April ACT scores were released yesterday. I got a lot of emails and texts from students. Some were thrilled to share the good news; others wanted to make plans to improve when they retake the exam in June.
I also got a lot of messages from parents wanting to know “is this score good enough?” One analogy I’ve used recently seems to help—think about ACT or SAT scores the way you think about class rank.
Standardized test scores can be confusing. Is a 26 a good score? How does a 1080 on the new SAT compare to the old SAT? What score is good enough? Unless you have spent considerable time reading and researching current admissions trends for standardized tests, the numbers can seem overwhelming.
Avoid Score Generalizations
Most parents and students (and even high school educators) fall back on gross generalizations rather than trying to fully understand the role of ACT and SAT scores. These generalizations can be found in statements like
- “That’s a good score.” Or the opposite “My score is terrible.”
- “A 28 is a good score; I don’t need to take the test again.”
- “As long as I get a 1300 I’m ok.”
Oversimplification leads people to think of scores as either good or bad. Typically students aren’t defining “good” based on their academic strengths and weaknesses, test taking experience, and the averages at the colleges they are considering. Instead, there is some mythical “good score” which seems to be a one size fits none number.
How to Measure Success
I always tell students there are two things you must consider to determine if your scores are “good.”:
- The average scores at the colleges on your list
- The improvement from where you started
A 680 on SAT math (out of a maximum of 800 points) is an above average score. In fact, a 680 would put me in the top 10% of test takers nation-wide. But I can’t declare victory (or defeat) just yet. I need to personalize my analysis.
Get the Facts
The first measure, how my scores compare to the colleges I’m considering, is a fact-based question. A little research can help you find answers.
How does my 680 in SAT math compare at the colleges on my list?
I used the college search feature on the College Board website to get some quick numbers. Colleges report the range for the “middle 50%” which means 25% of admitted students scored higher and 25% scored lower. This just gives me an idea if I’m close to the range for each school.
I found the middle half of admitted students had the following scores:
- Rice University (TX) 750-780
- Harvard College (MA) 750-800
- NYU (NY) 650-780
- UCLA (CA) 600-760
- Auburn (AL) 560-660
- Queens University (NC) 510-590
- West Texas A&M (TX) 470-560
Here’s what I learned:
- My 680 (a top 10% score) is still going to place me in the bottom quarter of admitted scores at Rice and Harvard. This doesn’t mean I should cross these schools off my list, but I need to either retake the test or understand the odds are not in my favor.
- My 680 puts me in the middle 50% at NYU and UCLA. I may want to re-test to see if I can get a few more points, but I know my scores are in the “realistic possibility” range here.
- My 680 starts feeling like a good score when I look at Auburn, Queens, and West Texas A&M. A 680 is in the top quarter, but that doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed admission because colleges still need to see my transcript, activities, essays, etc. I know my scores are good for these schools.
As you do this type of quick analysis, keep in mind that ACT and SAT scores are only one part of the admissions puzzle.
Acknowledge Your Testing Potential
The second component in measuring scores is how a particular number compares to your potential and past experience.
Personally, I’m a closet math geek. I was the captain of the high school math team and earned a 5 on the AP Calculus exam my senior year. I’m also a great test taker. So a 680 on the SAT math section wouldn’t meet my personal expectations for “good.” It would be lower than I had scored on the PSAT.
But I’ve been working with a young lady this spring who would simply LOVE a 680 on the SAT math. Her March score was a 560. A 680 would be a huge improvement and a personal best for her.
This is why one score can be disappointing for one student and incredibly high for another. But too often we aren’t making realistic comparisons.
Better Means of Comparison
To help my clients better understand the concept of realistic comparison, I’ve started talking about ACT and SAT scores in terms of class rank.
Without going on a class rank rant, I will tell you that most of my students attend competitive high schools. The private schools in my area don’t rank, but the large public schools do. Getting into the top 10% at most of these schools is brutal. Students need A’s (maybe a B or two) and a schedule full of advanced (AP) courses.
I work with a lot of smart students who are not in the top 10% or even the top 25% of their graduating classes. These students tend to have A’s and B’s. They excel in some classes, but not all. Some struggle with standardized tests and have suffered grade setbacks as a result. These students will be successful in college (and life) but they understand how competitive it is to have a ultra-high class rank. And the result is a realistic comparison on the issue of high school grades.
So if we can take that same understanding and apply it to the ACT or SAT, students and parents would have a more realistic understanding of test scores.
Rank SAT ACT
Top 10% 680R/680M 28
Top 25% 620R/610M 24
Top 50% 540R/530M 20
Top 75% 470R/470M 16
Bottom 10% 400R/400M 13
When all the facts are taken together, you should have a more realistic way to set score goals.
Remember the SAT and ACT are hard tests. They are designed to make sure a majority of students score in the middle. (How would Harvard know who to let in if all students had top scores!) These are not simple tests of content. They are timed exams with challenging material requiring critical thinking and college-based analysis.
A student who has done all he can and ranks in the second quarter of his class, should be satisfied. No, he’s not going to be valedictorian, but he has solid grades and has done his best. If he takes the ACT and scores a 24 after weeks of studying, should he be disappointed? If he has put honest effort into preparation and the 24 is a personal best, I’d remind him that his score puts him in the top quarter of test takers—not a bad place to be.
Test scores need to be evaluated in a broader content. Consider all the factors: academic strengths & weaknesses, test taking skills, focus, preparation, learning differences, test day circumstances, and prior experiences.
I want to see all students reach their potential when taking the ACT or SAT. I hate to see the frustration that results from unrealistic goals.