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.

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One Response

  1. Wonderful to hear! I spend a lot of my time telling students that they need to focus on GPA first and foremost. The tests are important, but aren’t the make or break facet that most students and parents think they are!

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