Gaming SAT Scores

The headline most of the media used for their stories about new data on SAT scores was that “Only 43% of College-Bound Seniors Are College Ready.” It is a good headline to get people to read a story about how badly secondary eduction is in the United States. But buried in the fine print are warnings about how school systems may “game” the testing process to achieve the results that they want.

The overall results from the SAT report showed that education among American students is a disaster. The latest scores show that the many-year decline in “college readiness” continues to worsen when compared over years. The data also show what might have been expected. Children from poor families, minority children and children from families in which parents have no more than a high-school education are at a disadvantage when they take the test. Each of these factors has been present for years and has been the focus of endless debates and a search for solutions.

But what about the role that the education system itself plays in score data? A document titled “Guidelines on the Use of College Board Test Scores and Related Data” begins with this statement:

These guidelines are designed to assist users, and those who are otherwise interested in College Board tests and related data,with the most helpful, fair and proper use of the tests and data. The guidelines are developed by the membership of the College Board through both special and standing committees and standing councils that periodically review and revise the procedures in order to ensure that they remain accurate and relevant.

Those who are “otherwise interested” include schools. Among the use of the data that is to be avoided is “Discouraging certain students from taking tests in an effort to increase a school’s or district’s average score.”

The guideline must be there for a reason. The College Board must believe, or know, that this kind of “gaming” of scores has gone on before and is a current problem. School systems are under extreme pressure to show that they offer better educations than other systems in their regions. Parents move in and out of areas because they want their children to get the best preparation for college. That migration can be either good or bad for property and school tax bases.

The confusion and battles of how the scores effect the college admission of students and why students from poor or minority areas should be tested differently continue as they have for years. Amongst these issues is the one that should cause extreme worry: whether the work of children and teachers are undermined by their own school systems.

Douglas A. McIntyre