Sunday, December 9, 2012

SAT & ACT Security Policies & What They Mean To You

Starting in 2013 America's two college entrance exams, the SAT and the ACT will be drastically tightening their security procedures.  They seem to be motivated by the general fetish for increased security in America and also by some recent "scandals", but the result will be a significantly different test-taking experience for millions of college-bound high schoolers, and the imposition of not a few obstacles that will make the test an even more arduous experience for students, test-center proctors, and parents.   The following is a discussion of the new policies and what they mean to you.

Background: The SAT and the ACT are the two standardized tests that college-bound high schoolers take in America.  While an increasing number of colleges and universities are becoming "test-optional", the vast majority of colleges require one or both of these tests for admissions and/or scholarship consideration.  As a result, LOTS of students take these tests; almost 3 million took the SAT and over 1.6 million took the ACT last year. The companies that administer the tests (ACT and the College Board) are non-profit entities but that doesn't mean that they don't make money; in 2011, the chief executives of the two organizations each made over $1 million in salaries.   The College Board and ACT take their role as "official-unofficial" gate-keepers to college admissions very seriously, and anything that would jeopardize that status (thus reducing the number of tests administered and lowering revenue) is matter of the highest priority to these companies.  

In the autumn of 2011, prosecutors in Great Neck, Long Island charged a score of teens for paying others (or accepting payment) to take standardized tests.  Morally weak kids who felt great pressure about the college application process met up with others who combined a skill at making fake I.D's with standardized test-taking chops and the result was a number of very suspicious test results. The College Board and ACT have always been vigilant when it comes to testing irregularities; the New York Times reports, "[a]ccording to the Educational Testing Service (E.T.S.), which administers the exam for the College Board, about 3,000 scores are canceled each year because of suspected cheating, 150 involving impersonation."  

All of that is about to change. Nassau County D.A. Kathleen Rice believes that prospective test cheaters should know that [t]hey will be caught, and they will be held accountable,” she said. “The old system did not ensure that.”  But the new one makes it much more likely that dishonest behavior will be  recognized and punished.  

The New Policies: To prevent cheating by impersonators using false-I.D., both the ACT and the SAT will require students to submit a "head shot" photo when they register for the test online.  The picture needs to be recent and when test-takers enter a test center they will be compared not just to the photo I.D. card which has been required for years, but also to the picture used when registering. Photo I.D.'s will also be checked more often--both images will have to be examined when re-entering the room following breaks and upon collection of the answer sheets.  How much time this will add to tests already approaching four hours long is hard to predict.  And since students are not allowed to bring telephones into test centers, parents may spend more time idling in school parking lots waiting for their (by then starving for lunch!) kids to come out of the building.  

Both tests will now require students to list their high school when registering--in fact, registrations will not be accepted without listing a high school.  The reason for this is that scores will automatically be sent to the schools, with the student's registration photo attached to the results.  This will be convenient for college counselors (previously schools only learned the results of the tests if students chose to share them) but it also puts guidance offices in the position of being the last defense against cheating; if the picture is not of the student, schools will notify E.T.S. or ACT, and presumably will also be able to penalize the student for violating any applicable school honesty rules. 

One final twist on the registration photo issue is that colleges receiving student SAT scores will now be able to have access to the database containing the registration pictures.  I wonder how tempted the colleges will be to take a look at their applicants' photos?  I'm not too concerned that they will use the snapshots to weed out unattractive students, but is it possible that they will make racial or ethnic determinations based on these pictures?  Some students purposely choose to leave the demographic questions on college applications blank, either because they don't want to answer, or because they don't know how to.  And this might become more of an issue, depending on the Supreme Court.  Later this term the Justices will rule on Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenges University of Texas' policy of taking race into consideration as part of a "holistic" admissions process.  If the Court says that Texas' policy is unconstitutional, might admissions representatives use the SAT pictures as a way of determining a students' race even if that information is not otherwise divulged?

Speaking of issues of identity, both tests now require students to submit their gender during registration.  I suppose that this is to prevent any problems with people whose names are confusing, but it seems kind of unfair to transgender teens.  Estimates are that one in 10,000 teens have serious gender issues, which could mean that annually about 450 people registering for the tests may be reluctant to identify as "male" or "female".  Whether this deters them from taking the test or causes any kind of distraction will be difficult if not impossible to track, but  to me it is significant enough that it is worth discussion. 

In addition to the photo I.D. requirements, students will no longer be able to change test centers or show up hoping to take the test at the last minute.  Test booklets will be sent for the students who registered in advance.  This will put a greater premium on awareness of registration deadlines and students will need to be prepared to travel to an unfamiliar location to take the exam.  For highly organized students in college-prep programs this should not be a problem, but for the less well-prepared kids this might be a further obstacle keeping them from taking the test enough times to generate their best "superscore"

But will any of this work?: It is estimated that less than one-tenth of one percent of test takers engage in the kind of dishonest behavior that went on in the Long Island cases.  Much more common (though still exceedingly rare) is cheating off of the egghead at a neighboring desk, or working without authorization on other sections of the test at improper times.   Sometimes students in earlier timezones will communicate with those further west to share inside information, which is virtually impossible to prevent.  The SAT has employed sophisticated algorithms to compare student's scores with those of test-takers in nearby seats, and will flag what it considers "suspicious" scores.  This is a very stressful situation for the students who are indirectly accused of cheating, and is certainly not foolproof. 

ETS claims to spend 10% of their annual revenue (over $20 million) on security, even though the percentage of would-be cheaters is so low.  Jon Erickson of ACT has said that vigilance is required "because millions of students and thousands of colleges, universities and scholarship programs rely on the integrity of [standardized test] scores to help make important life decisions."  I agree that the "integrity" of standardized test scores is important.  The point of these tests is that they are something that enables "fair" comparison between students with different family, educational and regional backgrounds.  While this is probably not what happens in practice, the theory is a good one.  But rather than making the test even more difficult to register for and administer, I would hope that colleges would simply recognize that an infinitesimally small number of tests may not be accurate due to dishonesty and that it is impossible to know which tests these are.   Then they could weigh standardized tests slightly less when making admissions decisions.   But so long as people are getting paid large salaries to devise standardized tests it is reasonable to assume that they will keep tweaking the process to make it more, rather than less cumbersome. 

As a history teacher, it always impresses me to see how quickly people's expectations can change.  When, for instance, I tell students that less than a dozen years ago it was possible to board an airplane without taking your shoes off, while carrying unlimited amounts of liquid and box cutters in your carry-on luggage they act like I am recounting a weird dream.   I wonder how long it will be before students find it incredible to believe that there was a time when someone could just show up at a standardized test center on the day of the exam?  At this rate, probably not long at all. 

Related Resources:  Feel free to read the ACT Press Release and the SAT Press Release (both in Portable Document Format) announcing their new security procedures. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

On Gaining Admission to A Most Competitive College

As part of Parents' Weekend at Wyoming Seminary, the College Guidance office hosted a presentation by Jordan Pascucci of the University of Pennsylvania.  Jordan is an admissions representative for Penn, responsible for covering the Middle East, Central and South Asia, United Kingdom and other territories, and at one time she also had responsibility for Northeastern Pennsylvania; she kindly gave an hour of her time to give a highly informative and entertaining presentation to an audience of about 60 parents and students.

Jordan began her presentation by promising to "share all of [her] secrets" with us, so that students will be able to use each piece of the admissions process to their advantage.  While many of her remarks were specifically describing "Most Competitive" colleges (the kind that accept fewer than 20% of applicants), I think that they will be of use to anyone going through the college admissions process.

Jordan's main points boiled down to the following concepts:

  • The best advice is to "be yourself" on the application.  When a college only accepts 3,000 out of maybe 30,000 applicants, it is important that the entire application packet clearly communicates who the student really is.  As Jordan observed, "out of 30,000 applications, maybe over 20,000 look the same.  Make sure that you are helping the reader to get to know you."  She suggests that a student should ask her close friends for 3 words that best describe her, and then see if those attributes come through in the essay.
  • Jordan made a point that I have tried to communicate to  my counselees in the past, which is that so much of the application process is totally outside the control of the student.  Students will never know who else is applying, nor will they really know what needs the college is seeking to fill. Jordan told us that colleges are seeking to put together the best class for the college that year, and want a community that combines the four "best classes" on campus at once.  Students of all different types are needed; if every student was valedictorian and class president in high school, it would be a very strange freshman class!
  • Because of all this uncertainty, all a student can control is that she describes herself as effectively as possible.  Jordan noted students should not try to fit a mythical "formula" that guarantees admission, instead they should demonstrate that they have taken full advantage of everything offered to them at their school.  Specifically,

    •    Every selective college is looking for kids who know that the most successful students ask for help.  Try to make sure that the application demonstrates initiative and curiosity.
    •    Students should prove that they can "go outside their comfort zone" and take risks.  To that end, it would be better to see a student who takes four years of English, History, Math, Science and Foreign Language (even if it requires some struggle) than to see a student forego the opportunity to study a subject at the highest level. Flexibility and experience with a wide range of liberal arts options will be very helpful in college.

  •  When writing the application essay, Jordan recommends that students take their time.  As she said, "the essay is your first impression--make it a strong one!" If the essay will provide an answer to questions like "What is this student like?"  or "What does this student want to get from our university, and what will they give back?" it will have done the job.
  • As far as standardized tests go, Jordan tried to reassure the audience that scores are a small part of a larger evaluation process.  She said that test scores are like height in basketball: it helps to be tall, but after a certain point it stops giving an advantage.  If a student's scores fit in the middle 50% of scores published on the college's website, students should probably not worry about tests.

  • Jordan's advice on filling out the application's list of activities was very interesting.  She said that when listing activities, it is not about the what, but about the why.  Why did a student do these activities?  She suggested that activities be listed in order of importance to the student.   And if an activity takes a significant amount of time, spread it out across several entries.  She gave the example of a chess player.  Rather than saying "Plays chess 10 hours per week", have separate entries for reading about chess, going to school chess club meetings, and competing in tournaments. That will give readers a chance to see what is important in that student's life, because chances are, students will continue those activities in college.
  • Jordan's final tip was especially relevant for Most Selective colleges, but was good advice in general.  Even when using the Common App, if there is a way to tailor the application to convey the impression that a student actually knows specifics about the college, it would be helpful.  Obviously many colleges have supplemental essays, with topics like "Why are you applying to our school?", but even without that, demonstrating awareness of and interest in a college is very helpful.

In conclusion, Jordan emphasized that universities like Penn (and countless other colleges as well) practice "holisitc" evaluation.  Admissions officers care about their students and about their schools.  When Jordan said that colleges want to set up students to succeed, I believed her.  There are so many wonderful colleges and universities out there, and there is a good fit for everyone.  Students should work to identify a college where they can succeed.  Once that has been done, hopefully these suggestions will be helpful in completing a strong application.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Five Things You Should Know About Student Loans

At this time of year (mid-October), most college-bound seniors are still finalizing their college lists and putting the finishing touches on their applications, while juniors are (correctly) focusing solely on having  their best year in and out of the classroom.  But looming in the distance for most families is the question of how to pay for college.

The cost of attending college is increasing at a phenomenal rate (over 8% per year).   Most private colleges have substantial amounts of so-called "merit aid" available to discount the sticker price and attract talented students, and nearly every college in America is eligible to receive need-based financial aid funding for American citizens from the U.S. government. Many students, however,  find that they and their families need to take out loans to help pay for their educations.   In fact, 2/3rds of college students who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average debt of $26,600 per borrower, according to the Project on Student Debt. The following are five points about student loans that may help you to evaluate your financial aid options.

1) Student Loans Are A Serious Obligation: While this might sound obvious, student loans must be paid back.  While some (Stafford) federal loans are "subsidized", meaning that interest only accrues post-graduation, the vast majority of student loans accumulate interest from the day the payment is issued.  But since students typically do not make loan payments while in school, it is often the case that when seeking a first job, they need to factor in a considerable loan payment in addition to rent and other fixed costs.  For instance, that average student with $26,600 in debt might face a monthly payment of $306.  According to, you would need to earn a yearly salary of at least $36,733 to be able to comfortably afford to pay this back.

Generally speaking, student loan debt is not a particularly bad form of debt.  Unlike, say, a car or a house, it is impossible for your creditors to repossess your education.  But on the other hand, student loan debt is the only kind of debt that cannot be relieved through bankruptcy.  If you fail to make your payments, creditors can legally garnish your wages and even your Social Security benefits.  Naturally, most college students are optimistic about the future and expect to make a comfortable living.  But it is vital to be aware of future loan obligations when choosing your field of study.  An entry-level job on Wall Street might be able to generate a salary that can handle your debt, but a job as a barrista at Starbuck's probably won't.

2) Not All "Student Loans" Are Created Equal: There are three different categories of loans: Federal student loans, parent loans (sometimes known as PLUS loans) and private (sometimes known as alternative) student loans.  Federal Student loans are either Stafford (the majority) or Perkins (rarely) and are based on family need as assessed by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  To further confuse things, Stafford loans can be subsidized or unsubsidized. The maximum amount of these loans is capped by law.  If more funding is required, parents can borrow money through the PLUS program; there is no legal limit on how much a parent can borrow under this program, and PLUS loans have a fixed interest rate.  If parents (or students) would prefer to try to shop around for better rates, or would like different repayment terms, many banks and other lending institutions are willing to loan money to help pay for college.  But students especially should beware of the risks of these loans:  they are not subsidized, the industry is not regulated, and failure to repay the loans could have a serious impact on your credit score, which can follow you for years.

3)Student Loan Debt Has A Huge Impact On The Economy:  According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, in 2010 student loan debt exceeded credit card debt; in 2011 it exceeded auto loan debt.

With student loans reaching such a large amount, they effect the economy in many ways.  One way is beneficial: the higher the level of academic achievement, the higher the salary earned, and the more likelihood of being employed.   The chart below, from the Bureau of Labor Services shows these correlations directly:

obviously based on this information, it is a prudent investment in oneself to go to college, and it may be wise to incur some short-term debt to help ensure long-term success. 

On the other hand, as we saw above, the costs of repaying student loans can be considerable, and if loan repayments crowd out other consumer purchasing they could be considered an overall drag on the economy. As seen in the chart at right, many purchases and major life decisions (ranging from where to live, when to marry and what career to pursue) are impacted by the need to repay loans. 

4) Student Loans Are Like Potato Chips--It Is Hard To Stop At One: Many students from lower or middle class families will accumulate some student loan debt in college, perhaps even up to the $26,000 range mentioned above.  But in many cases, the limits on Stafford loans can protect students from incurring unhealthy amounts of debt.  But when students consider graduate or professional programs, the picture changes dramatically; due to the higher limits for this level of education it is conceivable that a person could go from college to law school and wind up in an entry-level job with over $138,000 in debt.  Considering the increasingly bleak job outlook for law school graduates, this is alarming, to say the least.

 Since limits are even higher for medical school, it is not unheard of for a young doctor to enter her practicing career with over a quarter of a million dollars of student loan obligations to repay.

The chart at left shows the debt load of a young doctor--it is dramatically different from the example seen above!  Considering the bad economy and the temptation of high paying professional careers, many students enter college planning to follow their four-year undergraduate career with several more in graduate school.  But keeping the costs of loan repayment in mind makes it crucial to weigh future earnings carefully; based on this chart, a young doctor would need to earn over $348,000 as a starting salary.  But based on Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, that is extremely unlikely.

5) Knowledge Is Power: In my job as a college counselor at a private high school in Pennsylvania, I have noticed an increasing number of students making college choices based on finances.  Students at our school are very successful in gaining admission to the colleges of their choice, but (especially since the start of the Great Recession) many have ended up matriculating at their second or third favorite school due to a more attractive bottom line cost. If a student is planning to pursue a graduate degree, or is interested in a major with less readily apparent connections to jobs (say, philosophy, or English literature), families should keep the idea of loan repayments in the forefront of their minds when choosing colleges.  Also, not all financial aid awards are equal.  As of 2012, every college is required to have a "Net Price" calculator on their website. These tools should allow an applicant to get a preview of the kind of scholarships and aid they can expect from the college, including loans.  When families are gathered around the kitchen table deciding what colleges to apply to, it is well worth the effort to compare the information on these calculators.  Some schools expect families (parents and students) to take out a considerable amount of loans.  Some people have advocated that we stop calling loans "financial aid", but for now it is wise to educate yourself about this form of debt. Finally, educate yourself about recent changes in the law that can help people in certain professions discharge their loan debt ahead of schedule. The more you know, the better informed you will be when deciding where to go for college, which for many people will be the most expensive thing you will ever buy.

Please feel free to add comments to this blog below.  I would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Musings on the SAT Report on College & Career Readiness: 2012

On September 24, 2012, the College Board released a 43 page long report entitled "The SAT® Report on College & Career Readiness: 2012".  For people like me (who love to look at and analyze data to try to observe trends) it is a very interesting and useful resource.  Some of the interesting information one can find in the report includes:
  • Information about the "SAT Benchmark", a measurement that indicates that a cumulative score of 1550 (out of 2400) is associated with "a 65 percent probability of obtaining a first year college GPA (FYGPA) of a B- or higher, which in turn is associated with a high likelihood of college success."(p.21)
  • A table listing the mean Critical Reading, Math and Writing (where applicable) scores for every year from 1972 until 2012
  • A table listing the mean scores (Critical Reading and Math) by state for the years 2002, 2011 and 2012.  This table shows why state to state comparisons are impossible--100% of Delaware students took the SAT in 2012, but only 3% of Iowa's high schoolers did (doubtless most of them took the ACT, a competing product that asks different kinds of questions than the SAT).
I should make clear from the outset that I am philosophically opposed to all kinds of standardized tests, as I am convinced that the people who do well on these tests are good test takers, not necessarily good students.  And to it's credit, the "SAT Report..." goes to great lengths to address this concern.  On page 5 they note that, "Research shows that the SAT along with high school grades is a highly effective combination for predicting how well a student will perform in college."  On page 8 they include information from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors that puports to show that standardized test scores are not the primary measuring tool used in college admissions:

Despite these protestations, the College Board is definitely concerned. Headlines in major newspapers discussing  the "SAT Report..." loudly proclaiming "SAT Reading Scores Hit A Four-Decade Low" are bad publicity for education, the nation's young people and the test itself.  1.66 million of  the students who graduated in the class of 2012 took the test, up from 1.56 million four years ago.  And those extra test takers are not helping lift the average, as the data below indicates (all scores are on a range between 200-800):

In fact, the trend has not been very good for quite sometime.  As you can see from the data below, scores have been stagnant or falling since the turn of the millenium.

Considering that many schools are required to use standardized tests to demonstrate that they are achieving "Adequate Yearly Progress" as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, it must be alarming to see a large sample set (over one and a half million) provide evidence of a decline rather than an improvement.  

Unfortunately, there is a pretty obvious answer for why this phenomenon has occurred.  According to the Census Bureau, the number of people living in poverty has increased from 31.5 million in 2000 to 43.5 million in 2009 to 46.2 million people in 2011. While the population has increased over that time, the poverty rate has grown disproportionately (thanks to two major recessions) from 11.3 % in 2000 to 15% in 2011. Worse still is the fact that the poverty rate for children was a staggering 21.9% in 2011.

The reason why these numbers are relevant to a discussion of standardized tests (especially the SAT), is that there are only two proven factors that correlate with success on the SAT.  First is practice: on average, people will see a 40 point overall increase the second time they take the test.  The second is household income: children from wealthier families do better than those from poorer families.  In fact, since the SAT costs $50 per test (though fee waivers are available for poor kids through their college guidance office) it stands to reason that better-off kids can afford to take it more often. 

The data is quite stark.  This chart from the Washington Post clearly demonstrates the advantage of wealth on the SAT:

While it doesn't make sense to compare medians to means, if we look at the above data, it would seem  that a student from a family earning the median income in the US ( $50,054 in 2011), might be likely to score somewhere around 1450 on the SAT.  The national average SAT in 2012 was 1488, not that far off.   And overall, the median income is 8% lower than it was before the Great Recession began in 2007.  

With the increase in income inequity in America and the corresponding decline in average household income, the fastest growing part of the population is in the lowest income brackets.  The SAT Report..." indicates that 22% of test takers last year received fee waivers (which are typically only given to families who are eligible for free lunches at public school), and that 46% of them came from families where English was not the first language (p. 15).  The likelihood that students from that income bracket will achieve the kinds of scores that will gain the attention of elite colleges is quite low, and English as a Second Language (ESL) students are not likely to score highly in the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the SAT. 

Before you lose all hope and dismiss the SAT as a rigged game in favor of the 1% (which would not be a correct conclusion), the "SAT Report..." prefers to note that there is another factor that has a direct correlation with high test scores--taking AP and/or Honors level classes in school.   

But on the other hand, that is also misleading.  According to the College Board itself, only about a third of high schools in America offer AP courses.  So it is reasonable to believe that many of the other two-thirds are schools in poor neighborhoods, with poor students and overloaded teachers who are not able to offer small classes for the top achievers.  I guess it really does all come down to location, location, location.

It is hard to read this report and come out feeling positively towards the SAT.  While one can hope that the dedicated professionals working in the nation's college admissions offices are aware of the income discrimination built into the SAT and are trying to find ways to compensate for it when making their decisions, it may not be true.  After all, it is in the best interests of a college to demonstrate that their incoming class has high SAT scores---that is part of the formula for high rankings in lists like that of US News and World Reports.  Ultimately, I rest my optimism on the increasing numbers of colleges that are joining the National Center For Fair and Open Testing ( choosing to be "test-optional", providing a way for people with low standardized test scores to get an unbiased look from college admissions offices.  Over 850 colleges have already agreed to go test-optional, including several large, well-known and highly ranked schools.  Perhaps someday enough schools will join FairTest to cause a tipping point, and the CollegeBoard's test will either change, or slip back into the margins.

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself....

Welcome to the blog.  My name is Ethan Lewis, and I am the Associate Director of College Guidance at Wyoming Seminary, a boarding and day school in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  I have been a college counselor since 2006, and have been working at independent schools since 1996.  During that time I have been deeply interested in the sometimes obvious, sometimes intricate, sometimes arcane world of college admissions.  The purpose of this blog is to share my thoughts, insights and suggestions with my readers.

The blog is called "Tip of the C.A.P.", because of the tips it contains on the College Admissions Process.  It will also include analysis of recent trends in college admissions.  I hope you enjoy it, and look forward to reading your comments!