan an e-mail.

"A rescoring is underway . . . as a result of your inquiry. I suspect you're very happy to hear that a number of students' scores will improve as a result of this decision."

Round two

At Mr. Keegan's school, 900 students took the Oct. 15 PSAT. Of those, 203 saw their scores go up.

Mr. Keegan said that he is glad that College Board officials finally admitted they were wrong.

But their rescoring doesn't make things right, he said.

You see, he said, the PSAT awards one point for a correct answer and takes away one-fourth of a point for every wrong answer. So the kids who answered E - no error - got that extra point and got to keep it even though they were wrong. But the kids who colored in the A bubble - who really had the right answer - didn't get a whole point. They just got back the quarter-point they'd lost.

So Mr. Keegan wrote another letter, this time to the executive director of the PSAT. He used bold, underlined, all-caps construction to explain why the corrected scoring method is incorrect. In conclusion, he wrote, "I am stunned that you could not figure this out for yourselves."

He hasn't received a response. He isn't surprised. "But the ETS hasn't heard the last of me," he said.

The big picture

So Mr. Keegan, because I'm writing your story, I have to ask the "what it all means" question, just like you taught us.

I mean, what does it mean to get the Educational Testing Service to overturn one grammar question on one version of the PSAT? To award one extra point to maybe a few hundred thousand high school kids? Was it really worth all your time and intellectual effort?

Mr. Keegan guffawed. Maybe he was thinking he had taught me well, to hammer away with such a tough question, to save it until the end.

Or maybe he was thinking: If she had to ask, she must not get it.

"Was it worth it?" he asked, repeating my question. "Oh," he said. "You don't know."

In the last week, he said, he had received 420 e-mails, plus dozens of phone calls from all over the country.

"Most of the messages have been from former students using this news as a chance to get back in touch. Sort of like you," he said. He paused.

"So how long have you been working at the Times?"

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