Will the SAT "Score Choice" Option Reduce Stress?

Oliver Beavers is planning to take the SATs again, and he's a little nervous. "Everyone has good test days and bad test days," he says. So it makes sense that he's a big fan of a new twist on the decades-old SAT, an innovation called Score Choice. Introduced by the College Board in late 2008, Score Choice allows test takers to send only their best SAT scores to the colleges to which they're applying. Under the prior system, colleges were given a warts-and-all look at the scores of every exam a student took. Beavers believes the old system hurt students whose performance varied on different test dates, and that the new scheme makes it easier for students to take the exam repeatedly to try to boost their score. "I think the best way to get better SATs is to just keep taking them and see where you go wrong," says the rising senior, who is hoping to attend his hometown University of Virginia to study economics. By utilizing Score Choice, he's less nervous about whiffing on the big test, and more relaxed knowing colleges won't know how many times he retests.

That kind of stress reduction, the College Board says, is exactly what motivated it to implement the new score-reporting system. According to Alana Klein, a spokesperson for College Board, Score Choice is intended to lessen students' anxiety by giving them more control over their college applications. But while it may have begun with the best of intentions, the new system has proved controversial.

Some observers believe its real purpose is to boost the College Board's revenue by encouraging students to take the SATs more frequently and to improve its competitive position against the rival ACT exam; ACT already had a choice system in place and has been steadily stealing market share from the SAT in recent years. In December 2008, NEWSWEEK reported on an internal College Board e-mail in which general manager Laurence Bunin wrote that Score Choice was motivated by "less kids taking the SAT" and thereby "threatening the viability of the program itself." [Klein did not respond to requests for comment about the e-mail or questions about the financial motivations behind Score Choice.]

That reinforced the notion that the shift is driven by bottom-line considerations, not what's best for students. "Everybody is going to tell you it's really a moneymaker for the College Board," says Jean Jordan, dean of admissions at Emory University, who shares that view. Another issue: some colleges are rejecting the Score Choice system and insisting that applicants send in every SAT score. There's also worry that by rewarding students who take the SAT many times, Score Choice unfairly penalizes lower-income students, whose lack of resources limits the number of times they can take the $45 exam. "There is no question that students from less—sophisticated backgrounds are at a disadvantage," says Edward Gillis, executive director of admissions at the University of Miami.

The basic idea behind Score Choice isn't new. Throughout the 50-year history of the ACT exam, students have been allowed to take the test repeatedly but report only their best score to colleges. From 1993 to 2001, the College Board used a similar system for its SAT II subject-specific tests. And some colleges insist the debate over Score Choice is overblown, because most schools have focused only on a student's best SAT scores all along. Typical is the University of California, which has a longstanding policy of using a student's highest score when making admittance decisions, says Susan Wilbur, director of undergrad admissions. "We don't encourage students to take it numerous times," she says. "Take it once, do your best, and move on."

But some observers feel Score Choice will inevitably create a disadvantage for those who can't afford multiple tests. Willard Dix runs College Access Counseling, which provides admissions training to public-school counselors and community groups serving low-income and minority students in the Chicago area. "Score Choice is pointless" for many of his clients, he says, since these students can't afford multiple tests or the pricey prep courses designed to bump up performance over time. "The less privileged are not worrying about stuff like that … They're worrying about applying to college and struggling to do the test just once," Dix says. "It is a silly, ridiculous thing for the College Board to do."

At Bronx Preparatory Charter School in New York's South Bronx, junior Darien Henry, 16, thinks Score Choice is unfair. At his school, most students take the SAT using fee waivers offered to low-income families, but the College Board limits waiver students to taking the test just twice. "Someone wealthier [will be] able to take the test multiple times and only send the best score," says Henry, who hopes to attend Syracuse University. Other students say they find the system just plain confusing, with some colleges accepting Score Choice and some insisting that students send all their scores (though it's not clear how a school will know if the student complies). "I don't think it helps our kids, and we are not recommending it," says Bronx Preparatory counselor Jessica London.

Even at upscale schools, parents and students are confused by the evolving set of rules. "Score Choice has been so frustrating for us," says Marcia Hunt, director of college counseling at Pine Crest School, an independent day school in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. She describes being in a meeting where college-admissions deans—the consumers of the test data—weren't sure how they should look at the new send-only-your-best-score system. "How is this simplifying or making [students] less anxious?" Hunt says.

Even if the implementation of Score Choice has been imperfect, admissions professionals agree it's time to do something to try to de-emphasize the SAT. "I've been a college counselor for 25 years, and students are becoming more hyperfocused on tests," says David Altshuler, a professional Miami-based independent college counselor who advises students and families. For students who simply don't do well on the test, there are hundreds of schools, including selective colleges like Bowdoin and Smith, that allow students to apply without sending any test scores. Still, in the echo chamber of competitive high schools, where college-search talk is incessant, the test takes on an inevitable high-stakes aura. Stephanie DiBernardo, a junior at St. Brendan High School in Miami, didn't do well the first time she took the SAT in early 2008, which only increases her anxiety. "I just feel like [my score] is more important than everything else I've done in the last three years," DiBernardo says. "I've got a 3.9, I am captain of the swim team, was on the track team, I take honors courses, and I feel like it all comes down to SATs."

In general, the scores tend to matter more at larger state schools, where the large number of applicants forces admissions official to rely more on formulas in which quantitative factors like SATs can weigh more heavily. But at smaller schools, or at colleges that devote more resources to admissions, the staff tends to look at applicants more holistically, and uses the SATs more as a benchmark for comparing high-achieving students from different high schools.

From a student's standpoint, the best strategy is to do as well as you possibly can on the test, but to keep your score in perspective. "There are brilliant and successful people who didn't do well on the SATs," says Timothy Sandoval, director of college counseling for the Bright Prospect Scholar Support Program, a Pomona, Calif., nonprofit that collaborates with high schools in low-income urban areas. Sandoval suggests students take the SATs no more than twice, "and use the rest of your Saturdays to read a good book or help someone in your community." That's sound advice no matter where you plan to apply.

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