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What Does an SAT Score Mean Anymore?


This past Friday, students who took the SAT on November 5th received their scores. That moment when teenagers open their score report has long been one full of anxiety. Now, it seems to torment them even more. That’s because when so many campuses are test-optional, the score has lost a lot of its former meaning. “SAT and ACT scores have long commanded an enormous amount of signaling power for students in the admissions process,” Jeff wrote in a lengthy feature for New York magazine. “The pandemic, and the mass pivot to test optional, has made that test score’s signal much weaker. And even when a student does have a test score, there is much more noise in interpreting it.” The piece was pegged to MIT’s decision last March to require the SAT/ACT for admissions this cycle. Three key takeaways from the story: 1️⃣ MIT is indeed an outlier. Who knows if other highly selective colleges will follow and require the test again at some point in the coming years. (Jeff's take: He doubts it. As one dean at a highly selective university told him, test-optional “gives you more degrees of freedom in selection.”) For now, MIT is mostly alone in requiring the test in part because of how the campus decided to return to the policy. Instead of taking a few years to study current undergrads who enrolled without test scores—as most other colleges are now doing—MIT looked backwards at 20 years of its own data, when the institution used to enroll students with a wider range of math scores in particular. And what they found is that too many students with lower scores—at least by MIT standards—didn’t make it to graduation. —"MIT remains in the minority in its claims about the predictive power of the SAT.” As Stu Schmill, MIT’s admissions dean “pointed out to Jeff repeatedly, MIT’s undergraduate curriculum — its focus on mathematics especially — is unique even among its elite peers.” 2️⃣ Test-optional is rewriting the old rules of admissions. This is particularly true for edge-case students and at less selective colleges and universities, which seem to want to use this moment to bolster the average test scores they report to the public. —“In the spring, Hannah Wolff, a former college counselor at Langley High School, a top-ranked high school in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., heard from admissions counselors at several public universities that a few Langley seniors who were rejected might have been admitted if they had not submitted their SAT scores, which were in the 1350 range. While a 1350 would have been considered a good score in the past at those schools, now, when the only applicants submitting scores are mostly those well above the average, the expectations of admissions officers have risen with the scores — especially for applicants from wealthy academic powerhouses like Langley.” 3️⃣ As a result, there is no good advice—even from counselors and admissions deans. “Two years in, counselors have no idea: What is a good score? Do I submit a score or not? And if so, should all colleges on my list get my score?" —"Even Schmill said he gets those same questions from friends whose children are applying to other colleges. ‘I never had a good answer,” he said. “Like, I have no idea.’” —As Jeff Makris, director of college counseling at Stuyvesant High School in New York said, "'the more we tell [students] what to do, the more we become scapegoats when they don’t get in.’” By the numbers: "While we spoke, Makris pulled up the admissions results for his students going back to 2016. He rattled off a bunch of college names. About the same number of his students get accepted at the usual suspects in the Ivy League now as six years ago, though many more apply too. What might surprise students and parents from a few years ago, however, is the next set of colleges Makris mentioned: Northeastern, Case Western, Boston University, and Binghamton University. In 2016, 298 students applied to Northeastern, and 91 were admitted; last year, applications to the Boston school jumped to 422, but only 49 were admitted. Last year, 129 Stuy students applied to Case Western, about the same number as in 2017, but admits were almost cut in half to 36. In 2016, the acceptance rate for Stuy’s students who applied to Boston University was 43 percent; last year, it was 14 percent." —"Normally, Makris said, about 50 to 75 graduates enroll at Binghamton University, one of the state’s top public universities but a safety school among many Stuy students. This fall, 124 students went there.”

Jeff knew the use of standardized tests in admissions was a polarizing issue from covering higher ed for twenty-five years; but he didn’t realize just how polarizing until he started reporting this story. There is little middle ground: you’re either pro-test or anti-test. And both sides can cite legions of research to back up their cause. Here's a bit of background, much of which ended up on the cutting room floor during editing: The movement against the tests had been accelerating even before the pandemic. The year before, nearly 50 campuses adopted test-optional polices, the “fastest growth spurt ever,” according to the testing-watchdog group FairTest. The pandemic supercharged the test-optional movement, as did the killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, which unleashed a racial reckoning on college campuses nationwide. “If you are in anyway concerned about any type of equity, the SAT isn’t providing you that,” Akil Bello, FairTests’s director of advocacy, told Jeff. “It’s actually moving counter to that.” Bello arrived at this debate from decades of experience inside the test-prep industry. He got his start in 1990, as a proctor for the Princeton Review, watching over teenagers taking practice SAT exams. Since then, he has worked at nearly every level of the multi-billion-dollar industry. Bello told me he’s not anti-testing, per se; he’s just against how ingrained the tests have become in our larger society—the gaming of the exams by test-prep providers; the family court judge in New Jersey refusing to try a 16-year-old accused rapist as an adult in part because had “very high” test scores; Florida providing bonuses to its teachers who themselves had high SAT/ACT scores. Sure, Bello said, a test score is predictive of who will succeed in college, more than simply using high school GPA alone (as the College Board has shown in its research). But the extra validation that a score provides is minimal, according to Bello, when compared to its ultimate cost. On the other side of the testing debate, Jeff spent time with one of its biggest advocates: Charlie Deacon, Georgetown University’s admissions dean since the 1970s. Deacon is unapologetic about his support for the tests. “It’s not politically correct,” he told Jeff. He believes a test score is a necessary benchmark for evaluating applications from high schools with varying degrees of rigor. “It’s not a score cutoff we’re looking for but one that’s high enough that you think, Well, maybe the student can do it,” Deacon said. “We don’t want people coming in for whom that is a real question. The really low test score is a warning signal.”

While reporting the piece, Jeff visited Schmill, MIT’s dean of admission, in Cambridge. Schmill graduated from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1986. After a year helping to design the Chevy Lumina and the Buick Regal, among other cars at General Motors in Detroit, he returned to MIT as the full-time crew coach. He moved to the admissions office in 2003, and like Deacon at Georgetown, his long tenure means he is rarely influenced by what his competitors do. Just like when he originally announced MIT’s decision in March, Schmill wouldn’t share with Jeff any of the data that led to the decision to return to the test. It’s something that critics have seized on in taking aim at MIT. “People are going to either want more or they’re going to draw their own interpretations to fit their narrative,” Schmill says. “I mean, honestly, sharing the data would not change anything.” It's hard to overstate just how different MIT is from even selective universities that it competes with when it comes to test scores. Given the abundance of perfect scores among MIT freshman—especially on the all-important math portion of the tests—evaluating the differences between applicants at MIT is like measuring the speed of Olympic sprinters with just the second hand on your wristwatch. Take, the fall of 2020, the last one where test scores were required, as an example. The middle 50 percent of MIT freshmen that fall scored between 780 and 800 (out of a possible 800) on the SAT’s math section. That means the top 25 percent of the class scored a perfect 800, and the bottom 25 percent scored a 780 or below. Yet none of them score below a 700. According to MIT’s admissions statistics, zero students in the entire 2020 freshman class had below a 700 on the math portion of the SAT. Zero. 👉 Read the entire New York magazine feature on test-optional here.

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