SAT-Optional Schools and Inflated Scores

Are SAT-optional schools inflating their standardized test scores?

That was the question that I explored in my blog yesterday. I promised then that I would share the fascinating findings of a study that touches upon this very issue.

The study, conducted by Maguire Associates, a highly respected higher ed consulting firm in Concord, MA, suggests that schools making the SAT optional for applicants are publishing artificially higher scores.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this makes sense because it’s the kids with lousy SAT or ACT scores who are going to keep their results a secret.

Jonathan Epstein, the Maguire researcher, pointed out that the scores of kids who don’t submit their SAT results are usually 100 to 150 points lower than the students who do share them. If 25% to 50% of enrolled students don’t submit scores, this increases a school’s average SAT scores between 25 and 75 points.

Epstein specifically took a look at the  28 SAT-optional schools in U.S. New & World Report’s list of the top 100 liberal arts colleges to see how they handled their missing SAT scores.

What Epstein discovered was that only one of the 28 schools — Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA — calculated the scores of all its students. Muhlenberg requests the SAT or ACT scores of the freshmen who declined to originally submit them and the school then includes those results when calculating the institution’s average scores. While it’s not in the liberal arts category, Epstein mentioned that Providence College in Providence, RI, also includes all SAT/ACT scores in its averages.

Obviously, SAT-optional schools benefit in the rankings because USNWR favors schools that have higher SAT averages. Not surprisingly, most of the recent schools to adopt the policy compete directly with SAT-optional schools or they have lately dropped precipitously in USNWR rankings.

Epstein explored the potential consequences of inflated SATs, which could grow even more disconnected with reality if an increasing number of students choose that route. Here’s what he said:

While SAT-optional policies currently encourage more applications, as reported SAT averages rise, students who might previously have been a good fit for the institution may be discouraged from applying if their scores are too far below the reported average, even  if the student is not require to submit those scores. Or, over time, fewer and fewer students may submit scores, further distorting the reported SAT average and further confusing prospective students.

Unless SAT-optional institutions forego those policies, making the exam a requirement, removing it from consideration entirely, or being more forthright about the fact that their SAT averages only represent a self-selected portion of their students, this marketplace competition may completely disorient prospective students and families.

As a mother with a daughter, who is attending one of those 27 liberal arts colleges, and a high school junior, I wish schools would be honest with families. It’s the least they can do.

You can learn more about SAT-optional schools by visiting the archive of my blog and by reading  The College Solution.

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  1. I think the best you can do is not apply to an SAT optional school – unless of course you have bad SAT scores yourself.