Students taking multiple choice test.

Kids Can Pick Which SAT Scores a College Sees

The new policy very likely will be popular with students, but what do admissions officers think?

Students taking multiple choice test.

Attention, high school juniors: Starting next spring, you can determine which of your SAT scores a college gets to see. The College Board's current policy is that if you send one score to a school, that college also can see the scores from every time you've taken the test. But starting in March 2009, students will be able to hide SAT-taking blemishes like a low score or maybe the fact that they took the test half a dozen times.

"We found was this was a good way to make the test more comfortable and less stressful for students, while maintaining the integrity of the SAT test," says Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the SAT. "Students really wanted to be able to have more flexibility over controlling their scores."

The score-reporting change is the latest shake-up to the standardized test that has been a college admissions staple for decades. Test makers revamped the SAT in 2005—with the addition of a writing section, among other things—aiming to improve the test's ability to predict college success. But just last week, the College Board released new validity studies, and though board members declared the changes a success, the findings also showed that the 2005 overhaul "did not substantially change how well the test predicts first-year college performance." Meanwhile, the ACT has become increasingly popular with students, in part because of the score-choice policy that the SAT now appears to be emulating.

"It's clearly a marketing move to try to fend off the growing perception that the ACT is a more consumer-friendly product," says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the group FairTest, an organization that monitors standardized tests for signs of bias. Schaeffer says that while kids may be relieved to know that one bad testing day will not create an albatross for them forever, the change could create a different sort of stress. Students may now wonder if they should just keep retaking the test since an admissions office won't necessarily see their lower scores.

Some counselors also have raised concerns that the new choice in SAT score reporting will give a boost to kids who can afford to take the $45 test multiple times and to sign up for tutoring sessions. Bob Bardwell, a school counselor and director of guidance and student support services at Monson High School in Monson, Mass., says, "We all like choices in our life, but I think the students who will benefit from this the most are students who are not in the group that I'm most concerned about getting assistance for—first-generation and low-income students."

The College Board says such criticisms are unfounded, noting that the average score gain on the first SAT retake is 40 points and that "there's no advantage to taking the SAT more than twice, and our fee waivers let low-income students take the test [free] twice."

But if there's really no advantage to taking the SAT more than twice, then why make it possible for kids with money to do so? Ned Johnson of PrepMatters Inc., a test preparatory and educational counseling firm in Bethesda, Md., explains that the student has "everything to gain and nothing to lose." He adds that while some families will surely go to excess and sign students up to take the test a dozen if not two dozen times, he thinks such cases will be rare.

The new policy raises other questions, too. If colleges are prevented from seeing a student's score history, it will keep them from understanding the way in which students earned their scores. For example, Johnson notes that a student who earns a 750 on her math test the first time out is very different from a student who earns a 750 on her math test the 10th time out: One has talent, the other perseverance (and, perhaps, coaching). Both are valuable qualities—does it matter that colleges won't be able to distinguish one from the other?

Some colleges say yes. Timothy Brunold, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that USC opposes the new option—because it obscures the context in which students earned their scores—and may still require applicants to submit all SAT attempts. Schaeffer notes that if roughly 3 percent of the 1.5 million students who take the test annually took it just one additional time—so 50,000 tests at $45 apiece—that would mean an extra $2.25 million for the College Board.

college admissions