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Thursday, September 17, 2009

10 Things College Admissions Tests Don't Do

Smart Money Magazine
published: September 9, 2009

1. "We don't measure what you think we do."
IN 1926, THE College Board created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and standardized college-admissions testing was here to stay. The American College Testing Program followed suit in 1959 with the ACT. Today 89 percent of schools use these two tests in the admissions process, according to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But what do they measure? Both the SAT, which has three sections scored from 200 to 800 each, and the ACT, scored from one to 36, have narrowed their claims. These tests are no longer said to measure intelligence; rather, research indicates they reliably forecast how well students perform in their first year of college. But there are better indicators, says Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, such as class rank and GPA. So why are these tests popular? Convenience for admissions officers, says Robert Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who argues standardized tests get misused. It's less expensive and time consuming but "less fair to students," he says. The College Board says it offers guidelines on appropriate uses of test results but doesn't control their usage.

2. "We score on a curve."
SAT RESULTS USED to mean scores in the traditional 200 to 800 range for each section of the test, a scale that depended in part on the performance of other students. Today's test taker still gets these, but she also receives her "raw scores," which directly reflect the number of questions she got right and wrong.

A big improvement, say many students and their harried parents-until you learn that it's the original 200 to 800 scores that really matter as far as most admissions officers are concerned.

How does scaled scoring work? The College Board says that a missed question typically means a debit of 20 points. But the higher a student's score overall, the more missed questions will weigh, says Leslie Lukin, director of Assessment and Evaluation at Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska. No small thing, given that more than 20 percent of schools impose minimum scores for admission, and studies indicate that even a 10- or 20-point difference can significantly improve one's chances at more than a third of colleges, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Indeed, says Fitzsimmons, these tests can be "a very blunt instrument."

3. "You don't have to be Shakespeare to ace the essay."
IN 2005, THE College Board unveiled an updated SAT, designed to restore the test as a measure of ability in at least one area. The main new feature: a 25-minute essay. But it hasn't exactly impressed some admissions officers. "We don't think it's a measure of anything that's supportive of a student's writing ability," says Ann Bowe McDermott, director of admissions at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

When the test was released, the College Board said the writing section "sends a loud and clear message that strong writing is essential to success in college and beyond." But critics like Robert Yagelski, associate professor of English education at SUNY Albany, disagree, saying the essay section "misunderstands what makes effective writing." One problem is that scoring focuses on organization and tends to ignore factual errors. "It's taking a step away from how students need to write in college," Yagelski says. A College Board spokesperson says the essay "very effectively measures students' writing skills and, in particular, their ability to write concisely, coherently and quickly."

4. "You can game the system."
THERE HAS ALWAYS been concern about the legitimacy of the SAT and ACT-which is why the College Board and ACT Inc. frequently tweak the tests, then put out new studies reconfirming their validity. One factor experts use to determine whether a standardized test is legitimate is its vulnerability to gaming techniques. "If you can take shortcuts to do better, then it's a bad test design," says Mark Reckase, an education professor at Michigan State University; studying subject matter is the only thing that should help improve a score.

But according to the $2 billion test-prep industry, performance on the SAT and ACT can be improved with tips and tricks. "We don't pretend to teach students a lot academically," says Ed Carroll, an executive director at The Princeton Review. "Taking tests is a skill that can be developed, like playing a guitar or tennis." A study by the NACAC supports his claims; it found this type of test prep could add roughly 30 points to a score, or 5 percent per section. A common suggestion: Skip a question if you're unsure of the answer, since it won't count against you. However, if you can eliminate at least one answer, then the odds of guessing correctly shift in your favor.

5. "The practice test is more stressful than the real one."
BEFORE THE test-prep industry took off, the only real way to prepare for the SAT was to take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, which debuted in 1959 to offer students a "low stakes" practice version of the pressure-filled admissions test, says Glenn Milewski, executive director of the PSAT at the College Board.

But in 1971, the stakes suddenly got a lot higher for high school kids taking the PSAT. That's when the College Board teamed up with the National Merit Scholarship Corp., which doles out $36 million in scholarships annually to high school students, and renamed the test the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The crux of the relationship: The College Board allows the NMSC to use the test as a way of narrowing the field of potential scholarship recipients based on score. Before the NMSC will even glance at GPA, class rank or any other measure of a student's merit, it looks at results of the PSAT-which can be taken for the National Merit Scholarship competition only once. "We're not saying we get every great student who's out there," says a spokesperson for the NMSC.

6. "Our side business is selling your data."
AFTER MATEI ALEXIANU took the PSAT in his sophomore year, test scores weren't the only thing that showed up in his mailbox. Soon the 17-year-old high school senior from Spokane, Wash., was getting postcards, letters and brochures from colleges-"a whole bunch of junk," he says. The reason for the blitz? He had opted in for the College Board's Student Search Service, which allows colleges to contact you.

Selling your info is just one added way testing services bring in money, says Harry Henry, vice president of Outsell Inc., an education research company. Schools pay the College Board 32 cents a name and ACT 31 cents for address, gender, date of birth, e-mail and other such data. "They're selling the information you paid to give them," says Schaeffer. A spokesperson for the College Board says students don't pay to participate in this elective, opt-in service. Nonprofit ACT says the program "is used to improve our products and services and keep their cost to students as low as possible." Alexianu says when he retook the PSAT/NMSQT junior year, he chose not to opt in. "I already know the schools I'll be applying to," he says.

7. "There's no point in taking both tests."
WHEN IT CAME TO deciding which test to take for college admissions, the decision used to be easy-it depended on where you lived. The SAT has always been more popular on the East and West Coasts, while the ACT has been the admissions test of choice for the Midwest. But now, with the vast majority of colleges accepting both, students can choose. And since admissions officers generally don't give extra weight to one or the other, there's no good reason to take both, says Molly Baab, director of StudentEdge, an online test-prep service.

So how to decide which one to take? Baab suggests taking both tests at home, using versions found online (for the SAT, free at; for the ACT, free with a $20 annual test-prep program fee at, then see how you did on each. Some other factors: For students who get stressed by short, timed intervals, the ACT might be better since it's divided into five sections, half the SAT's 10. The ACT also has a science section-if that isn't your thing, go with the SAT.

8. "We've been known to make mistakes."
THERE IS ENOUGH pressure on high school students who take the SAT without their having to worry that their test isn't being scored properly. But unfortunately, just as students slip up sometimes and fill in the wrong answer, Pearson Education, the third-party company that scores the SAT, can make mistakes too-as more than 4,000 students who took the test in October 2005 can attest.

Heavy rain in transit caused wet answer sheets to expand; as a result, some scores were off by as much as 300 points. Exacerbating the problem, affected students weren't informed of scoring errors until five months later, enough time to derail admissions-which is what some students alleged in a class- action lawsuit filed in federal court in Minnesota in 2006 against Pearson and the College Board. The suit was partially settled out of court; students had the option of receiving $275 in damages or submitting a claim for more money, which some have done, according to Joe Snodgrass, an attorney at Larson King, the firm representing the students.

(A spokesperson says the College Board is taking steps in quality control to ensure it doesn't happen again; Pearson had no comment.)

The College Board offers a $50 Score Verification service for those surprised by their score. The fee covers the cost of regrading by hand, says a College Board spokesperson. But even The College Board is skeptical about the service; the PSAT's Milewski, who hasn't heard of a score being changed through Score Verification, says he wouldn't recommend it. If a scoring error is found, the fee is refunded.

9. "We cost more than you think."
BOTH THE COLLEGE Board and ACT recommend taking their tests twice for optimum results-that's around $90 for two go-arounds, not counting test preparation, which can run anywhere from $100 to over $1,000 for tutoring and other approaches. But for many, these costs get compounded by additional fees.

For example, if you miss one of the seven registration dates for the SAT, it will run you about $20 more to register. If an emergency comes up on test day and you need to reschedule or change the location, that's another $20. Want to apply to more than four colleges? The College Board and ACT both charge about $9 for each additional college a score report is sent to after the fourth one. The one safe haven from all this nickel-and-diming: Checking your scores online is free.

10. "We're becoming obsolete."
THE BIG NEWS for the nearly 3 million high school students who take the SAT and the ACT every year is that these tests may start carrying less weight than they used to. The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently recommended that colleges and universities deemphasize the importance of standardized tests unless there was proof these scores predicted college grades and graduation rates, according to Harvard's Fitzsimmons. So far, there are more than 800 test-optional schools, which don't penalize applicants for not including an SAT or ACT score. Instead, high school GPA, class rank and Advanced Placement courses are given more weight in the admissions process.

Of course, the reasons for going test-optional aren't all altruistic on the part of the schools, says Jack Maguire, chairman of educational consulting company Maguire Associates. Since the test-optional schools are more likely to have students submit scores only if they're high, the optional route can raise a school's average test score, Maguire says, boosting its reputation. Still, going test-optional should lead to a more diverse class population, Maguire says, "one that's more representative of society."

by Jason Kephart

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