Two weeks back, I wrote a piece at Slate (edited by the wonderful Laura Helmuth) arguing that the SAT should stop giving different scores to virtually identical performances. In particular, I advocate a switch from increments of ten (500, 510, 520…) to increments of fifty (500, 550, 650…).
The basic argument is simple: Reporting “510” and “520” as distinct scores suggests that they’re meaningfully different. They aren’t. When you retake the SAT, your score typically fluctuates 20-30 points per section on the basis of randomness alone. A 510 and a 520 are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.
I’ve seen lots of thoughtful counterarguments to my piece—some strong, some weak, some dripping with that mucus-like film of nastiness that coats internet comment sections.
This is the most common objection. But it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
First, we all know instinctively that adjacent scores on a test represent similar performances. If the SAT changed to 50-point increments, then 600 vs. 650 would no longer read as, “Whoa, a huge five-increment gap!” It would read as, “Oh, a small but probably meaningful one-increment gap.” Which is exactly right.
Second, this argument doesn’t address why no similar test offers such hairsplitting distinctions. Not the ACT. Not the AP. Not NCLB-mandated state tests. Not the MCAT, GRE, or even the LSAT. Not academic classes. The SAT’s level of detail in score reporting is unmatched, even among tests with very similar (or identical!) purposes. Literally everybody else makes coarser distinctions. What makes the SAT different?
This argument overlooks that the data we’re throwing out is more noise than signal.
I resort once again to my analogy of an unreliable scale. Suppose that colleges want not the smartest, most academically accomplished people they can get, but simply the heaviest. (It’s football recruiting season, I guess.)
I step on a scale three times, and get weights of 158, 162, and 157. Then you step on the same scale twice, and get weights of 159 and 158.
Let’s say colleges consider only your heaviest weight (as they do for SAT scores). So I’m a 162 and you’re a 159. Does this mean I’m heavier? On the basis of this data, should colleges favor me—even slightly—over you?
I say no. We’re roughly the same weight, and the scale isn’t precise enough to tell the difference. The fact is, we’re both roughly 160, and whoever’s reporting the scale’s measurements shouldn’t claim a level of precision that the scale doesn’t actually offer.
For what it’s worth, I’d support the SAT reporting detailed performance breakdowns to the students themselves. That’d be helpful feedback. But it’d be silly to give such volatile, noisy data to colleges.
Yes, some do—including, I suspect (or hope), most college admissions officers. But even savvy admissions departments have an incentive to boost their school’s perceived selectivity by taking students with higher scores. An extra 10 or 20 points makes little difference for a student; but it can make a big difference for a college’s rankings.
In addition, lots of people don’t realize how volatile SAT scores are.
Tutoring services promise “increases” in SAT scores, knowing full well what the parents are missing: that a small boost is likely to occur on the basis of sheer randomness. Meanwhile, kids with scores ending in “90” are far more likely to retake the test, hoping the next session will put them “over the hump.”
Now we’re getting to the heart of the issue. The strongest version of this argument goes something like this:
For an individual student, there may be little difference between a 710 and a 720. But in the aggregate, a large group of kids with 720 should outperform those who scored 710. This distinction is thus useful for colleges, who are (after all) dealing with large applicant pools and need a way to make distinctions.
I’m arguing schools shouldn’t factor small distinctions in SAT scores into their admissions decisions. In that case, what should they use?
At most colleges, the answer is simple: transcripts. GPA is hands-down the best predictor of college success, especially once you consider the rigor of a student’s coursework.
As for Ivies and their hyper-competitive ilk, they already put limited stock in SAT scores. At Yale, for example, a student with 97th-percentile SAT scores (that is to say, a 2120) has no better chance at admission than a student at the 89th percentile (that is, a 1920. (Note: Admission data is from 2005, percentile data from 2006.)
If even hyper-selective schools (who presumably pour the most effort into admissions) don’t care about small differences in SAT scores, why should anyone?
The trickiest case is big, highly competitive state schools like UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan. They receive tens of thousands of strong applications per year, and necessarily rely on a semi-automated, algorithmic process to make decisions.
Here, more than anywhere else, fine-grained SAT scores might help.
This is where we exceed the limits of my expertise, so I turn to the professionals. One researcher finds that your school’s average SAT score (which correlates highly with privilege) is actually a better predictor of your college performance than your individual SAT score. Other researchers reach similar conclusions. Though I can’t rule out the possibility, I’m not convinced that a 10-point swing in SAT scores should play any role in the admissions process at any school.
My plan/hope is to interview some college admissions officers, dig deeper into the research, and revisit this issue again. Stay tuned!