The College Board is about to announce a change in the Advanced Placement program that will end the penalty for wrong answers.
So after decades in which test takers were warned against random guessing, they may now do so without fear of hurting their scores. The shift is notable because the SAT continues to penalize wrong answers, such that those who cannot eliminate any of the answers are discouraged from guessing. The ACT, which has gained market share against the SAT in recent years, does not have such a penalty. At this point, the College Board is changing its policy only for the AP exams.
Under College Board policy to date, AP scores have been based on the total number of correct answers minus a fraction for every incorrect answer -- one-fourth of a point for questions with five possible answers and one-third of a point for questions with four possible answers. The idea is that no one should engage in "random guessing." The odds shift, of course, if a test taker can eliminate one or more possible answers, and the College Board's advice to test takers  acknowledges this, saying that "if you have SOME knowledge of the question, and can eliminate one or more answer choices, informed guessing from among the remaining choices is usually to your advantage."
A spokeswoman said that the decision to end the guessing penalty relates to broader changes in the AP program. The College Board has announced plans to redesign a number of courses,  and that process will start to produce results in the 2011-12 academic year. The redesigned courses will feature "an increased emphasis on conceptual understanding and discipline-specific skills, resulting in fewer and more complex multiple-choice questions," the spokeswoman said.
And for those questions, the College Board believes that the best way to score is simply based on the total number of correct answers (without a penalty). While the shift in courses and question types will be slow -- only a few courses at a time -- the College Board decided that it wanted to provide all students with the same test instructions, so the guessing penalty would be eliminated across the board.
Trevor Packer, director of the AP program, also noted that the College Board will soon be offering distinct versions of the multiple choice questions overseas. Since those questions count for half of total AP scores, and there will be different versions abroad, "it will be simpler, cleaner, psychometrically, not to have to account for the deductions for wrong answers," he said.
The change will be effective for the AP exams given in May 2011.
Packer said that the change will not make the exams easier, but he said that some AP test readers who have been briefed "are thrilled that students won't have to think about this when they take the test."
As for the SAT, the College Board spokeswoman indicated that the change is being announced only for AP. "The SAT Program has no immediate plans to change scoring processes, and will keep the public informed if that position changes," she said. (The SAT awards one point for each correct question and subtracts one-fourth of a point for each incorrect answer.)
The ACT not only doesn't deduct anything for incorrect answers, but doesn't appear worried about guessing. ACT's tips for test takers  say: "Answer every question. Your scores on the multiple-choice tests are based on the number of questions you answer correctly. There is no penalty for guessing."
Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said he viewed it as significant that the College Board was changing any policy related to guessing, since the organization has argued since the 1950s that a penalty was needed. He said he looked forward to seeing how the College Board would justify having one policy for AP and another for the SAT.
Schaeffer also said that the guessing penalty is "a major competitive disadvantage for the SAT" vs. the ACT. "While the ACT is not a better test in any psychometric sense, the lack of a guessing penalty is one of the ways it is more consumer-friendly," he said.