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:

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.