Anxiety of admissions
If there is one cause of stress for high school students motivated by academic expectations, it is the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, or SATs, as they are fondly known. The importance of these standardized tests has become a matter of fact, with college careers on the line and an entire industry of practice pre-testing reinforcing the perception SAT scores will make or break a person's next step in higher education.
Yet numbers released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for 2014 indicate SAT scores statewide are falling. Many schools actually came in above the national average, but the trend can't be ignored, especially as it's an indicator of shifting winds at the college level.
Scores flatten out
As that "average" band of SAT scores and student grades in general swells in the tide of applicants, colleges have reacted by changing admittance standards.
The need for such changes are felt all the more by because of changes in the SAT scoring system itself, applied as recently as 2005, when the introduction of a new writing field increased the possible score from 1600 to 2400. Another change is expected next year.
The higher education system doesn't change in a day, and the test score system is now changing before colleges can determine what the numbers mean.
Moravian College Vice President of Enrollment Steve Soba said the results of standardized tests are much less important than they used to be when considering applicants. Because so many high school students today automatically consider college their next step, and test scores vary in meaning, the college is looking for more well-rounded students.
Soba said his office is now more interested examining all aspects of an applicant's life – including those beyond scholastics. High school attendance, course load, AP or honors-level classes, extracurriculars and even employment, all factor.
"If they were in student government, band, had a job and maintained good grades, that's very impressive to us."
Soba questioned whether the stress standardized tests places on high schoolers is worthwhile, saying in his 22 years in enrollment management he's yet to see a study indicating SAT score correlation with students' success. Life happens and a standardized test alone can't predict the events of a student's college career.
Lehigh University Director of Admissions Bruce Bunnick echoed Soba, saying the Southside institution today takes a holistic approach to enrollment.
"The SAT plays a role in our evaluation, but is not a measurement of the student's passions, aspirations or future plans," Bunnick said.
"At this point, we are experiencing an increase in total applications, which means the overall quality of students seeking admission to Lehigh is increasing annually. We haven't changed our overall feelings about the predictive validity of the SAT, but, like many colleges and universities across the U.S., are following the updates provided by The College Board regarding the redesign of the SAT planned for 2016."
The College Board, which designs the tests and study materials, asserts the SAT is rigorously researched and designed specifically to maintain the predictive validity enrollment officials view with skepticism. But it doesn't claim a score should be the sole determinant in a quality applicant.
College Board Associate Director of Communications Katherine Levin said, "In nearly all validity studies, high school GPA and SAT scores in combination are shown to be the best predictors of college success.
"The College Board continues to advocate for a variety of factors to be considered in the admissions process and high-quality research including our own shows that neither the SAT nor high school GPA should be used alone when making admissions decisions."
She stressed test-optional schools remain partners with The College Board and that traditional nonprofit schools requiring or recommending an entrance exam decreased from 82 percent in 2003 to 78 percent in 2013. But, "despite this small decrease, the share of students in this sector who enrolled at a college either recommending or requiring a college admissions exam - approximately 92 percent - remained virtually unchanged be-tween 2003 and 2013."
Levin said the change to the SAT will focus more on college readiness by integrating questions students come to expect in their classroom instruction.
Additionally, Levin added, "The College Board has been open and clear about the redesigned SAT; taking the mystery out of the exam by making the full test specifications available online and partnering with Khan Academy to offer free, world-class test practice for all students."
Meanwhile other options, notably inexpensive neighborhood-based education such as community colleges, are also witnessing improved enrollment, expanding campuses and successful partnerships with area businesses.
One obvious instance, Northampton Community College, doesn't require SAT scores for entry. Director of Admission Jim McCarthy said applicants meet the requirements for entry-level courses based on SAT scores or their high school transcripts or placement training.
Soba said about 30 percent of colleges in the U.S. are now SAT-optional and Moravian is currently considering going optional next year. "I think you're going to see the optional trend continue. In the last five, eight, 10 years a lot of schools are changing."