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Posted at 12:02 PM ET, 03/ 8/2010

Choosing ACT, SAT scores to send to colleges: A good idea?

By Valerie Strauss

High school students taking the SAT college admissions exam more than once now have the option of picking the scores they choose to send to colleges. The question is whether “Score Choice,” a new program by the College Board, is a good idea.

Many thousands of kids will be taking the SAT this Saturday, and some still don't know about the new policy announced last year by the College Board, which administers the SAT. In announcing the new policy, the board said it was designed “to reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience.”

Instead of automatically having all scores sent each time the SAT is taken, a student can decide which results should be sent. The ACT, the other major college admissions exam, which has been gaining ground on the SAT over the past decade, has long had a de facto choice policy.

The College Board says it doesn’t tell colleges whether a student has picked which scores to send. Knowing that a lousy showing doesn’t necessarily have to be sent is supposed to ease student stress.

And, perhaps, it would, if every college adhered to the policy.

But they don’t. In fact, hundreds of colleges and universities, including some of the most highly selective, want all the scores sent.

Besides (and this is really important), many schools have long had a policy of looking at the highest score for each section of the tests when they review an application. That means that a student could actually be doing themselves a disservice by picking only one score.

Rick Bischoff, vice president of enrollment management at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve Universitysaid his school (like many) uses each student's best scores in evaluating an application. He said he also worried that Score Choice "focuses more attention on test scores in the admissions process than is warranted."

"Students’ time could be spent in more productive ways than strategizing over which test scores they should be sending and how many times they should be taking the SAT," he said.

There also has been criticism of the practice of choosing which SAT or ACT scores to send to colleges as an unfair advantage for those kids who can afford to take the tests more than once.

That may be so, if kids are able to dramatically raise their scores on successive tests.

There has long been an argument about how effective test preparation is in raising college admissions scores. [Disclosure: The Washington Post Company owns Kaplan, an education company that includes test prep in its programs.]

The National Association for College Admission Counseling released a report last year saying that academic research suggests average gains as a result of commercial test preparation are about 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT. (The folks behind the College Board and the ACT say test prep doesn’t really work for their tests.)

The report also notes, however, that even marginal improvements can sometimes mean the difference between admissions and denial--and said that more research needs to be done on different types of test preparation.

I’ve spoken with a number of test prep providers, and students who have undertaken intensive test prep over months. Some have indeed seen their scores go up a little--but some have risen a great deal.

So what’s the bottom line?

College admissions experts say this:

Check the policy of the schools in which you or your child are interested to see if score selection is even an option. If it is, be very careful about using it. For most students, it is likely that letting schools see multiple test scores will be most beneficial--unless there is one time in which the scores rocked on every section.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 8, 2010; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  ACT, SAT, college admissions  
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As an educational consultant and test prep coach, I think the advice to let colleges see all of the SAT and ACT scores is a good idea. I feel confident that admissions committees will consider the scores that are the best on each test. That is how it should be. Score choice seems like another thing added to muddle the college admissions waters.

Susie Watts
College Direction

Posted by: collegedirection | March 9, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Like all issues, there is a certain ambivalence about Score Choice. Allow me to share an example: nearly a decade ago, I worked with a very strong student, who ultimately attended a very competitive college to match her very competitive high school. She had As (with perhaps an occasional B). She did well on the SAT and then had equally strong test scores on the SAT Subject Tests (then called the SAT IIs). She didn’t get her highest scores the first time out, but she did eventually get all of her scores into the 700 range.

Now, would it change your impression of her if I also mentioned that she took the Math SAT II five times before getting her terrific score? Should it?

In the stories we tell of success, we laud perseverance-- as we should. But, we also love "a natural" and denigrate the grind.

For my part, I was happy she succeeded (as she saw it), but I also questioned the wisdom (fairness? “waste” of money? of effort? of Saturday mornings?) in taking the tests over and over. But, in doing so, she did meet her stated goal and gained entrance to the college she pined for. Was this due entirely to her scores? Of course not. But, having scores across the board in the 700s certainly helped her application become a contender for acceptance.

As for Score Choice, I am conservative about sending scores. I do fear that an admissions officer might look differently at one “clean” score of 710 than he or she would a score of 710 preceded by scores of 590, 610, 670 and 680. How can one know how others will view scores? The safest bet is to only take a test when you are well prepared and have a good shot at getting the scores you want. With all the uncertainty surrounding Score Choice, I think an argument can be made for aiming to put forward only your best foot.

Ned Johnson
President and Veteran Tutor/Geek

Posted by: nedjohnson-prepmatters | March 10, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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