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Your SAT score has little to do with your life

[This is my Local Living section column for July 8, 2010.]


I wrote a story several years ago, one of my favorites, about great people who got terrible SAT scores. If you are wallowing in shame over your score in May, and quiver at the thought of taking the SAT again in October, consider the case of Bob Edgar, who got 730 out of a possible 1600. (That would be a 1100 or so on this era’s 2400-point scale.)

“You are not going to get into college,” his high school counselor told him, “and if you do get in, you’re going to flunk out.”

He got into Lycoming College, a fine Williamsport, Penn., school started by Methodists, only because it had promised to admit anybody studying for the ministry. Once enrolled, Edgar immediately displayed leadership skills untested by the College Board. By his sophomore year, he was running a small church. He was later elected to Congress for six terms and is now president and chief executive of Common Cause, the nonpartisan government watchdog organization.

His story buttresses an important fact about the SAT and its equally worrisome counterpart, the ACT. The scores affect where you go to college but have much less influence over how successful you are in life.

Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, studying data on 23,572 students who entered college in 1976, concluded that the character traits students acquire long before they pay their SAT prep-course fees are what determine success in life. The four-digit (or for some three-digit) scores they get on the SAT don’t mean much long term.

There are plenty of examples of this, although confirmation can be difficult. The late Minnesota senator Paul D. Wellstone (D) reportedly got less than 900 on a 1600-point scale SAT. Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (D), a Rhodes Scholar, allegedly scored a 485 on his verbal.

So what? “I don’t know of a single job interview where I was asked what my SAT scores were,” Annandale High School career center specialist Robin Roth told me when I asked about Edgar’s story. (Roth has helped students for many years, even though she got only about a 950 on the old 1600 scale.)

Many colleges are catching on to this. They know that the SAT and the ACT are designed to do nothing more than predict first-year college grades. They also know that high school grade-point averages do that job about as well. So they are admitting students without any SAT or ACT scores at all. Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said: “No test can measure the skills that matter most in life: creativity, perseverance, collaboration, vision, self-discipline and the like.”

But the SAT and the ACT serve one important function. They are useful guides to which colleges are most likely to take you. We already have colleges listed by their states, or their academic strengths, or their ranks on the U.S. News list. Now we need them sorted out by the average SAT and ACT scores of their incoming freshmen. There are great schools at every SAT or ACT level, full of amazing people like Edgar. Check out those in your score zone, and pick the one you like best.

SAT scores should be treated no more seriously than golf handicaps. I am at that age where a once-a-week tour of the links would be good for me. I won’t tell you my SAT score, but my average golf score is about 120. One number is useful for finding the right college. The other can get me placed with the right foursome. What I do with those opportunities is up to me.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page

By Jay Mathews  | July 7, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  former Congressman Bob Edgar (730), former Senator Bill Bradley (485 on the verbal), great people with bad SAT scores, the late Senator Paul Wellstone (under 900), why SATs don't matter in life  
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Comments

Two "thoughts" pop up.
a) Probably tests are not designed to measure a tester's creativity and other qualities. Multiple choices has its limitations (easy for grading tho), theses would be substantial...
b) Quality of life should have positive correlation to one's ability and the level of contribution to a society. Otherwise something is wrong.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | July 7, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

His story buttresses an important fact about the SAT and its equally worrisome counterpart, the ACT. The scores affect where you go to college but have much less influence over how successful you are in life.
..............................
The usual Mr. Mathews article.

SAT scores were intended to indicate how prepared was an individual was for college.

No one marketed the SAT as a crystal ball where the score would tell you how successful in life you would be.

Mr. Mathews has to stop putting up false arguments and then displaying his brilliance in knocking them down.

But then again perhaps Mr. Mathews at one time really did believe that SAT told you how successful you would be life. If so I wonder what Mr. Mathews thinks of Ouija boards.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 7, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Jay:

Higher golf scores are not the goal. If you take less shots, instead of more, you do better and save time.

Posted by: AGAAIA | July 7, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Will UVA please take my child and save me $$ over the TJ kid with higher SAT's and GPA? Thanks.

Posted by: mydchome | July 8, 2010 7:36 AM | Report abuse

bsallamack---you are quite right. The SAT is not marketed as a crystal ball for one's future. But that is the belief that many American teens, and their parents, still have. You should join me in hanging around high schools. You would learn a lot.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 8, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Couldn't you say the same thing about high-stakes multiple choice tests?

Posted by: ilcn | July 8, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I agree with this. My oldest child--the one with the high SAT and ACT scores who took the
AP classes--flunked out of college after one semester. My youngest child--the one who took the SAT twice to get an OK score and who never took any AP classes--graduated college in 4 years with a decent grade point average. There are some things that determine college success that schools ultimately ignore and in many ways actually discourage by attempting to paint all students with the same brush.

Posted by: musiclady | July 8, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

SAT scores were intended to indicate how prepared was an individual was for college.

No one marketed the SAT as a crystal ball where the score would tell you how successful in life you would be.

Posted by: bsallamack

And yet it doesn't even determine how well prepared a person is for college. A study was performed in the 1980's that showed a very low correlation between SAT Math scores and grades received in a freshman level math class. More predictive was the student's score in their previous math class.

So why do we make students take these tests? Because admissions officers at these so-called elite schools are lazy, pure and simple.

Posted by: jamalmstrom | July 8, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Times have changed since Bob Edgar, Bill Bradley and Paul Wellstone applied to colleges 30+, 40+ years ago. I know that I would not be admitted to Georgetown given my SATs back in the 1970's. Competition to gain admission to even "second-tier" state schools has increased dramatically. Unfortunately, college admissions officers use SAT scores to cull through the thousands of applications. It has become a numbers game.

Posted by: mhs11 | July 8, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack---you are quite right. The SAT is not marketed as a crystal ball for one's future. But that is the belief that many American teens, and their parents, still have.

You should join me in hanging around high schools. You would learn a lot.

Posted by: Jay Mathews
................................
As usual you are wrong. As a parent I am aware of what is going on in public high schools.

Parents know that the SAT is an important test for getting their children into college and not a gauge of how successful their child will be in life.

This article as so many of your articles has almost nothing to do with public school education in this country.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

SAT scores were intended to indicate how prepared was an individual was for college.

No one marketed the SAT as a crystal ball where the score would tell you how successful in life you would be.

Posted by: bsallamack

And yet it doesn't even determine how well prepared a person is for college. A study was performed in the 1980's that showed a very low correlation between SAT Math scores and grades received in a freshman level math class. More predictive was the student's score in their previous math class.

So why do we make students take these tests? Because admissions officers at these so-called elite schools are lazy, pure and simple.

Posted by: jamalmstrom
................................
The SAT is not infallible. In the old days there was no such thing as SAT test prep or multiple tests. The tests were used to obtain entrance to public colleges and public universities where there are limits on the number of students that can be accepted.

Today the SAT tests are still important for admission to public colleges and universities.

The SAT is imperfect but it is the only thing that we have for a standardized test for entrance to the limited place in public colleges and universities.

I went to public schools in NYC that today would be the equivalent of Title 1 public schools. After years of an inferior education I was happy to be able to have the SAT as a chance to even the playing field for getting into a public college.

"More predictive was the student's score in their previous math class."

In a lower class public schools you keep your head down. Being smart is asking for trouble just as much as wearing glasses. My old high school in NYC has the distinction of being the only high schools of being totally disbanded because of rampant violence. This was after multiple attempts to deal with the problems.

"Because admissions officers at these so-called elite schools are lazy, pure and simple."

This is a strange idea. Elite schools predominantly take in students on their ability to pay large sums of money. Being in the 90th percentile will get you into a public college but will not get you into an elite school without money.

Most Americans do not like the SAT. The reality is that the SAT is a test of raw intelligence and thank God not a reflection of the public schools that one went to. Score in the 90 percentile or above, and this is a sign of intelligence.

When you entered the Army in 1965 the first thing the Army did was to give you an intelligence test. One could say this was unfair to soldiers that wound up in the infantry but the test allowed the Army to train soldiers in areas that required intelligence.

Life is unfair and tests are imperfect.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Times have changed since Bob Edgar, Bill Bradley and Paul Wellstone applied to colleges 30+, 40+ years ago. I know that I would not be admitted to Georgetown given my SATs back in the 1970's. Competition to gain admission to even "second-tier" state schools has increased dramatically. Unfortunately, college admissions officers use SAT scores to cull through the thousands of applications. It has become a numbers game.

Posted by: mhs11
...........................
Former President George W. Bush probably would not have gotten into a public college or university based upon his SAT scores.

Back in the 1970's college standards were lowered. This was in response to the Vietnam War. Students would badger college teachers for hirer grades by telling teachers that they would be drafter if they received a lower grade.

According to the web:
Georgetown University is a private, Jesuit university.

I seriously doubt that SAT scores are considered as a major criteria for a private, Jesuit university.

I find it fortunate that public schools and public universities are still using SAT scores to a large extent for admission since no one has come up with a fairer method to compensate for the disparities in public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

The SAT and ACT have been around for so long it is shocking how little research has been done on how well the scores predict anything. We do know they are the excuse for excluding poor and minority students. Public Universities should admit in-state students by lottery. If a student graduates from high school they should be eligle for 4 year university. If they dropped out let them enter the lottery at age 18. Higher education should be available for all who want it.

Posted by: suenoir | July 8, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Public Universities should admit in-state students by lottery. If a student graduates from high school they should be eligle for 4 year university. If they dropped out let them enter the lottery at age 18.

Higher education should be available for all who want it.

Posted by: suenoir
................................
"Higher education should be available for all who want it."

It is impossible to have "higher education for all who want it" when you have a lottery. How have you made "available higher education to all who wanted it" for the losers of the lottery?

Colleges of New York City had an open enrollment policy in 1979 for any student that had graduated high school in New York City. I know since I taught in city colleges in 1979.

I spoke to the department head about students I found that were totally unprepared for the class after an exam. The department head told me to advice them to drop the course. I was not expected by the department head to give students unprepared for the class anything but an F if tests indicated this was their grade.

All should have a chance at obtaining the benefits of education. This does not mean that in public education everyone should obtain a high school diploma or a college diploma.

Tests like the SAT are not perfect but they are the only reasonably fair method available when there are limited numbers of students at public colleges and public universities.

I have yet to see Americans crying out that they will be willing to pay more in state taxes so that more students can be accepted or that there should be an open enrollment policy at public colleges and public universities.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Some of our comments are pretty condescending to Jay Matthews and he has been very fair in his responses to us.
We're not his editors and no one is always right.

Although I don't always agree with the Post or Jay, the fact is that Jay and the Washington Post are the best source for education news on the Web and we're lucky that they give us this platform to discuss education policy.

Further, we're lucky that Jay engages in this back-and-fourth with us. I bet there are days when he hates the fact that he has to read our criticisms of his hard work.

bsallamack:
You an the parents you know must be pretty savvy to "know that the SAT is an important test for getting their children into college and not a gauge of how successful their child will be in life." I grew up in the 1980's and I will tell you that this notion of the SAT being a predictor of success in life is pervasive in the mythology of our culture. Here's the logic that's perpetuated in pop culture and to a large extent schools as well: college equals success in life, SAT's have had and still do have a significant influence on your acceptance to college therefore the SAT is an indicator of how much success you will have in life. It's not articulated explicitly as such, but this is the implicit mythology that Jay is trying to dispel with this piece.

Posted by: stevendphoto | July 8, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I have no use for the SAT or any standardized tests. I took the SAT twice. I got a whopping 800 (this was in the early 1980's). My high school counselor told my parents that was a total failure. Despite my dismal scores, I managed to get into a small, Catholic university. I was an average student and graduated in 4 years. What happened to valedictorian of my class, with the AP classes, 1600 SAT score and off the charts gpa? He flunked out of college his first semester.
Case closed.

Posted by: kodonivan | July 8, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't make for reading that will keep anyone from sleeping but last year's "Crossing the Finish Line", on college completion at mostly selective private and public universities (Bowen, Chingo, MacPherson and uncredited cast of a dozen data analysts / statisticians) fully supports the small role of SAT scores in marginal prediction of university completion and very successful university completion. That would be in comparison to and after accounting for HS grades.
You would be surprised at how furious some principals who claim belief in accountability are when their teaching staff still -- in this time of beating on teachers -- lets students know how poor their work is, signaling that fact with accurate grades.

Give the blogger credit for independence from the financial interests of WaPo Corp's greatest profit center, Kaplan Testing.

Posted by: incredulous | July 8, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

My thanks to stevendphoto for his kind defense of my ego and self esteem, but as hard as it is to believe, i really like getting beat up by smart readers. It gets my heart started in the morning, increasingly an important matter to me, and helps me think through what I know from a different perspective. It is fun to argue, at least for me, as long as we maintain the respectful attitudes that I find almost universal on this blog, even when we are tough with each other. And there are those extremely rare occasions when I am wrong, and readers lead me to the light. Those are probably the most important moments for me and my long term usefulness, but I still try to repress the memory of them.

My thanks to incredulous for noting that I am trashing Kaplan's bread and butter, the SAT, but don't let the people on the corporate floor at 1150 - 15th St. NW see yr good comment.

And finally to all who say you can't get into college with scores this low anymore---you can!! About 70 percent of colleges take just about anybody except those with severe problems that would clearly make college work beyond them. In those cases, if the kid has an okay GPA and a letter from a teacher saying he always works hard enough to learn, then they will ignore the SAT. Only the schools at the very tip top, the ones ranked by US News, need to worry that bad SAT averages might affect their status.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 8, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

Maybe you have covered this before, but are those tip-top colleges you mention worth it as far as getting jobs and good salaries? You know how the Supreme Court people are all Ivy league and apparently the Presidents are also the way? Is it that way for all jobs, do you think?

Posted by: celestun100 | July 8, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack:
You an the parents you know must be pretty savvy to "know that the SAT is an important test for getting their children into college and not a gauge of how successful their child will be in life." I grew up in the 1980's and I will tell you that this notion of the SAT being a predictor of success in life is pervasive in the mythology of our culture. Here's the logic that's perpetuated in pop culture and to a large extent schools as well: college equals success in life, SAT's have had and still do have a significant influence on your acceptance to college therefore the SAT is an indicator of how much success you will have in life. It's not articulated explicitly as such, but this is the implicit mythology that Jay is trying to dispel with this piece.

Posted by: stevendphoto
.....................................
I guess being in the lower classes I never heard of these myths about the SAT.

You knew that you had to get into college or your life would be one of drudgery.

I took a test in the sixth grade that indicated that my reading was on a college grade level.

This did not mean anything since I simply went to the equivalent of Title 1 public schools.

I did skip a grade but it is questionable whether this was an advantage or a disadvantage.

The parent I meet know that it better for their children to be able to college instead of their children not going to college, and I have never met a parent that believed high scores on the SAT meant success in life. I have met parents that were concerned about low scores.

This is not England or France where getting high scores on exams are indicators of success since you are admitted to selected schools.

I do admit that I believe in the myth that coming from a wealthy family is an indicator of how much success an individual will have in life even if the individual has low SAT scores.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

I have no use for the SAT or any standardized tests. I took the SAT twice. I got a whopping 800 (this was in the early 1980's). My high school counselor told my parents that was a total failure. Despite my dismal scores, I managed to get into a small, Catholic university. I was an average student and graduated in 4 years. What happened to valedictorian of my class, with the AP classes, 1600 SAT score and off the charts gpa? He flunked out of college his first semester.
Case closed.

Posted by: kodonivan
.................................
Good to see the someone got the point of Mr. Mathews article.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 8, 2010 10:03 PM | Report abuse

It's not that high SAT scores guarantee high performance in college or in life. It's that low or very low scores indicate that the student will struggle or fail at a challenging college. In addition, because of grade inflation and the extreme difficulty (for admissions officers) of figuring out what high grades actually mean at the different high schools from which they get applications, the mantra that "grades are a better predictor of performance in college" only means that, of students from the same high school, the ones with higher grades will do better.

Posted by: jane100000 | July 9, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

This article by Jay makes pretty good sense until the last several paragraphs. And then, it loses credibility.

Jay Mathews says that colleges know that the Sat and ACT "predict first-year college grades." But the fact is, they are very poor at doing so. The ACT, according to the ACT's own studies, predicts about 17% of the variance in freshman year college grades. The SAT, depending on the study one consults, accurately predicts from 3% to 14% of the variance in freshman year grades. And after that, they don't predict anything at all.

As one college enrollment consultant said, we may as well use shoe size.

The very BEST predictor of college success, bar none, is the UNweighted high school grade point average. For more on this, see the Geiser and Santelices University of California study, or Google "The Best Class Money Can Buy," by Matthew Quirk.

Many people think the SAT is a measure of intelligence or aptitude or ability. It is not (although it did emerge from the early years of intelligence testing in this country). And, the very best predictor of SAT score is family income.

This is what the colleges are really after. They want students who can pay the tuition bills that are left after financial aid and grants are awarded; as a result, those who need financial aid most tend to get the least of it and those who need aid the least are getting more. And, the colleges like to brag about the high SAT scores of their incoming freshmen....they may as well just come out and brag about the incoming freshman class' upper middle class pedigree.

A golf handicap is a relatively decent measure of one's golfing ability. It helps to determine a certain degree of fairness on the course.

But the SAT, increasingly, is an obstacle to fairness in higher education. It tends to exclude middle and lower income students from the financial aid they may need to attend the "top" colleges and universities.

It's about time that education reporters told the truth about the SAT. And it's about time that colleges and universities weaned themselves form it.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | July 9, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Viewing the SAT as a Challenge and National Indicator

As a Math peak performance coach, I have found that studying for the SAT can be challenging and entertaining while promoting brain fitness at any age. Although I graduated from college in 19XX, I took the SAT in 2009 to gain perspective, to have fun, and to boost mental fitness. I learned much reading and grammar while studying last summer.

Some fields of study use the SAT as a measure of being able to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Engineering schools want high Math scores (to follow along with profs who write a dozen equations on the board); likewise, journalism schools want high verbal scores.

The SAT is important because there is no national standard of high school curriculum or a national exit exam. While the Core Standards have been in the works, the existing standard could be the SAT (or ACT or GED) as a unifier for a reasonable body of knowledge. http://www.corestandards.org/.
The GED is a formidable exam -- only 60% of high school graduates could pass the GED http://www.acenet.edu/Content/NavigationMenu/ged/etp/score.htm

If people could view the SAT like a marathon, it would give mental fitness a boost!! Test taking/studying just makes you smart just like working out makes you physically fit.

Try the free SAT Question of the Day!!
http://sat.collegeboard.com/practice/sat-question-of-the-day

Robin Schwartz
Author, Build Math Confidence e-newsletter
www.mathconfidence.com

Posted by: mathconfidence | July 9, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

I like mathconfidence's practice. If more teachers, parents and principals were required to biennially take the SAT, they'd think differently of it and more would catch themselves from labeling kids with their test scores.

But, consider the evolutionary biologists' (EB) inference from fitness, different than mathconfidence's implication about physical fitness : EBs just mean readiness to do well (and propogate) in an environment. The best reason for non hunter-gatherers to be physically fit is intrinsic, unless they will get ahead in competition, wish to be comfortable with peers at that fitness level, or wish to take advantage of Thaler's nudge-effect of competition to be happier yet. Other effects of physical fitness, including those on health, are "baby Mozart" small.
-----------------

What JM does not take up here is the PSAT, used / sold / or encouraged as a predictor of the SAT. Let's face it, the College Board has no disincentive to sell this product; and I wonder without doing a search to fill my ignorance, how all the early HS students and their teachers in the Midwest-- using the ACT --, get by without a test to predict the later pre-college instrument's score!!

My point in bring up the PSAT is that whether or not it is intrinsically culturally biased, it is developmentally biased, and yet is increasingly used as a generalized ability test to identify candidates for such academic experiences as honors, AP prep, and AP courses. This is harmful because grade-level students as children, including linguistically and culturally isolated ones who are not culturally adept --especially in the language of the SAT verbal and writing sections-- do not do well on the PSAT, and are either labeled or may label themselves as "not smart enough" or not as capable as classmates.

To leave the inflammatory of language background out of this, the PSAT serves as something like a one hour swimming speed / capability test for early adolescents including those who have been taking swim lessons from age 8 and those who have never attemted to cross a pool without primary concern for survival. It is just NOT possible to estimate what swimming speed and facility could be for most of those of college-entry age without exposing all the students to the several-times per week swimming instruction and practice that relatively few HS students have anymore experienced. And, that's what HS is for.

The tie-back in this last observation is "mathconfidence'"s practice and my first paragraph, above. Neither the SAT nor PSAT should disqualify students who have limited experience with language and argument typical of top-flight, barely footnote-free, editorial and op-ed page writing. I fear that too often, and especially as the PSAT is being pushed down to HS freshman with fee-waiver subsidies, as warm-up, that it screens out students who have been children or who have not been part of the culture that is promoted in blogs such as this one.

Posted by: incredulous | July 10, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Thank you incredulous for your comments.

You are right - I am using a modern definition of physical fitness as historically it was much harder to be overweight (due to lack of food) so plumpness was viewed positively -- my grandmother loved to feed us!!

Actual prior PSATs are $3 each and are good practice as well as an indicator of academic expectations. Since there are no national learning standards nor exit exam, the PSAT may be a check for what students are learning. By reverse engineering and teaching what is on the PSAT/SAT, students can gain content exposure, build confidence, increase their interest and commitment to education and get smarter!! (This is in addition to any score improvement).

The SAT and PSAT can be overused but students and teachers and parents would benefit from using the available free resources from the College Board and also perhaps taking the test!! When I went to the room for the SAT, a student asked me if I was the proctor (I am 40-something!) and I said "No, I'm taking the test!"

Another consideration is that college is not for all and that we need to make sure that those with a high school education can be knowledgeable and employable citizens.


Posted by: mathconfidence | July 11, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that both mathconfidence and incredulous believe that the PSAT and the SAT are tied to the high school curriculum....indeed, there are real estate agents who use those scores as an indicator of (1) how well students are being taught and (2) of how "good" the school is. Neither is true.

Incredulous is right the the College Board will not give up selling the PSAT. In fact, the College Board sells scores to colleges and universities who then send out tens and tens of thousands of solicitation letters to "promising" students. And then many of those students apply to those same schools; and many, many get rejected. And the schools keep the application fees (some students are screened out quite fast on the basis of their SAT scores), and use the acceptance/rejection ratio (what US News & World Report refers to as the school's "selectivity") as a measure of that school's "quality."

The College Board even says the PSAT predicts AP scores....but read the research report and it's smoke & mirrors.

If mathconfidence wants to spend time "studying" for the SAT, well, it's a free country. But mental acuity is better achieved by reading, and thinking and linking new information to that which one already has....and by asking questions.

I'd suggest reading and thinking about:
a. "The Best Class Money Can Buy, by Matthew Quirk; and

b. "The Big Test," by Nicholas Lemann

Posted by: mcrockett1 | July 13, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

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