Choosing a College - The SATs
A necessary evil or accurate predictor of performance?
On Saturday morning, Katelyn Crank joined thousands of high school students across the country in taking the SAT Reason Test (formerly known as the Scholastic Assessment Test), commonly referred to as the SAT.
Over the past several decades taking the SAT (or one of its competing tests such as the ACT) has become an essential rite of passage for anyone who wants to go to college. The SAT in particular has maintained its importance despite a number of changes over the years, and not a few criticisms about bias in its content and manner of posing questions.
For the uninitiated, the tests are scored on a scale of 200 to 800 and are administered in Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Each section is allotted just over an hour to complete. The Writing section was added in 2005 after colleges complained that there were too few examples in the Reading section that allowed to students to demonstrate their writing ability. Even though colleges made that complaint, not many of them take the Writing score into account when weighing an application.
Students typically take the SAT in their junior year and again in their senior, which is what Katelyn did.
Above and beyond a student's grades and extracurricular activities, the SAT score is the next most important criteria used for admitting a student to a college. How important they are varies from college to college. And good luck getting notoriously secretive admissions offices to disclose the weight that an SAT score carries in their decision whether or not to admit. There was a time when some schools made it clear to prospective students that if they did not have a score above X they should not waste their time and money (for the application fee) applying. That has changed. Below are several examples of how colleges address the question of minimum SAT scores on their respective web sites. The scores are combined totals for Reading and Mathematics, where the best possible score was 1600.
George Mason University says only that students must submit SAT scores as part of the application and must score at least a 450 on Reading to demonstrate English proficiency.
James Madison University says that the mid-50 percent range of the freshman class of 2009-2010 scored between 1100-1230. So that means that 25% of students scored below 1100. How far below? That's something of a mystery. But the fact that the average SAT score of those admitted was 1145 indicates that quite a few students were under 1100.
At Virginia Tech the middle 50% of the class of 2010-2011 scored between 1,160–1,340. By way of guidance, Virginia Tech admissions tells applicants that 87.2% of freshman scored 500 or more in Reading. 91.4% scored 500 or better in Math. Message: If you don't have a 500 in both you better: A) have some very good grades B) think about attending a different school.
Harvard? They say the following: "Test scores for the middle 50 percent (from the 25th to the 75th percentile) of recently admitted classes range from 700 to 790 on the SAT critical reading section and 690 to 790 on the SAT math section."
"There are no score cutoffs, and we do not admit 'by the numbers.'" Does that mean a B-plus student with an 1100 on the SAT should apply to Harvard?
If that's not vague enough for you, try the University of Virginia:
"We don't have a minimum GPA. We don't have a minimum SAT score."
They do elaborate:
"As strange as these answers sound, they're both true. Students are more than the sum of two numbers, no matter how important those two numbers may be. A cumulative GPA, for example, only reveals so much; it says little about the difficulty of a student's course load, or whether a student's grades have improved over time, or the level of grade inflation (or deflation) in a student's school. If we established a firm minimum GPA, a point below which no applicant would have any chance of being admitted, we'd miss a fair number of students who might make U.Va. a better, stronger place.
The same is true for SAT scores. Most people who work in admission at highly selective universities believe that standardized testing is a useful but imprecise instrument, an axe, not a scalpel. Setting an absolute minimum would be asking these tests to do something they weren't designed to do.
Of course, we do use GPAs and SATs. All other things being equal, applicants with good numbers stand a better chance of being admitted; and because our applicant pool is broad and deep, most admitted students have excelled in school and scored well on the SAT (see our Profile for more information). But we don't have set minimums for either, and we try hard to take into account all of the information we see in each application."
Should anyone forget, it's always important to remember that colleges are businesses, albeit mostly non-profit ones. Prospective parents and students would do well to look at them that way, rather than get all warm and fuzzy about an alma mater or Saturday tailgating for a big football game. Colleges want as many applicants as they can get. Back when they made parameters clear about what was an acceptable SAT score, they were, in effect, limiting their applicant pool. Now, by making the SAT score a little more vague, they are getting more applicants and, according to them, a more diverse population. According to an article in the November 5thNew York Times, applications have soared. Prestigious schools like Stanford and Brown received over 30,000 applicants this year. They accepted seven and nine percent of them, respectively. UCLA received 57,670 applications.
A cynic might say that schools want more applications so they can rake in more money on the fees that accompany the application and, at the prestigious schools, deluding students who are applying thanks to the more nebulous admission criteria but have no real chance of being admitted.
But the SAT is a business, too. Estimates place the number of times the test is taken at around 1.5 million per year. At $47 per test that is an impressive annual sales total.
And that's to say nothing of the cottage industry of SAT tutors and prep classes and books that flood the educational services market.
South County Secondary School, where Katelyn attends, does not offer formal SAT preparation classes. SAT preparation is incorporated into curricula.
Katelyn did not take any SAT prep classes outside of school. They tend to be very pricy. Furthermore, taking one hardly guarantees a good SAT score. Katelyn indicated that she knew several students who took SAT prep classes and saw little improvement in the score from the first test to the second. One friend saw her score drop by 70 points.
The only preparation Katelyn had for the SAT test were a pair of used practice guides that somebody left behind where she works. She looked through them on breaks and when it's slow.
Katelyn said she's "not stressing about (the SATs) too much." When she took the SAT for the first time last spring she scored within the acceptable range of the schools she's interested in. Still, she said, "It looks better if you do well."
In a conversation earlier this fall after Fairfax County Public Schools released their county-wide SAT scores, spokesperson Paul Regnier noted that an SAT score is only an indicator of first-year success for students.
Lorton Patch was unable to find any research that put that success in numeric terms. For example, do students who scored between say, 1200-1250 post an average grade point average of, say, 3.5?
While the SAT is a vital component of virtually every college admissions process, it's hard to tell what the score actually proves.
So, what does a good score on the SAT get a student exactly? Admission to the school of her choice. After that, it's up to her.
This is the fifth in an ongoing series where Lorton Patch joins Katelyn Crank, a senior at South County Secondary School, as she decides where she wants to go to college. The series began HERE.