Poor Choice

Harvard and other colleges should not accept changes to SAT score reporting

Starting this March, high school students will have more flexibility in reporting SAT scores to colleges, the College Board announced last month. Under a revamped policy dubbed “Score Choice,” students will be allowed to decide which test results they report on their college applications. According to the College Board, the body that oversees and administers the SAT, Score Choice will help to alleviate the stress associated with college admissions and preparing for the nerve-wracking test. However, the policy change fails to consider the reality of being a college-bound high school student. Score Choice is a misguided formula for a multitude of reasons.

The idea that allowing students to hide specific SAT scores is advantageous is fundamentally incorrect. A major upside of requiring students to report all of their scores is that this dissuades students from retaking the test an excessive number of times. Presumably the College Board has been operating from the same misimpression as Harvard College Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, who endorsed the new policy when he told the New York Times, “Score Choice will help defuse some of the pressure and give students a sense that not everything is riding on the tests, which really is the case.” Fitzsimmons is right that students should not feel as though their entire college application revolves around how they performed on the SAT—but this is precisely why Score Choice is problematic.

Fitzsimmons and the College Board have neglected the fact that many students taking the SAT under this new policy will inevitably feel that, because there is no disincentive for taking the test repeatedly, they ought to take it until their scores can no longer possibly improve. For applicants to competitive colleges, scoring a 2300 at first attempt will cease to be a happy relief, and instead be viewed as the first step in a marathon of test taking until they reach the magic 2400. Many students will inevitably spend more time preparing for and taking the SAT than they do currently, because there will be no downside to continually seeking a higher and higher score. Contrary to what Fitzsimmons says, Score Choice will further feed the unfortunate frenzy associated with college admissions, in which students too often sacrifice pursuing their real interests in favor of molding themselves into the perfect applicants.

Worse still, under Score Choice, students may feel pressure to take the SAT much earlier in their high school careers than is healthy, in order to maximize their number of test-taking opportunities. Certainly preparing for the SAT early and adequately is helpful, but there is no reason 14 year-olds should already be thinking about how to best play the SAT game.

What’s more, the policy could inadvertently disadvantage students who lack financial means. From 1993 to 2002, the College Board maintained the Score Choice policy for the SAT II subject tests, allowing students to take them as many times as they wanted and to report only their best scores. However, the College Board ended the policy because it became apparent that the system advantaged students with greater financial resources, who had the means to continue pouring time and money into test prep. There is no compelling evidence to argue that this problem will not repeat itself. Although students taking the SAT may apply for fee-waivers, some students will not obtain them and others simply cannot afford to spend endless amounts of time indefinitely preparing for the test. In this age of so much educational advocacy focusing on narrowing the gap associated with wealth and student performance, the College Board would do well to avoid such a potentially damaging backlash.

Fortunately, the College Board is allowing colleges to decide whether or not they will accept Score Choice as an option for their applicants. The admissions offices at Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania among others, have already announced that they will not honor Score Choice and will continue to require applicants to send a complete score report. College admissions offices should not be afraid to speak out about the problems inherent in Score Choice. “We want to discourage students from taking the SAT more than once or twice and believe that programs like Score Choice encourage applicants with resources to take the SAT excessively to improve their scores,” Director of Stanford Undergraduate Admissions Shawn Abbot told US News and World Report. We encourage Harvard to reconsider its decision to accept score choice and recommend that other schools do the same. After all, the point of the college admissions process is to get a full picture of an applicant, not to convert them into a hyper-stressed seventeen year-old. Policies like Score Choice run counter to that goal.

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