How high can standardized test scores go?

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting, although depressing, article today on the state of equality in college admissions. Part of that article discussed a paper entitled “Is 1500 the new 1280? The SAT and admissions since Bakke” by Catherine L. Horn of the University of Houston and John T. Yun, of the University of California at Santa Barbara. This paper looked at the average verbal SAT score of students at the 30 top colleges and universities as determined by the US News rankings.

In 1989 only one of these 30 colleges reported that more than 30% of the freshman class had a verbal SAT score above 700. Currently, more than 30% of the freshman class had verbal SAT scores above 700 at all but four of these colleges. At half of these colleges more than 50% of the freshman had verbal SAT scores above 700. The implication discussed by the paper is the shift in admissions by elite colleges to students who score very high on standardized testing.

There is no question that the number of high test scorers has increased in the last 20 years. However, SAT test scores from 1989 can not be directly compared to current test scores without an adjustment. Because of declining average test scores between approximately 1975 and 1995 the SAT was “re-centered” in 1995. In effect this added approximately 100 points the the average test score to bring the average back to around 500. The amount of score increase varied depending on the score but this factor cannot be ignored.

A second issue is that almost all of these colleges take the highest verbal score from multiple exam dates. It is possible that students are taking more exams now than in 1989 and thus have more opportunity to gain a high score.

Finally, the effect of test preparation must be considered. I believe that the number of students who participate in test prep classes at this time exceeds the number that prepared for these tests in 1989. Multiple studies have shown that a certain level of improved performance can be gained by most students who prepare for these exams.

I have not had a chance to read the study mentioned and hopefully these factors were taken into consideration. While it may be nice to argue that these colleges should take more chances on students who score low on these exams, it is unlikely that the colleges will do so unless there is a universal replacement of these tests for college admissions. I am not a fan of standardized testing but I will be surprised if the SAT is replaced anytime soon.

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  1. ScholarsForStudents says

    Nice comment on the “re-centering.” I also think that most people don’t realize that not everyone preps for the SAT — in fact, a BIG chunk of test takers have never studied for the SAT at all and are just taking it cold. And since the SAT is scaled on a bell curve, this gives the kids who have prepped for it an even bigger advantage.

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