Should you take the ACT or the SAT, and new score policy explanation

After the past few posts on test scores, I’m pretty bored with the subject. Nevertheless, amid reports that ACT scores are down this year (overstated – they’re just down 0.1, and that’s equal to 2006 scores), I hear again the question about whether the SAT or the ACT is better. Before I answer, I’ll remind readers that, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m on the Virginia and DC/Maryland ACT executive boards. I receive no compensation from either testing service.

With that out of the way: For those unfamiliar, the ACT includes science and social science sections, and their writing test is optional. There are a bunch of theories about gender, about students who do better in algebra vs. geometry, and about different learning styles each determining which test you should take. I haven’t found any studies that take a look at the subject, let alone any conclusive findings.

There are very few, if any, competitive institutions left that prefer one test or other. All institutions will use your best score, which brings up a key side point. SAT has introduced new stress into the process with a new score policy. They sent me the explanation below:
“Designed to relieve student stress and improve the test-day experience, this new SAT® score-reporting feature provides students the opportunity to select which scores they send to colleges by test date for the SAT and by individual test for SAT Subject Tests™. Students can send any or all scores to a college on a single report. It will not cost more to send one, multiple or all test scores, and students can easily sign up through the Web.

The new score-reporting feature will launch in Spring 2009 for all students. Starting with the class of 2010, this feature will help lessen the anxiety associated with testing, and allow students to put their best foot forward on test day. For more information on the new score-reporting policy, please click here.”

I don’t think this “will help lessen the anxiety associate with testing.” I think it will lead to students taking more tests, and stressing about which scores to send. I’ve said it before – bad scores are very very very very unlikely to hurt you in the process. Universities want to use your best scores. We realy don’t care if you got there by some kind of test prep help, or practicing, or if you drank a magic potion that gave you mystical “SAT powers”. Better test scores make colleges look better, so we use your best ones, even if you send us dozens.

With most students I ecnourage them to try both the SAT and ACT, and focus on whichever one they feel like they will score best. Some students that know they’re going to schools that aren’t using the writing tests have been showing love for the ACT since you can opt out of taking the writing portion, which sounds good to me.

Regardless, read through the last few posts and their related comments, and keep in mind that the test scores are FAR less important than your academic performance, and that there are schools (Go Mason!) that offer score optional admission paths. And remember to send a thank you to those nice people from the Collegeboard for trying to lessen your stress…right after you finish taking their mandatory writing test. Be seeing you.


Will low SAT or ACT scores ruin my admission?

As simple as the question sounds, it’s hard to answer. As I wrote in the last couple of posts, by and large your test scores are FAR less important than your overall academic records. They do count, however, and usually a lot more than most of the noncognitive factors (essays, recommendations, leadership, etc). Even so, there are a lot of cases where a low score won’t be detriment at all.
To start, keep in mind that there are LOTS of colleges and universities. A low score in one college’s admission process may be pretty high at another, so don’t just assume that your scores are awful becuase your friend Johnny Testtaker is in the 99th percentile. On the other hand, maybe your scores really are in the sumpster, in which case you may want to consider a place that won’t consider your scores.
There are basically three types of institutions that won’t consider your scores:
Open enrollment schools that accept anyone with a high school diploma or the equivalent – this includes most community colleges and quite a few four year publics.
Competitive schools that just don’t use scores ever – these are pretty hard to find.
Competitive schools that offer a score optional process.

A colleague at one of the score optional institutions (I think it was Mike Sexton at Lewis and Clark) suggested that a student should consider score optional programs if you feel your score is not reflective of your past work, and/or predictive of your future work. It is rare that a student would be considered a reasonable candidate for score optional admission if their academic record isn’t very strong. In addition, at Mason (did I mention we are the largest competitive institution in the U.S. to offer a score optional admission process?), we add more weight to the noncognitive factors, especially looking for evidence of leadership and motivation. You can get the details on our program on our score optional admissions page.

You can find lots of other score optional institutions through the Fairtest website, but bear in mind that not all of the schools they list as score optional offer a fully score optional admission process. I know that’s confusing, but it’s a reminder to carefully check the policies at any school where you plan to apply.

So, one more reason not to stress about the tests – they just might not make that big a difference, and you could decide to just ignore them completely! Be seeing you.

P.S. – even as I wrote this post, the Richmond Times Dispatch was printing this story about an increase in ACT test takers in Virginia that mentions Mason’s score optional program. By way of full disclosure, I’m on the executive council for ACT in Virginia and for the DC/Maryland region.

Shameless Plug: Mason students get more awards

A couple years ago our Provost took the unusual step of hiring a full time faculty member whose only job is to help our students obtain academic awards and fellowships. The results have been impressive with students winning more Fullbrights and Truman Scholarships, among others. This is probably another reason Mason rates the highest among universities to watch (I did mention that we were ranked number one in the nation in that category, didn’t I?). Be seeing you.

Can you improve your SAT/ACT score?

Even though I do my best to convince students and families that the standardized tests, the SAT and the ACT, aren’t nearly as important to admission as the media might lead you to believe, I still get begged for advice on how to do better.

Can test prep help? The College Board swore prep courses had no impact, but then they started selling prep services too. (Quick test. This is: a) ironic b) dumb c) confusing d) all of the above.) Students can raise their scores using materials from bookstores or online for low costs, or even free at the library. Those students, however, are self-motivated. They take practice tests and learn strategies. Those of you who are more inclined to log into World of Warcraft instead of cracking the books may want to consider a prep course.

The largest factor in test scores tends to be your stress level. So just RELAX! (According to my totally made up survey, one in five stduents has a complete panic attack during the exam. One in ten has nightmares about forgetting to put on clothes before showing up for the test. Weirdos.) While this may appear really hard to do, bear in mind the information from my last post on the tests: the tests aren’t nearly as important as your academic records, and college want to use your best scores! We really don’t care how many times you take the test. Yes, we might snicker about the student who took the test 20 times (while Collegeboard and ACT are laughing their way to the bank on your wasted test fees), but the truth is that even then we’re going to use the best scores, including mixing up the subscores from different test sittings to get the best possible total. The general data does show that most students have some improvement with taking the test more than once, but that’s a broad average and doesn’t mean you should go all nutty. I usually advise that if you feel you could have done a lot better, it’s worth another sitting, but if you really feel you put in your best, give it a rest.

So you can relax, secure that your academic records are much more important and that if you do lousy you can always do better some other time…and strangely, not worrying may just improve your score.

Also, I think the answer is ‘B’. Other than that, you’re on your own. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Mason in the news

The media attention driven by Mason being ranked as the Number One School to Watch in the Nation reminded me about all the attention Mason faculty receive. I get asked all the time how we get them so much coverage in so many places. The truth is that our faculty (and students) tend to not only be leaders in their field, but also working on relevant issues. Our Mason Gazette provides a list of some of the top faculty quotes, with this week’s edition including The Washington Post, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, and Al-Jazeera. A quick google news search for George Mason University finds, just in the past week, our faculty quoted several more times in The Post, and in The New York Times, Businessweek, The New York Daily News(a great analysis of the presidential race by Dr. Jeremy Mayer!), de Volksrant, The Mail and Guardian, The Independent, and The Washington Times.
I’ve worked at schools where we had huge strategy sessions to try to figure out how to get our faculty placed in the media. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend our time on that at Mason! Be seeing you.

SAT and ACT test use in college admissions

Over the next few days, I’ll try to get to some of the questions that have come in on essays, recommendations, etc. First, however, a bit about how we use the SAT/ACT, mostly repeating myself from a post last November:

All I really remember about taking the SAT is dots. A LOT of dots. I think I tried to fill them in so that they formed a bunny. Unfortunately, this did not lead to a higher score (but also not a terrible one). This started a lifelong suspicion that the SAT may possibly not mean much.

As an admissions officer and education researcher I have carefully examined the data and come to this conclusion: your test scores don’t actually tell us how smart you are. They don’t tell us how clever you are, how creatively you think, how well you dress, how your popularity is unmatched, or how gosh darned cute you can be. The scores just tell us how well you did on that test. Since (what a relief) once you’re in college you won’t have to take the ACT or SAT ever again, they really don’t tell us all that much. There is some predictive value IF we use the scores with your academic information, but even then it’s pretty weak (for those of you obsessed with numbers, check out detailed studies at the Collegeboard, and Fairtest).

So why use them at all? Originally the colleges had a great reason – trying to prove that public school students had as much potential for college as students from elite preparatory schools. This was hard to prove without a test since, as discussed in the last few posts, grades can differ from teacher to teacher, not to mention ranks and GPAs from school to school. The tests are one thing colleges can compare across the board. Then, as applications surged and colleges were looking at THOUSANDS of very similar students, the test scores became an efficiency tool – it’s much easier (and cheaper!) to use a score than to try to figure out a transcript, let alone read all those pesky essays.

Of course, as colleges used the test more and more, students started using the test scores to judge the colleges! It was all well and good for us to turn you into numbers, but we’re still pretty cranky about you turning the tables. This led to a race to see which schools could have the best scores – and here we are.

Fortunately, no matter how many times you take the tests, we’ll use your best scores (that includes using SAT OR ACT – whichever is higher). We’ll even take the best subscores from different times you took the test to get the best possible total. Colleges say they use your best scores because they “care about you.” I, of course, care deeply about each of you (no, really)…but even if I thought you were pretty much a dirt-bag, I would still use your best score because it makes my school look good!

Most admissions officers know the data as well as I do, so they’re well aware that the tests are really weak tools, and that anything under around a 100 point difference is pretty statistically meaningless (for the numbers nuts in the crowd, the best and most impartial analysis I’ve found was done by the National Research Council in Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions. At the same time, admissions officers also recognize that academic records can be pretty subjective, as I detailed in the last few posts, so we’re unlikely to abandon the only standardized measures we have, even knowing the tests’ weaknesses.

Bottom line – very few colleges and universities use a particular score as a “cutoff” – most use the scores in relation to your academic record. Despite the media’s constant focus on the scores, they have been continually diminishing in their importance in admission, while overall the use of academic record, especially “rigor” has greatly increased. I love the media stories on how admissions must be broken when a student with a higher score is denied – usually immediately followed by a story on bias in the tests. The truth is that the scores are increasingly more important to perception of our institutions than to any academic value. At the same time, while they remain secondary by a huge margin to academic records, they are still given far more weight at most institutions than what are usualy called noncognitive factors: essays, recommendations, extracurriculars, etc.

I’ll use the next few posts to share some information on options for the tests – if you can improve your score, schools where you can skip the score all together, the implications of the new ways you can select which scores to send, and the joy (wink) of the writing test. Once I’ve thoroughly tired you of all things relating to standardized testing, I’ll get to the questions on those noncognitive factors. Be seeing you.

Mason is voted #1 the place to be!

I can’t bring myself to label this one a shameless plug. I’ve been sitting on this news for a couple of days, but since they finally put it on their website, it’s time to let loose:

Disclaimer – if you read this blog you already know that I think most of the rankings are not terribly useful, and are basically just ways to sell magazines that should be viewed with a strong skepticism. That being said, every now and then they do get things right, for instance:

US News has their 2009 rankings out (on newstands tomorrow, just up on their website). Since their main rankings are mostly about how much money a school spends (really, it’s a HUGE factor in their ranking – not how they spend money, just how much) they added a very reasonable new feature – what are the schools to watch that don’t make it in their rankings methods. In other words, if you were listing schools that don’t spend gazillions but are still incredible, who would rank? So they made a list.

I think it’s a pretty good list. This will quickly become obvious. Wait for it.

George Mason University is the number one school in the nation.

Of course, it’s just based on the EXPERTS – the admissions deans, provosts, and presidents at other universities (did I vote for us, you ask? You BET I did!) sent in their nominations and that’s just based on opinions. Still, I do think in this case their judgment is incredibly astute.

Also note that College of Charleston, the new home of blog contributor Jimmie Foster, made the top list for the southern region! Congrats!

So, in closing, I’d like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all those deans, provosts, and presidents that clearly recognized the incredble advantages available at George Mason University, and encourage each of you to follow in their wisdom. Now I have to go – its hard to type through my big salty tears of joy. Be seeing you.