Oct 24, 2011

'Score Choice' Continues to Cause Headaches

Two years after the College Board introduced the term Score Choice into the college admissions vocabulary, the program is still causing enormous confusion among applicants attempting to understand policies and at the same time devise ways to place their standardized test scores in the best possible light.

Within hours of posting, the October SAT’s produced no less than 300 phone calls to the University of Virginia admissions office from anxious parents and students focused on which scores to send and how quickly they would be received for early action consideration.

“Based on the number and tone of the calls we got yesterday (and so far this morning), some of you are freaking out about sending test scores,” complained Dean J, on her Notes from Peabody admissions blog. “I fear Score Choice has really complicated the process of sending scores….You don’t have to over think sending the scores. Send them and the system will pick out the best ones.”

But most students and their advisors aren’t so sure this is the case. Scores submitted are fair game, and if a college doesn’t require all scores, why send the bad ones? As a result, lots of handwringing goes into decisions involving which scores to send to what colleges and whether “alternative” application forms must be devised to accommodate all the various score requirements, which by the way are quietly changing.

The recently revised Score-Use Practices handbook produced by the College Board lists all the institutional policies they have on record and use for flagging score report requests. Locally, George Washington University, Georgetown, Howard, and the University of Maryland are listed by the College Board as requiring “all scores.” The GW website, however, suggests that students are free to use Score Choice. When asked, the University of Maryland admissions office states that they do not participate in Score Choice, but admits there is no guidance to that effect provided on their website or application materials. And so the headaches continue.

Other colleges listed as not permitting Score Choice include Carnegie Mellon University, Colgate, Columbia, Cornell, Harvey Mudd, Macalester, McGill, Penn, Pomona, Rice, the UC’s, University of South Carolina, Stanford, Scripps, Syracuse, Temple, and Yale. Again, it’s best to go directly to the college or university to confirm the policy.

According to the College Board, Score Choice allows students “the option to choose SAT scores by test date and SAT Subject Test scores by individual test" to send to colleges—all in accordance with each institution’s individual “score-use” practice. Score Choice is optional and not thoroughly policed, and if students choose to use it in defiance of a college’s stated practice, it’s hard (but not impossible) to catch.

According to the College Board, Score Choice was introduced to reduce student stress and make test-taking a pleasanter experience. Perhaps there is some truth to knowing that bad scores don’t have to be reported. But it’s not really that simple.

Before jumping to conclusions about the value of the Score Choice program, keep in mind the following:

1. There is no such thing as a trial run. Urban mythology among high school students suggests students can take the SAT (and the ACT) multiple times without penalty. Not so. An increasing number of colleges are demanding all scores, and because these kinds of policies are subject to annual revision, you could be caught with lots of unattractive scores that must be reported. And be aware that some colleges actually take a very dim view of students who take more than two standardized tests. It suggests the unlimited availability of funds for test taking and/or tutoring, and colleges think that’s unfair to low-income students.

2. Score Choice costs money. On its face, taking the exam multiple times costs money, $49 to be exact. But a hidden expense is the cost of reporting scores. When you take the SAT, you have 9 days to select 4 colleges to receive “free” reports as part of your registration package. If you think you’re going to use Score Choice, keep in mind that scores aren’t released until about 2.5 weeks after the exam which means you lose your 4 free reports. Score one for the College Board!

3. Gaming the system can work to your disadvantage. SAT Score Choice allows students to send all the scores from a single exam seating. If your best scores span two or more seatings (better math in one and better critical reading in another), the use of Score Choice could actually weaken your application by not giving admissions the opportunity to select your best scores for consideration.

4. Policies may differ for the ACT. Another wrinkle in the program involves the College Board’s biggest rival—the ACT. ACT had the original score choice option, and questions didn’t arise until the College Board decided this kind of policy might enhance their market position. Now schools may request all scores, meaning all SAT’s and all ACT’s (Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University) or they may request all scores from either the SAT or the ACT (Yale University). There’s no easy way to determine the policy other than carefully reading the information provided on individual college websites.

5. Policies may differ for Subject Tests. A college requiring all SAT’s may not require reporting of all SAT Subject tests taken, especially if they are considered “optional” for admissions consideration (Stanford University). But some do (Georgetown). Again, the only way to be sure is to check with the individual college.

6. Score Choice produces headaches for application completion. The philosophy behind the Common Application is that you should be able to complete a single form for multiple colleges. Score Choice complicates this process enormously. Different schools on your list could easily have different policies: one might allow Score Choice; one might require reporting of all scores; and one might be test-optional. To present the strongest application for each school, you might need to create three or more separate Common Applications (note that some test-optional schools require the Common Application to remove scores from the materials they receive but it’s complicated to know which those are).

7. Transcripts may foil Score Choice. A few high schools continue to post SAT scores on their transcripts. In the old days, this was considered a service for students because it saved the cost of ordering score reports in some cases. Now it’s much more of a liability for students wishing to employ Score Choice. Be sure to check with your guidance office to see if scores are being provided. If so, the decision to use Score Choice is moot.

For more information on Score Choice, check the College Board website. But for the most accurate and up-to-date policies, go directly to the colleges on your list.

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