Aug 14, 2010

College Board Eliminates Guessing Penalty for AP’s—Can the SAT Be Far Behind?

The cat is out of the bag. Any plans the College Board had for an official August announcement were blown when a recent memo to Advanced Placement (AP) school coordinators was circulated on the NACAC listserv revealing the elimination of the “guessing” penalty for multiple-choice sections of all AP exams.

“Beginning with the May 2011 AP Exam administration, total scores on the multiple-choice section will be based on the number of questions answered correctly,” wrote Kelly Fitzsimmons, of the College Board. “Points will no longer be deducted for incorrect answers and, as always, no points will be awarded for unanswered questions.”

Under the old College Board policy, AP scores were based on the total number of correct answers minus a fraction for every incorrect answer—one-third of a point for questions with four possible answers and one-fourth of a point for questions with five possible answers. AP students were trained to work the odds by eliminating one or more possible answers and then making an “educated guess.” In fact, the College Board traditionally supported this strategy saying, “…if you have SOME knowledge of the question, and can eliminate one or more answer choices, informed guessing from among the remaining choices is usually to your advantage.”

So after years of counseling test takers against random guessing, the College Board is relenting and students may now do so without fear of hurting their AP scores. This is indeed good news for a few, who absent direct knowledge of correct answers or in the face of time constraints may comfortably bubble in responses to every question. It’s not Vegas or the Lottery, but it sure looks like Lady Luck could figure in here.

Last year, the College Board announced plans to redesign a number of AP courses starting in the 2011-12 academic year. The new scoring policy is being advertised as one element of an overall reconfiguration of the tests to decrease emphasis on more complex multiple-choice questions.

Well, maybe. But the more suspicious among us can’t help but feel like this concession might represent a first step toward eliminating a similar guessing penalty on the SAT Reasoning and Subject Tests. It’s hard to justify keeping it for one test and not the other.

The ACT, which is rapidly gaining significant market share against the SAT in the DC area, has never had such a penalty. And let’s face it—being able to guess is a significant stress reducer. Test takers really appreciate not having to waste time and mental energy deciding whether or not to chance a guess—educated or not educated.

In fact, the absence of a penalty for guessing may account for some part of the increased popularity of the ACT. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, described the ACT as “more consumer-friendly.” And it is

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