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Understanding the New SAT

Understanding the New SAT
May 25, 2005

In March, the SAT changed dramatically -- at least on the surface.

The addition of a third section looked like a radical alteration to a standardized test long known for its 400-1600 scoring scale. The SAT, a test that has become synonymous with the college application process, is now scored on a 600-2400 scale. In addition to adding the third writing section, there are changes below the surface of the remaining verbal and math components -- no more verbal analogies or quantitative comparisons, for example.  

Students are apprehensive about the challenge and the novelty posed by the changes to the SAT. Colleges are too. Students are wondering if the new writing portion matters as much as the more traditional sections and are asking what is a good score on the new 2400-point scale? Admission officers are wondering what impact the new SAT will have on their ability to gauge each applicant’s qualifications?

While I cannot offer definitive answers, I do know that each college has its own particular situation that will determine how it will handle the new SAT. Georgetown University and California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo, for example, have already announced that they won’t consider the SAT writing score on the same par as the verbal and math sections. I applaud both institutions for stating clear positions on the new SAT.

As the dean of admission at a small college that has a national reach, I am asked frequently to speculate about how Reed College’s peers will treat the new SAT. I can only guess, so I will stick to what I know: Reed’s take on the new SAT.

Most of Reed’s attention will focus on the new SAT writing exam. That new component is the major alteration to the SAT, the one getting all the press, and the one I have heard discussed most at national conferences. Reed will take a careful and evaluative stance toward the new SAT.  That’s academic-speak for “we’ll watch to see how it develops.” Until we are convinced that the new test offers us significant information that we do not already factor into the admission matrix, Reed will not change its approach to standardized tests. Reed will view the SAT verbal and the SAT math sections, despite the changes, as we did before and consider the new writing section analogous to the former SAT II writing exam. While that test existed, Reed recommended, but did not require, submission of the SAT II in writing.  

Test scores have a mixed history at predicting academic success at small liberal arts colleges. Most notably, Bates College discovered 20 years ago that SAT’s were of no value in its admission matrix and stopped requiring them. Now at least a dozen respected national liberal arts colleges make submission of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT optional.

Internal studies at Reed show that grades and the rigor of courses selected in high school are the best predictors of success in the college’s curriculum. SAT scores add marginally to the predictive matrix, and are generally most helpful when one of the section scores is a statistical outlier on the low end. Our studies show that there’s little reason to believe that someone with a 680 will be a better student at Reed  than someone with a 640 on the verbal, but a score lower than 600 on the math section raises doubts about the applicant’s ability to be successful in the sciences, math, and certain heavily quantitative social sciences such as economics.    

Reed, like other small colleges, has a writing-intensive curriculum. Students are far more likely to get assigned analytical papers, lab reports and take-home essay exams than multiple choice tests or graded essays administered under severe time constraints. In the Reed curriculum, the most commonly employed student assessment procedures do not match the format of the SAT. The same is true of the other liberal arts colleges where I have studied or worked: Bennington, Oberlin, and Vassar. For curricular reasons, Reed’s admission committee, which engages faculty and deans in parts of the decision-making process, will view the new SAT, the same way it views all standardized exams, in a holistic context of numerous academic and personal factors and with a healthy degree of skepticism.  

In particular, we will examine the scores we see from the SAT’s new writing section, the cornerstone of which is a 25-minute essay, knowing that Reed students will almost never encounter an analogous exam in a Reed class. Reed students more commonly encounter assignments that require reflective writing that can be revised before submission. Built into the application process are better ways than the SAT essay, for us to gauge the applicant’s readiness to do the kind of writing required at Reed. For example, the Common Application essay options, the Reed specific supplemental essays, such as the “Why Reed?” essay, and the graded high school writing assignment (we ask for a research, expository, or creative paper with instructor’s comments) show us samples of reflective writing.

Through those samples of writing, the admission committee gauges the applicant’s facility with written expression and draws conclusions about the applicant’s ability to navigate a writing-intensive curriculum successfully. The required essays and graded writing sample also provide the admission committee with a glimpse into the personalities and passions of our applicants. At a college that prizes independent thought, inculcates analytical acumen and cultivates intellectual rigor, what the applicant selects to write about and chooses to send helps convey those Reed-like qualities far better than the score achieved on a time-limited writing exam.

That does not mean that the new SAT writing exam has no merits. Certainly many of the skills that produce a fine score on the SAT essay are applicable to the writing required in a challenging liberal arts curriculum. The grammatical and reading diagnostic sections of the new SAT writing exam will provide a useful measure of each applicant’s mastery of the foundation fundamentals on which good analytical writing rests. The SAT writing exam, like its predecessor the SAT II writing subject test, will provide another piece in the puzzle of the admission assessment, a puzzle piece that Reed will consider on par with items such as extracurricular involvement, recommendation letters and Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores (if submitted).

When we begin receiving scores from the new SAT, we will be curious to see how the writing scores square with each applicant’s grades in English courses, the quality of the application essays, and the sophistication of the required graded writing sample. I would hope that high scores on the new SAT writing section will be matched by high grades in English classes, high AP English scores, and high SAT verbal scores.

What will be even more interesting to watch is the extent to which SAT I writing scores correlate with scores on the ACT’s new optional essay exam, which Reed will accept (and assess just like the SAT writing exam) but not require.

I would be less than honest if I did not say that many long-time admission officers view the recent changes to the SAT as equivalent to a rearrangement of the chairs on the deck of the ship, rather than an overhaul of the engine below. That may not be a fair or accurate assessment, but it is reflective of the show-me attitude that many of us in college admission take every time the College Board or the ACT announce changes to standardized exams that we know are both valuable and fallible.

And finally, to the question, what is a good score on the new 2400-point SAT, I say just invoke a little SAT math: divide your score by three then multiply that number by two to compare to the old 1600-point scale.

Confused? Welcome to the club.

Bio

Paul Marthers is dean of admission at Reed College.

 

 

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