The recent announcement by the College Board, the owner of the SAT test, to allow students who take the test two or more times to submit individual scores to the colleges to which they apply, will have absolutely no effect on the way colleges evaluate applicants.
As reported in the LA Times, the College Board is adopting the same policy of the ACT, which has always allowed students to decide which set of scores to submit with their application.
Some are wringing their hands about this decision. And it is clear that one of the primary motivations behind the College Board’s decision is based on market competition: the ACT has been gaining in popularity. College Board wants to maintain its market share in a marketplace in which students have a choice as to where to spend their test-taking dollar.
Students and parents will welcome the decision: they will perceive that they have more control over their own destiny if they are allowed to choose which scores to submit. But the fact is that nothing will really change.
The reason this decision will have no real impact is that colleges already use the highest scores submitted in evaluating applicants. When a student submits multiple scores on either the SAT or the ACT, colleges have an incentive to report the highest scores submitted. Colleges appear more selective when they report the high scores: higher scores move colleges up in the various rankings created by US News & World Report and other media organizations (as well as the government’s National Center for Education Statistics).
So in my travels and in my discussions with admissions officers, nearly all have told me that they cherry pick scores, even going so far as to recalculate composite scores for the ACT. (Neither the ACT nor the SAT will allow students to cherry individual scores on the various sections of each test–but I predict that day will come). Armed with prodigious computing power, admissions offices everywhere give their applicants the benefit of the doubt because the colleges themselves want to report out the highest scores possible. High scores make everyone look good.
If there is any real downside to the College Board’s decision, it is the one voiced by Bruce Poch, the director of admission at Pomona College. As with so much in life, the advantage goes to wealthier students who can take these test multiple times and who can afford pricey prep courses and tutors.
But even in this area, the advantage is not so huge and is sometimes a matter of choice. First off, only about 15% of students take standardized tests three times or more, and research indicates that there is no statistical gain in scores for students who are serial test takers.
In addition, students of limited means can apply for fee waivers for these tests. Moreover, some motivated students will do whatever it takes to compete for a place at a selective college.
For example, I am working with a first-generation Latino student on a pro bono basis who has decided to spend some of the money he makes as a busboy at a local restaurant on a tutor and on test fees. He is very ambitious, and will do whatever it takes to give himself the best shot possible.
Perhaps this student should apply to Pomona?
At any rate, the College Board’s decision will be popular with the people who matter most to the College Board: the consumers of standardized testing services. If students and their parents perceive that this is a good decision that will allow them more control in the admissions process, then College Board can maintain its market share.
As Deep Throat said to Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate investigation: “Follow the money.” This decision, like so many in the world of college admission, is about economics–not about lofty ideals.
And I’m okay with that.
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