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Weighing in on “Test Optional”

One of the most common questions I hear from students and parents involves that idea of “test optional” schools. As a result of the COVID-19 dilemma, some colleges and universities have seemingly relaxed their admission requirements in order to accommodate those students who weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT due to cancellations. It’s a great gesture by those schools, but it’s been confusing for students. Does it mean you don’t even need to take an SAT? If you already have an ok score, does it mean there’s no need to push for more? Is everyone just getting admitted based on GPA?

No, no, and no.

What does “test optional” mean?

In a June 9 web article, Forbes Magazine took a look at the top schools who’ve gone “test optional” and dug in to what that actually means. Forbes maintains a ranked list of the top colleges and universities, and author Christopher Rim used that list to see which elite schools have switched to “test optional.” Of the top 20 on the Forbes list, only six had made the decision to make the SAT or ACT optional. Four of those schools were Ivy League institutions: University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Cornell. The other two schools to offer test optional application were Cal Tech and Pomona College.

The key, however, isn’t that some schools are “test optional.” The real key is to understand what that actually means. As Rim writes in his Forbes piece, “test optional” isn’t the same as “test blind.” The schools who aren’t requiring an SAT or ACT score aren’t trying to discourage students from taking the exams. On the contrary, other than Cal Tech, the “test optional” schools on the Forbes list are all still considering test scores for admission, placement, and merit scholarships. The schools are still accepting scores and are still using them. Students applying this year simply have the option to submit their applications without accompanying test scores.

Is “test optional” the new normal?

And this brings up a secondary point. Of the “test optional” schools, most of them are instituting this policy for this application year only. The anticipation is that students who apply next year–those who are about to enter their junior year this fall–will still need competitive test scores to gain entrance.

The “test optional” disadvantage

Additionally, Rim writes that this “test optional” policy could actually create a disadvantage for those students who apply without a test score. This would serve to single out students who hadn’t prepared for and taken an official exam early enough to have a score to submit.

Most students aiming for some of the top schools in the country prepare and sit for these tests early in their high school career. Omitting test scores on a college application to a competitive school indicates a failure to prepare as early as students can.

So as we enter the fall season and school begins to come into view, it’s as important as ever to begin preparation for the SAT or ACT as soon as possible! The next SAT dates are August 29 and September 26, and the ACT will offer several test dates in September (9/12, 9/13, and 9/24) and October (10/10, 10/17, 10/24, and 10/25).

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ACT Adds Five New Dates

The ACT announced this week that they’ll be adding five new testing dates to the Fall 2020 lineup. These dates, shown in the list below, will be potentially available beginning the last week of July, when registration opens.

  • Saturday, September 12, 2020
  • Sunday, September 13, 2020
  • Saturday, September 19, 2020
  • Saturday, October 10, 2020
  • Saturday, October 17, 2020
  • Saturday, October 24, 2020
  • Sunday, October 25, 2020

What this means for students is more flexibility for them to take the test in the fall. For those already working through a summer program, it means several options to get a good result. For those thinking about starting test prep, this is the time!

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“Test Optional” and the SAT/ACT

As part of the academic fallout from COVID-19, several test dates for the ACT and SAT were canceled. This left many students to wait until the fall to take their exams. Some colleges and universities, to help mitigate the situation, announced that they would become “test optional” schools. The headlines emphasized the term “test optional,” but news stories rarely dug into what it means for the SAT and ACT.

What does “test optional” mean?

The true significance of “test optional” schools is that students are able, if they choose, to apply without submitting test scores. However, colleges and universities–even the ones labeling themselves as “test optional”–are still considering ACT and SAT scores for admission, class placement, and merit-based aid. In fact, in a recent survey of college admission departments, over 80% of colleges feel that ACT and SAT scores are important evaluators for prospective students.

The California conundrum

Creating even more confusion was California’s decision to drop the SAT and ACT from their university system’s evaluation process. By 2024 or 2025, the state declared, California would no longer use either test for college admission. Again, headlines touted the decision as groundbreaking and game-changing, but the fine print contained the real story. As California phases out its use of the SAT and ACT, the state will be creating its own standardized test to use for students seeking admission. So they’re simply replacing one test with another of their own creation. This isn’t surprising, considering that the UC faculty recently announced that SAT and ACT scores were far more accurate predictors of college success, even for minority groups, than were students’ GPAs.

Why is a standardized test so important?

One of the major takeaways for students and parents should be a simple one: standardized tests aren’t going anywhere. With the volume of applications that arrive at a competitive school–for example, Stanford receives over 48,000 applications, while UCLA gets over 110,000 annually–colleges and universities need to have ways to work through those applications efficiently.

Student GPAs, while incredibly important, don’t tell a student’s whole story. A 4.0 at one school might not represent the same thing as a 4.0 at another. One school might have been academically rigorous, while the other might not. Test scores provide that objective benchmark schools need to couple with the rest of a student’s academic career. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of applicants, being able to get a quick snapshot is vital.

What does it all mean?

The end result is that preparing for the SAT and ACT is still vitally important, even in the post-COVID world. For juniors, the summer is the absolute best time to begin working to improve your test scores and opening the doors that a good ACT or SAT can provide!

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Surveys and Polls on the SAT

2020 has been an interesting year, to say the least. COVID-19, earthquakes, murder hornets, and a rejuvenated civil rights movement have all hit the headlines in the first half of the year. As we enter the summer, however, the drama dial will be turned up to 11 as the next wave of chaos rolls in: the 2020 presidential election. And as part of that process, Americans will be inundated with surveys and polls. Even standardized test takers aren’t immune! Understanding surveys and polls on the SAT is an integral part of success on the math sections.

We’ll take a look at a couple of examples of polling and survey questions on the test and talk you through the strategy behind them.

Question 1: How to create a successful poll

A political scientist wants to predict how the residents of New Jersey will react to a new bill proposed in the state senate. Which of the following study designs is most likely to provide reliable results for the political scientist?

A) Mailing a questionnaire to each of 300 randomly selected residents of New Jersey

B) Surveying a group of 200 randomly selected New Jersey residents

C) Interviewing a group of students randomly selected from a large public university in New Jersey

D) Surveying a group of 1,500 randomly selected US residents

Any ideas? This is a fairly straightforward question that tests students on what makes a survey valid. Students can usually eliminate choices C) and D) because they don’t involve New Jersey residents directly.

But A) and B) can be a little more tricky. A) seems like the right choice at first glance because the survey involves more respondents–if it weren’t for the fact that the success of a questionnaire is dependent on a person returning it. Would all 300 residents return the survey? And, as I often ask my students, who returns a mailed questionnaire? A person who has a more pressing or direct interest in the issue! So while the political scientist may get some data from the questionnaire, a far more reliable method would be to directly survey a random group of state residents.

Question 2: What do the poll results mean?

A city with 120,000 residents is voting on a proposal that would eliminate overnight parking of vehicles on the city’s streets. An independent company randomly surveys 1,200 residents to see whether or not residents would support this proposal. The outcome of the survey shows that 60% of the residents surveyed approve of the proposal with a margin of error of 2%. Which of the following statements is a plausible conclusion from the outcome of the study?

A) Exactly 60% of city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

B) There are 72,000 city residents who approve eliminating overnight parking.

C) About 2% of the city residents do not approve eliminating overnight parking.

D) Between 58% and 62% of the city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

In this question, the survey has already been completed and the results are in: 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking with a margin of error of 2%. This question is focused on just what that result means.

We can eliminate choice A) because of one word: exactly. While a well-done poll can give a predicted result that is very close to reality, it’s still just that–a prediction. Even under the best of conditions, it’s not an exact science. One only needs to look at predictions surrounding recent elections to see how unscientific polls can be.

B) is an attractive choice because it looks like it might require some math. Surely the SAT would want us to calculate something in a math question! And, in fact, 60% of 120,000 is 72,000. The problem, however, comes back to the exactness of that result. A poll is always a prediction. So to say that 72,000 people would approve is far too precise for any poll. If the answer had said, “Around 72,000 city residents will likely approve…”, it would be far closer to the truth.

That leaves us with C) or D), and the choice between the two comes down to an understanding of the term “margin of error.” Because polls are only predictors, polls are often presented with a bit of wiggle room. Our poll said that 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking. That 2% margin of error is just that: a range in which the truth might actually lie. And choice D) reflects that idea. According to the poll results, the correct percentage that approves could be anywhere between 58% and 62%, given the margin of error.

Takeaways

The most important strategy to use with questions about surveys and polls on the SAT is an important strategy for every question on the test: read carefully. The test writers aren’t doing you any favors, and they’ll word things in convoluted ways just to make it tougher on you. If you’re working too quickly, it can be easy to overlook words like “exactly” or “likely,” and those types of words can be incredibly important. So take a breath and read that question carefully.

Practicing on actual SATs is also helpful. Poll and survey questions appear in the no-calculator and/or calculator sections of nearly every SAT, and the more of them you see and work through, the less likely that you’ll be duped by a trick. So putting in the time to practice is essential to be successful on these questions, as well as all the other types you’ll see on a typical SAT.

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Choosing the Right School

For most students across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the end of the academic year. Juniors and seniors saw the March, April, May, and June SATs canceled. Those students who would normally receive vital guidance from their school counselors as the year wrapped up were not able to get it. Because of this, it’s becoming increasingly important for students and parents to have good resources to help them choose the right school for their financial and academic needs. And choosing the right school can be easier if you know where to look.

Money.com

Money.com has one of the best ranking sites to help parents and students balance the financial cost of the college decision with the academic achievement and potential future earnings a particular school could provide. The initial web page has Money.com’s rankings based on over 19,000 data points. The rankings take into account such elements as potential student debt, standardized test scores, acceptance rate, and graduation rate.

Some of the schools that rank high on the Money.com list aren’t surprising: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. What is surprising is that the number one value in the country, according to the list, is the University of California-Irvine.

What makes the Money.com list even more valuable to college seekers is that feature that allows a user to rank the colleges based on numerous criteria. For example, if a student wanted to study marine biology at a mid-sized school in the western United States, s/he could enter in those parameters, and the website would show which schools fit the bill. Incidentally, the top school for our future marine biologist would be Sonoma State University.

BigFuture

College Board has their own detailed search for colleges, though it doesn’t have some of the more interesting financial features of the Money.com site. BigFuture is easy to use and can also be a great way of narrowing down school choices. One of the most helpful features of the site, as you might expect, is that it provides the desired SAT and ACT ranges for colleges.

The range of scores is presented with the lower score representing the 25th percentile–meaning 25% of incoming freshmen scored below that number–and the higher value representing the 75th percentile. Students applying to a particular school should be shooting for an SAT or ACT score in the middle or higher to have the best chance of being accepted.

BigFuture also allows students and parents to sort through schools by size, type, location, and other parameters to narrow their focus. And while the Money.com site focuses on the academic and financial aspects, BigFuture also allows students to refine their search by sports and activities, diversity, and other social factors.

Together, both sites can be invaluable resources when choosing the right school for you!