Misguided Colleges Skewer Score Choice

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009 6:13 AM

I'm so old I took the SAT only once.

That was the way we did it back in the middle of the last century. My score had room for improvement. So did my friends' scores. But we would have been stunned if any of us tried again. We were regarded as nerds already. Taking the SAT twice would have ended any chance of a girl ever talking to us.

Times, as you know, have changed. The hot topic this year is not whether to try the exam twice, but whether you should be able to hide the worst of the two or three tests it is assumed nearly everyone will take.

The right to obliterate the results of a bad testing day is called Score Choice by the College Board, owner of the SAT test. Some say it is a marketing device to respond to the SAT's rival, the ACT, which has had such a policy for years. The first group eligible under the new rules will be members of the high school class of 2010 participating in this March's test administration. If they don't like their scores on that or any subsequent testing day, they may tell the College Board not to send them to any colleges.

This seemed like a sensible course to me, until Newsweek senior editor David Kaplan revealed last month that many colleges were not cooperating. Stanford, Cornell, Pomona, Penn and USC told Kaplan that their applications for the entering 2010 class will demand all scores, no matter what the College Board or ACT say. They say Score Choice gives rich kids an advantage, since they can afford to take lots of tests and know how to game the system. On my Admissions 101 discussion group at washingtonpost.com, this has become the source of much comment.

College admissions consultants, serving nervous young clients and their parents, seem to favor Score Choice. Michele Hernandez, of Hernandez College Consulting, said it "is a great help to students in terms of easing stress, letting younger students take a practice test in ninth and 10th grade and providing a risk-free attempt at taking this crazy test that won't go on your record." Mark Greenstein of Ivy Bound said, "The SAT requirement would not favor the rich if those who are supposed to be looking out for the non-rich did their jobs better."

My Admissions 101 group, which attracts mostly parents and other adults interested and knowledgeable on the issue, was less sure who was right. One of the most thoughtful posts was from a reader called Green_Ipod:

"I'm torn. Hiding scores clearly advantages wealthy student who can afford to take the test as many times as necessary to achieve a good score (not to mention get expensive tutoring). Also, I can understand that colleges would like to see the complete picture of how a student performs. Since the test scores are only a small part of the admissions decision, I'm not inclined to think this is a big deal. I can understand why a nervous test taker or a cocky one might need to take it multiple times. If they do better later, I think they're showing the university that they can improve. Not a bad thing."

Others were less convinced by the argument for Score Choice. "It's not about wealth," said a participant called fake1. "It's about students who fail and want a redo compared to students who do well the first time around. I'm so tired of this BS where nobody is allowed to do bad on anything because somehow it wouldn't be fair or nice. This sort of move would just further decrease the value of standardized tests."

Most, however, leaned in favor of giving kids a break. "Last year I tutored public high school students who had done very badly on the math section of the SAT," said a discussant named mediumDensity. "Some, as might be expected, had been failed by our public school system - with nobody ever taking the time to make sure they understood basic concepts like the area of a rectangle. More surprisingly, some were very skilled at math, but had received bad test-taking advice, namely to try to do most of the work in their head instead of on paper. In my experience, this resulted in a bunch of kids who could have scored in the mid-600s -- or better -- instead scoring in the low 400s. This shouldn't be held against them, and Score Choice seems to be the second best way to ensure that it isn't."

A participant named grcxx3 agreed, remembering a personal experience: "Unlike a school grade - where you have all term to do well, do poorly, do well again - with the SAT you only have one shot. There are all sorts of things that could go wrong. Shoot, I took mine the morning after a boyfriend broke up with me! I was NOT in the best frame of mind to take the test, but I had to. I didn't bomb it, but I certainly didn't do my best!"

For me, the objections to Score Choice are another indication that some of our best-known colleges are taking their perceived role of choosing the ruling class a little too seriously. They would deny it, of course. I am sure they believe they are not into any kind of elitist sorting. They just want a good, balanced, freshman class.

But that seems at odds with something else they know: Their selection process is already irretrievably irrational and unfair, no matter how they handle Score Choice. They could change their minds March 30, tear up all of the outgoing letters, send reject letters to the kids they had accepted and accept letters to the best of the rejects and produce a class as good as the one they had originally selected. That is why they put so many students on the wait list, to salve their consciences by letting the rejects know they were good enough to get in.

Since they have such a surfeit of good students, why be so resistant to letting them bury bad scores and keep a firmer grip on their sanity? Unlike many of their applicants, the selective college admissions officers already know the great secret of college and life: If you crave success, it doesn't matter how high your college is on the U.S. News & World Report list. The data suggest that financial and personal achievement stem from character traits -- persistence, humor, charm -- and not whether your college was older than the United States or on someone's Top 20 ranking.

College admissions officials reluctant to allow Score Choice, for fear they will be creating an unlevel playing field, see themselves too much as referees rather than educators. This is not the Olympics, the Super Bowl or the World Series. The college admissions process is not supposed to be a contest with winners and losers. It is intended to make sure students get to know colleges and colleges get to know students. Applicants are supposed to be focusing on finding the school that fits them best, not lining up for the academic version of "American Idol."

If Score Choice helps our children, and our parents, breathe a little easier while they are navigating this complicated system, what's wrong with that?

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