Why the SAT’s just may be all that


A couple of days ago I was ranting about how little the SAT’s matter, and all the reasons they end up being used anyway, leading to some questions about how they DO get used. There are three basic uses in admissions – unfortunately only one has any statistical validity, and even that can be pretty suspect.

Perhaps the worst use of standardized test scores happens when colleges set a minimum score for admission or scholarship. This is commonly called having a “cut-off” score. The practice is so widely understood to be a lousy practice that even the schools that do so generally won’t admit it. These institutions may not even bother to have a human review any applicants with scores below some set level. Unfortunately, those minimum scores tend to be very arbitrary, at least from a data standpoint. Test scores have fairly wide standard deviations, and only gain what little predictive strength they might have when used in conjunction with academic records. In other words, using them by themselves, which is what schools are inherently doing when they use a cut off, is entirely unjustifiable from an educational standpoint.

Another way that colleges use the scores unreasonably is to use very small score differences to pick among candidates. As I mentioned before, this is a big time saver, but using tiny score changes to decide between applicants has no statistical validity. Conveniently, evidence that this is a terrible use of scores AND that it goes on anyhow is detailed in a new report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, so it’s not just my paranoid delusions (my therapist will be SO relieved). As mentioned in the report, this is a huge boon to the testing industry (motto: you are your scores – and you can afford to be better!), and obviously advantages anyone with the cash.

Probably the best use of scores is as a comparison point with applicants’ academic records, and this is most helpful when a student has demonstrated some academic potential suitable for the school and has even stronger test scores. There is some (SOME, not much) evidence that in some cases this can work in reverse – that students with reasonable academic records for a particular school but weaker test scores might be less likely to succeed. (I’ve found in my own research, however, that academic performance in college of applicants with really strong high school records doesn’t change with test scores, at least at Mason. More on that soon).

Bear in mind the information I posted a few days ago – the reality that the first two are statistically invalid doesn’t mean even very reputable schools won’t use them in these ways. Admissions offices are just as, if not more, likely to be using them for marketing purposes and/or to save time as they are to be using them as valid evaluative tools.

All that being said, the scores are still WAY less important than the media, or eve the report cited above, would tend to lead families to believe. In every survey and study conducted on the subject, high school academic records (for freshman) and college academic records (for transfers) are WAY (WAY WAY WAY) more important in admissions decisions than test scores. Way. Be seeing you.

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks, this was really helpful! I am a rising senior getting ready to apply to college and this was an awesome article. I really appreciate it.

  2. I have been reading a couple of your articles and they are indeed extremely helpful. Thank you very much for taking the time to post such amazing and insightful articles.

  3. For students who did bad their first year of high school, the SAT’s are a good way of showing what they are capable of. The standardized test is certainly getting much criticism, especially as of late. But for students like me who performed poorly in the beginning of high school (Thus making GPA look pretty mediocre), the SAT’s are a great tool. Of course, it depends on how much credibility is given to the SAT. Personally I think it’s a good wat to create a standard among incoming students, since we all come from vastly different high schools.

    PS – Great blog, and very informative posts!

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