New SAT Policy Can Keep Low Scores From Reaching Colleges

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009

Legions of high school students equipped with No. 2 pencils have done battle with the SAT, but a new policy is easing the stress for college-bound teenagers. If they take the test more than once, they can send their favorite set of scores with applications and ignore the rest.

Before the policy took effect last month, students had no option: All their SAT scores were reported when they applied to college.

The first time Gabby Ubilla took the test, she said, she fared well on the verbal section but was dissatisfied with her math score. The College Board's "score choice" policy will allow her to push the reset button with most colleges. "Now that I know what I need to study and what's on the test, I can study different types of math questions" without worrying about the old score, said Ubilla, 16, an 11th-grader at Dominion High School in Sterling.

But critics say score choice encourages students to take the test as many times as they want without consequence, giving an unfair edge to the wealthy and injecting an additional level of strategy into an admissions process that can already feel like a cabalistic ritual. Some question whether the change was made simply to compete with the ACT, the other major admissions test, which has been gaining market share in recent years and has had a de facto score-choice policy. A quarter of more than 700 colleges tracked on the SAT Web site are asking students to send all their scores regardless.

Officials with the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, say taking the test more than twice generally doesn't raise scores. They say they were simply responding to surveys that showed that students want more control over how scores are distributed.

"It's really meant to provide a more comfortable test experience to students," said Laurence Bunin, senior vice president for operations and general manager of the SAT program at the College Board.

Under the policy, students can pick which sets of results from which testing sessions they send to colleges. But they can't mix and match: They can't choose a high verbal score from one session and a high math score from another. Each session's results for the math, verbal and writing sections, with a maximum score of 2400, must remain intact.

Some students and colleges are concerned about that.

"If colleges see your first three [test sessions], they'll average the high scores together," said Grace Chung, 17, an 11th-grader at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge. "But if they only see your scores from one day, they don't see the variations."

Many colleges have long said they take into account only the highest scores for each section anyway. Some admissions officials say students who use score choice might lose out.

"My concern is that with the score choice, they can only send the scores from one sitting," said Lorne Robinson, dean of admissions at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., which is requiring students to send their entire SAT transcript. He said Macalester combines high scores for each test section and doesn't think too much about the rest.

Although the increasingly competitive admissions process can make students obsess over the tiniest details of what they send to colleges, the new policy has not caused a stir.

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