Baylor Pays for SAT Gains

University asks admitted applicants to retake the SAT, with lucrative scholarships for those with big gains. The institution's test average goes up, but will U.S. News have the last laugh?
October 15, 2008

Baylor University is being called "the poster child for SAT misuse" after the student newspaper revealed an unusual practice: paying admitted freshmen to retake the SAT and offering large financial rewards for those whose scores go up by certain levels.

While the university says that its approach is designed to give out more scholarship aid, it is being denounced as a cynical attempt to boost SAT averages (which dropped for the class in which this approach is being used) to try to improve the university's standing with U.S. News & World Report.

Here's what happened at Baylor this year:

When the class that enrolled this fall was admitted, admissions officials noticed two things. John Barry, vice president for marketing and communications, said that that the primary thing they noticed was that numerous merit scholarships -- many of which are given out based on formulas based on SAT and class rank -- were not given out because students didn't qualify. The other thing they noticed (Barry said this was a minor issue, but others disagreed) was that the SAT average was 1200, down 19 points from the previous year. Baylor, which is in the middle of a campaign to become a top national university, has been hoping for SAT movement in the opposite direction.

What to do? Barry said that the financial aid office thought that if accepted students retook the SAT, many would receive higher scores. But for most high school seniors, having survived the college admissions process and decided where to go, taking the SAT again isn't exactly an alluring prospect. So Baylor decided to "incentivize" the students, Barry said.

Baylor offered any admitted student a $300 book credit at the campus store just for taking the SAT again. Then if students' scores went up by 50 points, which Barry characterized as going up "dramatically," they would earn a scholarship of $1,000. Further, for students who had missed the cutoff levels for various merit scholarships, if their new SAT score got them over the bar, they could have that money.

Of the admitted students who decided to enroll, 861 (about 28 percent of the class) took the SAT again and earned the $300. Of those, 150 increased scores by at least 50 points, earning $1,000 each. And 177 (including many of the 150) passed over cutoff levels and thus qualified for scholarships worth a total of $450,000. (Many of those scholarships are paid over four years, not one.) Not surprisingly, Baylor's SAT average went up by 10 points.

"Obviously the pessimistic view of this whole thing is we are paying kids to up their SAT scores and up our score in U.S. News," Barry said.

But the university takes another view, he added -- that this is about helping students and upholding standards. If the university lowered the SAT requirements for scholarships, that would be eroding quality, he said, but encouraging students to retake the SAT didn't do that. Asked about the wide consensus among educators -- even those who favor the SAT -- that the use of cutoff scores is generally unsound, Barry said that the SAT was "a national standard" and that many colleges have similar approaches.

Barry admitted that U.S. News was a factor, but he said it "was not the driver." He explained that "all of us want bright classes of students, and we want to communicate that we recruit bright classes of students," he said, so rankings do matter. "To say we don't pay attention to that would be false."

As word of Baylor's program has circulated in admissions circles, many have been dubious that SAT averages to be reported to U.S. News aren't the driver. After all, the rewards Baylor is characterizing as significant SAT gains aren't significant at all. For instance, the College Board reports that all students who take the SAT as juniors and then retake it a year later are likely to see a 45-point gain, so 50 points is pretty unexceptional.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said Baylor's approach "appears to be a compound misuse of undergraduate admission tests" of the sort that a special task force of his association recently warned about. Hawkins noted that the commission's report stated that panel members believe "that the continued use of admission test scores as college ranking criteria creates undue pressure on admission offices to pursue increasingly high test scores."

Hawkins said that "further complicating the misuse of test scores is the allocation of scarce financial resources for the purpose of raising the test score profile at an institution." He added that he hopes that U.S. News "understands the importance of resolving its misuse of admission test scores, and will reconsider its previously stated position of making no change to its ranking formulas."

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said that Baylor has now become "the poster child for SAT misuse" because it is not credible that the university has motives at play other than rankings.

If Baylor believes SAT scores are meaningful enough to decide whether to admit students, he said, it should have confidence in those scores and not be "bribing students" to raise their scores. "If they wanted to give out test-based scholarships, they have the SAT scores already," he said. (Schaeffer added that giving out scholarships this way violates NACAC standards, among other things. NACAC's "Statement of Principles of Good Practice" says that colleges shouldn't "use minimum test scores as the sole criterion for admission, advising or for the awarding of financial aid." While the Baylor funds are theoretically given out on a class rank/SAT, the additional $450,000 is now being distributed solely on the basis of changes in SAT scores.)

The Lariat, Baylor's student newspaper, which reported about the policy last week, ran an editorial Tuesday denouncing it. The student paper said that this year's freshmen were getting a shot at extra scholarship money just because their SAT averages were low -- while upperclass students never had that shot. If Baylor doesn't want students with low SAT scores, the student paper said, it shouldn't admit them.

To the Lariat, the only explanation that makes sense is that the university is worried about rankings. "Since students don't really have any use for SAT scores once they are accepted into college, it seems Baylor's motives for the retesting opportunity were purely selfish," the editorial says.

Of course U.S. News might have the last laugh. Robert Morse, who directs the magazine's college rankings, said that because of the way the magazine counts SAT averages (using percentiles, not raw score averages), the gains at Baylor may not be material to its ranking. Morse also said that he hadn't ever heard of a college using this strategy. Further, he said that he questions whether an SAT score given only for Baylor to use in this way is a legitimate SAT score. He said that he is not convinced that these scores should count "as a real SAT test and therefore this seems like a scam from that perspective."


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