New SAT Scores Sow Confusion Over How to Tell a Good Result

The Washington Post
September 26, 2017

By Nick Anderson

The perfect score of yore - 1600 - is back and just as impressive as ever. But many students could be forgiven these days for puzzling over whether their own SAT scores are good, great or merely okay.

The first national report on the revised SAT shows the confusion that results when a familiar device for sorting college-bound students is recalibrated and scores on the admission test suddenly look a bit better than they actually are.

The average score for the high school class of 2017, according to data the College Board released Tuesday, was a combined 1060 out of 1600: 533 for reading and writing, and 527 for math.

The averages for previous classes, going back a decade, hovered closer to the midpoint of 500 on each portion of the test. But those results came from a different test in a different era, with three separate sections for reading, writing and math, and a maximum score of 2400.

Last year, the College Board eliminated the notorious guessing penalty on the SAT, jettisoned some tricky vocabulary and took other steps, hoping to make the test a more straightforward measure of achievement. The board also returned the top score to the iconic number parents and grandparents remember: 1600.

What resulted were apparently higher marks. But that doesn't necessarily mean students are smarter. This year's high school graduates were subjected to the ensuing SAT-score whiplash.

Brian Keyes, 18, who graduated in June from Wilson High School in the District, said he took the old SAT in fall 2015 and got a combined 1990 on the three sections. He said he took the new version when it debuted in March 2016 and scored 1410.

So which was better - his first score, averaging roughly 660 per section? Or the second, averaging about 40 points higher?

The College Board has published a conversion chart allowing for comparisons. It shows that the scores Keyes obtained were almost equivalent. Keyes, who learned that after asking around, said he tried not to stress about it. His attitude: "I'll try my best. I'm a good student, a hard worker. I'll be fine wherever I go." He wound up at the prestigious University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Inevitably, some students and parents misinterpret the new scores. They forget that a 1300 now doesn't mean what it once did. (The conversion chart suggests that a comparable "old SAT" score on a 1600-point scale would be 1230.)

"I try to politely explain that the goal posts have moved," said Steven Roy Goodman, a college admission consultant in Washington. He said he compliments students when they tell him about a seemingly high score. But he points out that the scale has changed.

"My job is also to put that score in context with what is likely to be the national competition and the international competition that student is about to face," Goodman said. "I call it encouragement and reality at the same time."

The College Board discourages comparisons, calling this year's results a new baseline.

David Coleman, president of the College Board, acknowledged that the transition has caused misunderstandings. "By next year, we'll turn the page and this period of some confusion will be over," he said.

The New York nonprofit is in fierce competition for leadership in testing with Iowa-based ACT. In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time to become the most widely used college admission test. But in the Washington region and in many cities and states, the SAT remains dominant.

The College Board points to its popular PSAT/NMSQT and Advanced Placement testing programs, as well as a partnership with the Khan Academy to provide free online tutoring, as it seeks to rejuvenate the SAT brand.

About 1.8 million students in this year's class took the SAT, the vast majority using the new version. Male students averaged 22 points higher in math on the new test (538) than females (516), following a historic pattern. Female students averaged 2 points higher in reading and writing than males (534 to 532). Students whose parents hold a bachelor's degree fared better (1118 average combined) than those whose parents had only a high school diploma (1003 average).

James Murphy, director of national outreach for the test preparation company Princeton Review, said an analysis using the College Board's conversion chart shows that this year's SAT scores actually slid slightly. He said that probably reflects a broader testing pool. "It means that more students are taking the steps needed to get into a four-year college," Murphy said.

Critics of standardized testing call the SAT and the ACT overrated. They say grades and course rigor are a better guide to student potential. The new SAT is "a marketing ploy designed to sell more tests," said Bob Schaeffer of the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, "not a better tool for tracking college readiness."

In recent years, numerous universities have dropped or scaled back testing requirements, including Wake Forest, Brandeis, American and George Washington. "The best predictor of success for our students was their performance in high school," Laurie Koehler, vice provost for enrollment management and retention at GWU, said this month at a college admission conference in Boston. "It's not rocket science." Going test-optional in 2015, she said, enabled the university to diversify its applicant pool without sacrificing quality.

But most highly selective schools continue to require an ACT or SAT score. Admission chiefs at those schools say they find the scores useful as they look at the entirety of an applicant's record.

Knowing this, generations of high school juniors and seniors have sweated over their scores.

"I was definitely nervous at first," said Alex Davis, 18, who graduated this year from Washington Latin Public Charter School in the District. He took the new SAT for the first time in March 2016. "We were kind of the guinea pigs and didn't know what to expect."

He said he was not satisfied with the result: 1180.

The next time, he took a test-preparation class through his school. Davis said he took the SAT again in October and got a 1220. He fretted about that score, too.

"Test scores can have a dramatic effect on how you view yourself academically," Davis said. He had gotten straight A's in high school and believed he could have or should have scored 100 or 200 points higher.

His mother worried, too. "It just is a tremendous amount of stress," said Shan Davis. "If you don't do well at taking tests, but you're an A student, then where does that leave you?"

But she and her son had faith that what really defined him was his academic record and his participation in activities such as lacrosse, the school newspaper and Model United Nations. He applied to and got into excellent schools.

Davis is now a freshman at Cornell University, aiming for a double major in classics and government.

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