Discord on Test Scores

ACT accuses College Board of jumping the gun in explaining how to compare scores on the new SAT. Many debate impact of seemingly higher SAT scores under new test.

May 16, 2016

For years, as applicants weighed whether their scores on the ACT or SAT were better (and which would make them more attractive to colleges), they used a “concordance table” that ACT and the College Board produced to show how to make such comparisons.

So naturally many have been waiting to see how the table would change now that the College Board is using a new version of the SAT. The College Board this month released a new version of the table. But while there is a table, there is no concordance between the College Board and the ACT. And with SAT scores on the new test veering higher than has been the case in the past, admissions officials are also considering how people will view the numbers students submit.

The discussions take place amid scrutiny for the College Board’s new SAT and intense fighting between the College Board and ACT for market share on college admissions tests.

The new CEO of the ACT issued two statements that were much more critical of the College Board than the organization has typically been in public.

“ACT cannot support or defend the use of any concordance produced by the College Board without our collaboration or the involvement of independent groups, and we strongly recommend against basing significant decisions -- in admissions, course placement, accountability and scholarships -- on such an interim table. Those decisions require evidence and precision far beyond what has been offered to date,” said a blog post by Marten Roorda, the new ACT CEO.

Roorda specifically criticized the College Board for unveiling a concordance table without involvement from the ACT and for doing so before the new version of the SAT has been broadly used for a year. Roorda noted that those students willing to take the new version of the SAT the first time out are likely a unique subset of all students and that those who take the test in the fall will be more likely to be high school seniors than those who took it this spring. Roorda noted that in 2006, when the last concordance table was produced, it included a year’s worth of data from the then-new version of the SAT and was produced in consultation with the ACT.

Further, Roorda said that the College Board wasn’t in fact making appropriate comparisons between ACT and new SAT scores as it was engaged in what is called “chained concordance,” in which the College Board “makes links between the new SAT and the old SAT, and then from the old SAT to the ACT. It therefore claims to be able to interpret scores from the revamped SAT relative to the tried-and-true ACT.” As to this year’s table, “speaking for ACT, we’re not having it. And neither should you.”

The College Board sent The Washington Post a response to Roorda’s statement that said it used scores from earlier administrations of the SAT, and that it had reached out to ACT about working together on the concordance table. Jack Buckley, senior vice president for research for the College Board, wrote that the ACT statement “calls into question the integrity of the new SAT concordance tables. It’s vital to students and educators that we correct this misinformation.” This prompted a new statement from the ACT standing by its earlier statement.

So does it matter when the College Board and ACT fight? On some private email lists of admissions officers, educators have been enjoying the battles and insisting that they will tell the students and colleagues to ignore the disagreements and simply focus on finding (or evaluating) the best test for a student.

But many say that the discord points to larger issues -- and report that high school students are already paying a lot of attention.

“Both ACT and the College Board are aggressively seeking new markets because expansion of college admissions testing sales is limited by demographics,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a prominent critic of the College Board and of standardized testing in general. He noted that with fewer students graduating from high school and more colleges going test optional in admissions (60 new ones in the last 30 months), student choices on the tests matter. He also noted that both the College Board and ACT have new leaders “who are less imbued with the academic style of dealing with competitors” and are more willing to disagree in public.

The reason the concordance table matters, several said, is that this is how many students decide whether to take both the SAT and the ACT, and which score to submit if they do take both tests. Prior to the new SAT, many students who considered themselves smart but who “don’t test well” found that they would earn higher scores on the ACT than the concordance table suggested they should with their SAT scores. That encouraged more of these students to register for and submit ACT scores. (And of course the students engaged in these strategies, and able to afford to take and prepare for both tests, include many from wealthier backgrounds who make up the desired “full-pay” targets of many colleges.)

“This is all about perception and perception and perception,” said Steven Roy Goodman, whose Top Colleges service helps students and families with the college application process. Goodman said that, in the past, comparing the two tests has led to many of his clients opting to take the ACT. Whereas a generation ago, many would have hesitated to submit ACT scores to colleges in the Northeast or California, fearing it would look unusual, that’s no longer the case, and students applying to colleges in those parts of the country now regularly use the ACT.

He said he is receiving many questions from students and families about how to compare scores on the new SAT to those on the old SAT and the ACT, and he is advising caution.

Of the fight between the College Board and ACT, he said he agreed with others that, no matter who is correct, “this is all about market share.”

Perceptions of Higher Scores

Goodman said that his clients are currently busy analyzing SAT scores that are better than they expected -- which is consistent with the information the College Board released in its concordance tables, showing students typically earning higher scores. A change of some sort isn’t surprising, since the test was changed in significant ways. One of those ways was the end of a penalty for incorrect guessing -- and letting students guess freely should have had a positive impact for many students.

“It is confusing” for students and families, even if they are happy, Goodman said. “There is a perception that students are better. We all know that a 1370 is better than 1300.”

Goodman and many others are warning students not to get too excited about their scores. If 1400 is the new 1300, it won’t be any time at all before colleges start treating 1400s as being as common as 1300s were. And that’s why those concordance tables and their reliability matter to many students.

Indeed many observers in recent days have been cautioning high school students not to get too comfortable with their “high” scores that may not be seen as high for very long.

David Benjamin Gruenbaum, co-owner of Ahead of the Class, a California-based company that helps students gain admission to college, wrote for his local paper that some colleges may fail to make adjustments, and that the entire reaction to the new scores is one that will end up confusing and disappointing, at least over time. “Be happy you’re not me,” he wrote. “All day long, I have to break bad news to parents that their kid’s SAT score was not as high as it appeared to be.”


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