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February 18, 2016

SAT changes won’t affect Pitt

Changes in the SAT, which will take effect March 23, are making some Pitt applicants anxious but won’t change the University’s student assessment process, says Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA).

The most significant SAT change will be making the essay portion of the test optional, thereby reducing the perfect score from 2400, where it has sat for a decade, back to its former 1600 total — a combination of top scores in the English and mathematics sections. The College Board, which administers the SAT, also will no longer penalize test takers for guessing by deducting points for incorrect answers. Questions will be redesigned in most sections of the test.

“The SAT made some changes it should have made years ago,” Harding says. They are modernizing the test, he says, by shifting it to resemble its rival ACT test.

Pitt has examined students’ SAT essay-writing scores during the admissions process, says Kellie Kane, OAFA director of operations and strategic planning and Pitt’s liaison to the College Board. But the University does not download the handwritten essays, instead asking for a writing sample directly from the student. Harding says the essays haven’t been representative of true college writing tasks; instead, they’ve too often been filled with “SAT words” — big words and buzz words, rather than the simple, direct, concrete language good writing teachers recommend.

One reason for the SAT change: The ACT has gained in popularity in recent years at a much greater rate than the SAT, although the latter also has seen growth. In 2005, 99 percent of Pitt applicants took the SAT while only 20 percent took the ACT. (Students can, and do, take both.) By 2015, only 85 percent of Pitt applicants took the SAT while nearly half — 46 percent — took the ACT.

Whether Pitt continues to see a majority of applicants who choose the SAT may be a function of geography. Pitt draws its students mainly from the East Coast, which, along with the West Coast and Texas, is dominated by students who take the SAT. The ACT is taken most often by students who live in the center of the country. That includes Ohio, ranked third among states from which Pitt draws applications.

The University, Harding says, will remain “a test-friendly environment for applicants,” because students are assessed on their “super score” — a combination of the best math score and the best English score on either college entrance exam. Thus, Harding suggests prospective students take both the SAT and ACT. “The changes they’re making are not going to change our process here,” he says of the College Board. “We don’t care what a student takes. But they have to take something. It’s at least common ground … it’s one piece of the puzzle, one tool” used in the entire country.

Kane calls the ACT and SAT “almost a necessity, given the grading scales at high schools,” which differ so widely across the U.S. as to make A’s on one transcript tough to compare to A’s on another.

Pitt does not plan to weight the new SAT differently in its admissions process following the March 23 change. Says Harding: “The new test — we won’t know, SAT won’t know, how the new test scores stack up against their old test scores” — at least not for a while. The College Board has “recentered” its own scores several times over the past few decades, reassessing how it believes one era’s average score ought to stack up against that of the previous eras.

Kane and Harding are most pleased with another SAT change: The College Board has added a new test-preparation aid, partnering with the Khan Academy to offer free online college prep.

The tutoring is individualized, based on deficiencies spotted on a practice test offered to high schoolers. This may help ameliorate a continuing deficiency of the SAT and ACT: Scores are better among teens whose parents have a higher economic status.

—Marty Levine

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