High stakes: Outscoring the nation

By Arielle Maxner

Four hours of sitting. A scantron of blank bubbles. A pile of freshly sharpened pencils and bright pink erasers. The newsprint standardized testing packet. All are familiar to the student taking a standardized test, whether it is the SAT or the ACT.

This past year, according to the College Board, “the class of 2011 included 1,647,123 college-bound students who took the SAT,” more than the preceding class. However, the average national score fell six points to 1500 out of a possible 2400, according to the College Board’s annual report. California’s state averages fell as well, to an average of 1513. Comparatively, Harvard-Westlake’s SAT averages rose from a total score of 2012 of the 2010 graduating class to a 2058 by the 2011 graduating class.

“Look at any of our stat books,” upper school dean Sharon Cuseo said. “You’ll see that Harvard-Westlake students are good testers.”

However, “a total score means nothing,” Cuseo said. “People who set a total score as a goal—that’s meaningless. So, it’s all about the individual thresholds that you set for yourself. For some students, you’re going to want to break into a 600 … for most of our students, it’s the 600 threshold, the 650 threshold, the 700 threshold. That’s what we’re looking at. For different students, there will be different thresholds.”

Over the past five years, Harvard-Westlake’s averages on the SAT have ranged from a 2012 to a 2058, with the lowest and highest individual section scores being a 650 in Critical Reading in 2010 and a 697 in Writing in 2011.

Statewide, the average score for the Critical Reading section in 2011 was a 499. Harvard-Westlake’s average was a 675.

There are similar score differences for the Writing and Math sections as well, with Harvard-Westlake outscoring the national and California state averages.

In California, the average Writing score was 499 and the Math score was a 515. Harvard-Westlake students scored, on average, a 697 in Writing and a 686 in Math. This places Harvard-Westlake students among the 92nd percentile for Critical Reading, the 96th percentile for Writing and the 91st percentile for Math.

As far as colleges are concerned, upper school dean Pete Silberman said that “as long as you’re in a range that [the college you’re thinking about] responds to, they use the SAT as a sort of benchmark.”

When colleges look at an applicant’s test scores, there are many ways in which they may view the scores. Some colleges superscore, meaning the applicant sends every score he or she has, but the institution only considers the best individual section scores.

The College Board offers a Score Choice option, in that it will only send the best section scores to the selected colleges. However, some colleges and universities only allow the scores from one sitting, so one needs to do well on every section. It is important to check the intended institution’s policy on standardized test scores.

“Scores are just one part of the evaluation,” Silberman said. “There’s the transcript, recommendations, essays, extracurriculars. Those things are probably much more important to many schools.”

Several students dislike the SAT,

“I hate the SAT,” Karen Kim ’12said.

“The SAT only exists to teach you to take the SAT,” Matt Heartney ’12 said.

However, not all feel as negatively as Kim.

“I think that the SAT is quite positive,” Micah Sperling ’12 said. “It’s not necessarily a measure of a student’s worth, but it’s good to separate students into categories. It’s a way of measuring a student’s accomplishment besides just grades.”

The SAT isn’t the only option. The ACT is “on the rise,” Cuseo said.

“Eleven graduates from the class of 2010 submitted the ACT as their only test,” Cuseo said. “This past year, 23 Harvard-Westlake graduates relied on the ACT alone. And, on record, we have about 100 students who took the ACT last year. There probably were more, they just didn’t put the Harvard-Westlake code on there. So at least a third of the class.”

The trend is not limited to Harvard-Westlake. More graduating seniors took the ACT in 2011 compared to prior years from across the nation: 1,623,112, according to the ACT newsroom data. Ten years ago 1,069,772 graduating seniors took the ACT.

Furthermore, Harvard-Westlake’s average ACT score has also been rising. In 2011, Harvard-Westlake students’ scores averaged a 30 out of a possible 36. The national average on the ACT also rose, from a 21 in 2010 to a 21.1 in 2011. However, the California state averages fell from a 22.2 in 2010 to a 22.1 in 2011. For at least the past five years, Harvard-Westlake has consistently outscored the national and state averages on the ACT and the SAT.

“[Test scores are] never as important as you think they are, but they’re more important than colleges say they are,” Cuseo said.

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