The College Board Says "Take a Mulligan"

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Isabel Kaplan Novelist, Screenwriter, Harvard '12 grad; @isabelkaplan

The SAT is a learnable, beatable test. You can learn exactly what skills will be tested, and you can learn what tricks the College Board might sneak into the multiple choice questions. Now, with the inclusion of Score Choice, the SAT is going to be even more beatable.

Beginning with the high school class of 2010, students who take the SAT will have the option of only sending their highest scores to colleges, withholding lower scores they don't want college admissions offices to see. Under the current system, students can take the SAT as many times as they want, and the College Board automatically sends all scores. Starting next fall, students will have the option of hiding their bad scores using a system called Score Choice.

At my private high school, there were many students who took the SAT multiple times. Taking the SAT reasoning test costs $45. In response to the announcement of the new Score Choice system, several critics have voiced concern that it will only help those students who can afford to take the test multiple times and can afford the tutoring and coaching required to improve scores.

The SAT is a test that, theoretically, is meant to test intelligence. In reality, the test is an inadequate judge of intellect. Adding Score Choice only further detracts from the original point of this standardized test. Laurence Bunin, a senior vice president at the College Board, says students can "feel very comfortable going into the test center because, goodness forbid, if for whatever reason they don't feel comfortable, it won't be on their permanent record forever."

Having just made it through the college process, I am fairly confident in saying that I don't think it's possible to make standardized test taking a comfortable experience. Sure, maybe you would feel a little less nervous if you knew going into the test, as you sit there with your calculator and sharpened number two pencils, that if you really, really bomb it, no worries! You can just do some more test prep, take it again (and then another time, if necessary) and nobody will ever have to know that you really screwed up that Math/Reading/Writing section.
But is this really a good thing? And, doesn't it make the SAT even more of a game than it already is?

I was in one of the first waves of students to take the new SAT--the SAT that included an essay section and was scored out of 2400 as opposed to 1600. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take an SAT preparation course, and, during one of the lessons, I was given guidelines for writing an essay that would receive a high score. The most important thing was to use two divergent examples, I was told, and somehow make them relate to each other. Writing about personal experiences is always good. But, don't worry, you can write about a made up personal experience. Wait, what? I asked. You can make up a personal experience? Yup.

I understand that the essay is supposed to test writing skill as opposed to authenticity of content, but, I wonder, isn't this a little silly? In spring of senior year, the topic of the SAT essay came up in my English class. My AP English teacher was horrified to hear that it was perfectly acceptable to make up personal experiences for the sake of the argument. I know people who have invented dead uncles, divorced parents, and adopted siblings. Personally, I invented a love for Martha Stewart (which I somehow managed to tie to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness).

From the student's perspective, this might not be a bad thing. The number of applicants with SAT scores of 2400 is huge, and because of this, even a perfect score doesn't mean acceptance to the college of your choice. As an applicant, it is in your best interest to have as high an SAT score as possible, and Score Choice will make this more achievable.

That may be good news for some applicants. But for admissions committees looking for a reliable measure of intelligence, not so much.