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Understanding college admissions tests

College admissions tests, a rite of passage for high school students, are changing. Here's what you and your child need to know.

By GreatSchools Staff

With the addition of a writing section to the SAT and the ACT, and more colleges announcing they no longer require standardized tests for admission, the college admissions process may look radically different than the one parents remember. Here's a summary of what has changed:

The SAT

Students applying to college in 2005 were the first class to take the new SAT. The test they took:

  • Was divided into three sections: critical reading, math and writing
  • Required a new 25-minute essay in the writing section, which also included multiple-choice writing skills questions
  • Eliminated the analogy questions (e.g. Dalmatian is to dog as oriole is to bird) their parents remember and included more questions to measure reading comprehension
  • Included more advanced math concepts, such as those emphasized in Algebra II
  • Was calculated on a 2400-point scale, rather than the 1600-point scale their parents remember
  • Was longer (it's now 3 hours, 45 minutes)

The ACT

The ACT, the admissions test used more commonly in the Midwest, also added an optional writing section. The writing section of the ACT is required at approximately 40% of all colleges, according to Sherri Miller, director of Elementary and Secondary Programs at ACT.

Why the changes?

First, a little history: "College boards" were some of the first standardized tests. Made up of essays that covered a number of subjects, they allowed colleges to compare students from different places and schools. The College Board, which administered these tests, created the SAT. The latest revision in the test came about when Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California, called for changes to the SAT to better align the test to what was taught in high school.

However, Shauna Morrison, a spokesperson for collegeboard.org, said that revisions were in the works even sooner. "While the College Board certainly paid attention to the University of California's suggestions that analogies be eliminated and writing be added - as a membership organization we consider the feedback of all of our members - many other factors contributed to the decision to change the test," she said. "In fact, seeds of the current revisions were planted in 1990 by a blue-ribbon commission."

"A recommendation considered, but not adopted, was the addition of the kind of writing section we introduced in March 2005," she said. "Among the reasons a writing section was not adopted at the time was the lack of technological capability to transmit millions of student essays to professional readers for scoring - something that is feasible today."

Miller, of ACT, said: "We added the writing exam in response to things going on in California. Some colleges wanted a standard assessment of writing."

How colleges are responding

One key fact has not changed even as the admissions tests have: The SAT or ACT score is only one factor colleges consider in admissions, and most indicate that they see high school achievement as a more important predictor of college success.

Colleges have adopted widely varying approaches to the tests, so it's important for students and parents to research the colleges they're interested in to learn what tests are required and how the results are weighed.

More colleges drop test requirements

A growing number of liberal arts college have stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores for admission. They include the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, Knox College in Illinois and George Mason University in Virginia. They join Bates College and Mount Holyoke, which have not required the tests for years. Officials at these colleges say that other measures - grades, courses taken, extracurricular activities - are better predictors of success for their students. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an opponent of standardized testing, has a list of the schools. But don't assume that this list or any other is correct. Check admissions requirements with the colleges themselves.

Research universities are much more likely to require an admissions test as one of the only ways they can compare students from various schools and states.

What the critics are saying about the tests

The change that's getting the most attention is the new required essay. The essays are sent to two readers for scoring. If the readers cannot agree on a score, a third reader will act as a tie-breaker.

Criticism of the essay exam came most notably from Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Les Perelman, who argued that the grading system gives high marks to essays that are long and contain factual errors. Perelman analyzed samples of scored essays made available to the public and found that the highest scores in the first round of testing went to the longest essays. Future test-takers, he predicted, would strive for verbosity rather than clarity.

The College Board disagrees, saying that high scores go to essays that "effectively and insightfully develop a point of view on the issue ... using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position." The most well-developed essays tend to be longer, College Board officials say.

The National Council of Teachers of English also entered the debate, arguing that the essays don't provide useful information to colleges about a student's ability to write. Robert Yagelski, chair of the NCTE Task Force on SAT and ACT Writing Tests and associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the State University of New York at Albany, says timed writing exams encourage students to write according to a template. "This sends a signal that writing is not about content. NCTE has battled the trend to separate writing from content. The SAT essay reinforces what I consider are simplistic and superficial notions of what constitutes good writing."

What the debate means to your student

It's important for your student to contact the individual colleges and state college or university systems on her application list to find out the weight admissions officials will be giving to admissions test essays.

David Montesano, a private college admissions consultant, said admissions officers are more likely to look at the score than the essay itself. "Competitive schools will want scores over 2000 and the writing score will factor into that," he said. But, in some instances, colleges might be very interested in reading what a student wrote in the timed test. "If there is doubt that the personal essay on the application was actually written by the applicant, admissions departments will drill down and compare it to the SAT essay."

Students with disabilities

The SAT and ACT no longer flag the score reports of students granted additional time to take the test because of a disability. This policy has raised concern that some parents may unfairly seek testing accommodations to secure better scores for their children. Both the College Board and ACT argue that they have rigorous processes for reviewing such requests.

Reasons that students may be granted accommodations include impaired vision or hearing, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, physical handicaps and some medical conditions.

Other accommodations besides additional time include access to a different testing location or to special equipment. Extra time is granted only when a student's disability presents a direct need for additional time or when the test is given in a nonstandard format.

You can learn more by reading Services for Students with Disabilities on the College Board and ACT sites.

If you have a child who may qualify for special accommodations, be sure to initiate the application process well in advance - ideally in the spring of the year before your child intends to take the SAT. All the necessary paperwork should be available at your child's school.

 


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/17/2012:
"I did well in high school and wrote a book to help other students and their parents. The book has good tips on how to do well on tests, as well as other aspects of school. It is currently one of the best sellers in the Kindle high school non-fiction category (paperback edition also available). Please have a look, and I hope you benefit from it. http://www.amazon.com/School-Success-College-Application-ebook/dp/B006SMH2 SW "
07/19/2010:
"What about American citizens studying in the local schools abroad? There is no test prep, test dates are few and far between and it is very pricey in Europe to take the rare tests they offer. Do American universities consider this? My daughter attends the best public school in Strasbourg with advanced placement English but no emphasis on SAT. Should pupils be penalized for mediocre results yet excellent grades in philosophy, two foreign languages, economics and all the other tough classes she is required to take? School in Europe starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at 6 p.m. It is an intense and full course load. Doesn't this count?"
03/28/2007:
"With so many students taking advanced placement tests and IB programs for advanced college credit, I can see where the SAT will be obsolete. So many high schools also offer early college admissions, dual enrollment and other opportunities for students to bypass taking these old required tests. In any case, they are still good preparation for future tests where students will have to take GRE, MCAT, LSAT and other advanced graduate level exams. "
06/30/2003:
"I do not believe that the old SAT has gender or racial biases. The SAT is an aptitude test, which means the test is somewhat related to intelligence. Some groups of people are smarter and some groups of people are dumber as proven by IQ. It is neither the SAT's nor the specific group's fault (race or gender) that these low or high scores exist. It is nature's fault. "
05/29/2003:
"As a student half-way through college, I think the SAT over-haul will be a great benefit to everyone. The SAT II Writing section was highly recommended for the entrance to my college, and if this can be incorporated without raising costs too much, colleges will have a better feel for how prepared each student is for freshman writing classes. However, a longer test is not necessarily preferred because it can be a burden to the student. I hope that the new SAT will also reduce both the racial and gender biases of the old SAT, as well. Now is the time to make those changes. "
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