Are We Ready for "Score Inflation?"

There is much discussion over the College Board's recent decision to update its popular SAT examination in spring 2016, its first revision since 2005's addition of an essay. The new SAT aims to better assess a student's high school-attained knowledge through several key changes. These include testing less obscure vocabulary words, narrowing the scope of math questions, making the essay optional and eliminating the penalty students face for choosing the wrong answers.

This development, some say, is in response to the increasing popularity of the rival ACT examination, which has always tested more broadly across high school disciplines. The new SAT, also, aims to reduce the advantage some students gain from taking costly test preparation courses (through Stanley Kaplan and other tutoring outfits). By making the SAT more representative of what students learn in their schools, the College Board may democratize the exam, and make its accessibility -- and therefore college's accessibility -- open to everyone.

Updating the SAT in response to a more competitive test-taking marketplace, as a reaction to "common core" and other debated curricular developments, and to combat socio-economic inconsistencies among students indeed may be warranted. However, one must consider what these changes will ultimately mean for students and college admissions professionals alike come the fall 2016 application cycle.

Fellow readers of college applications may recall the College Board's "recentering" of SAT scores in 1995. This effort sought to bring lagging verbal and math scores up to an average of 500 points each (out of 800). Altering the curve, test takers that year earned a comparatively higher overall score than what they might have realized before the change. Many colleges saw their average SAT scores creep up over the previous period. Admissions committees across the country, in the new environment, had to reassess what test scores were competitive.

Of course, we in the admissions field have been reassessing student performance for years, notably in relation to high school transcripts. "Grade inflation" has led to more students than ever before earning A's in their classwork. Over time, a C grade has come to mean substandard, not average. Record numbers of students have been studying in Advance Placement coursework; if one has not been enrolled in Honors courses, one has not been competitive with peers. On a four-point scale, students increasingly have been achieving grade-point averages of 3.5 or better. Admissions committee members have been facing a challenge every year to determine, ultimately, who is NOT admissible!

I predict we may face a similar dilemma down the road, as 2016 SAT scores become available. As in 1995, in 2016 I predict we will see SAT scores that are markedly higher than the ones reported in the prior year. While the upcoming changes to the SAT may help align the test more readily with 21st century trends and concerns, they will also make the examination, quite simply, "easier."

Taking the SAT, students will no longer be required to define words they have never seen before. They will only have to focus on "three key areas" of math (according to the College Board). And most notably, students will have the ability to make educated guesses on questions without having points taken away for an incorrect response.

Will "score inflation," as it were, be a problem for all of us in the business of assessing student admissibility to college? Not necessarily. It simply will prove to be something we must understand and prepare for, as we think about future college applicants and their admissibility.