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by Agnes Jasinski

Thousands of college admissions staff, high school counselors, and higher education professionals will gather in Baltimore today through Saturday to discuss topics that include the economy's effects on colleges and the much-debated topic of standardized testing and its relation to the admissions process.

>The focus of the annual National Association for College Admission Counseling conference this year is the many different views on college admissions entrance exams. A study from NACAC released earlier this year showed that while the impact of extensive test prep tutoring programs was not very significant on standardized test scores - minimal on the SAT and inconclusive on the ACT - that impact was enough to suggest that lower-income students who couldn't afford tutoring were still at a disadvantage. The handful of extra points on a standardized test could mean the difference in whether you're accepted into a school that has a minimum cut-off in their admissions standards.

Prior to that study, NACAC had released a report suggesting the standardized testing system was broken, and that colleges should consider doing away with test scores as part of their admissions processes. That report found that standardized test prep benefited the wealthy and those who could afford it, and made high school students focus too much of their energies on testing strategies rather than the rest of their academic profiles.

On Saturday, the conference will host a "mega session" to revisit those studies and reports, and to come up with recommendations and potential alternatives to the existing standardized tests. The session will also revisit the recent release of "Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities," a book that analyzes graduation rates at state colleges and the disparities that exist among different races and socioeconomic statuses.

This afternoon, the conference features a session on strategies for SAT preparation. Tomorrow, the schedule includes a session on curriculum-based tests and their effects on students and the admissions process. The association will also be discussing the release of its new textbook, Foundations of Standardized Admission Testing, which is targeted at admissions professionals and explores both best practices and the controversies surrounding standardized testing. This is the 65th year of the conference. If you happen to be attending on any of the days, visit Scholarships.com, an exhibitor at the event.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Public high schools in eight states will introduce a program next year that will allow their high school sophomores to test out of their junior and senior years if they are interested in enrolling in community college early.

The program is the brainchild of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), and was announced Wednesday. Those who do well on the tests, which will be called "board exams," but aren't interested in going to a community college will be able to continue taking college prep courses at their high schools to prepare for filing applications to the selective schools of their choice. Those who fail the exams will be eligible to retake them at the end of their junior and senior years.

According to the NCEE, the program's goals are to reduce the number of college students in remedial courses, and to better prepare high school students for campus life and the rigors of academics at institutions of higher education. Today, nearly half of the students in community colleges take one or more remedial courses and many are never able to complete developmental courses and move on to credit-level courses to complete their college degree, according to the NCEE. 

Students would be tested on a broad range of topics, including the standard English and math. Between 10 to 20 schools in the eight states involved will offer the program, modeled after existing programs in countries like Australia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands, in the 2010-2011 academic year. According to an article in the New York Times, the program has received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help states and school districts get the program running. Start-up costs for school districts would be about $500 per student; that would cover the costs of courses, tests, and teacher training. To cover future costs, the eight states in the program plan to apply for a portion of the $350 million in federal stimulus money designated for improving public school testing, according to the New York Times.

The eight states offering the program are Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. The NCEE hopes the program, which was a part of recommendations set into motion by the NCEE in 2006, will spread across the country. Their other recommendations included getting children in school by the time they were 3 years old and giving states control over local school districts.


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by Agnes Jasinski

The number of undergraduates registering for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) increased by about 675,000 in 2009, a record 9 percent increase over the previous year. The news was announced this week by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which also reported a 6 percent increase in graduate admissions in 2009.

The ETS attributes some of the increase to the number of MBA programs that now accept the GRE rather than the GMAT exclusively. (In 2009, there was a 68 percent increase in the number of business schools accepting GRE scores for their MBA programs, and the number of GRE test-takers who took the GRE to get into business school doubled.) This also makes it even easier for those unsure about whether they'd like to go to business school or another graduate program.

The news comes at a time when the ETS is getting ready to roll out a series of changes to the graduate exam. The new GRE is set to be implemented in the fall of 2011. Changes will include the possibility to skip and return to questions, a change from a 200 to 800 range on the verbal and quantitative sections to a range of 130 to 170, and an increase in length from 3.25 hours to 3.5 hours. The ETS says the changes are meant to allow for a test that paints a more accurate picture of test-takers' abilities, as it will rely less on strategy—the ability to skip questions and return to them later is likely to improve students’ concentration and scores as they no longer dwell on the questions they missed—and more on the accuracy of their answers.

If you're considering registering and eventually taking the exam, we have a number of resources to help you master the GRE and learn more about what you need to know about the new GRE format, since you'll now need to freshen up those test-taking skills even if you've taken the GRE in the past. The most important thing to know is that you should prepare for this test as you would for any other standardized test. Chances are it's been a while since you've taken the ACT and SAT, and while the study skills you honed to complete those exams successfully are useful on the GRE, it's important to get to know the specific content you'll be tested on when taking the GRE. Practice tests are never a bad idea. Finally, don't stress too much. You can retake the GRE up to five times in one year.


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by Agnes Jasinski

While the debate over the effectiveness of standardized test scores continues, one school has decided to do away with the tests as part of their application process. Vermont school Saint Michael's College announced Tuesday that its applicants will no longer need to include their SAT results as part of the school's admissions process. Students will be evaluated on other criteria instead, including their high school academic records, leadership and service work, and extracurricular activities, among other factors.

Students will still be able to choose whether or not to submit both their SAT and ACT scores to the college. Some students are just good test-takers, the college reasons, so impressive scores may add value to an application. But the decision signals a shift, at least at Saint Michael's and other schools with similar requirements, that there are other, more important factors of a student's college application outside of standardized test scores. For example, the school has always paid attention to the kinds of courses students choose to tackle in high school, according to Jacqueline Murphy, the school's director of admissions. Murphy was quoted in the Burlington Free Press as saying the decision "made official something we've always done in practice -- and that is, focus on a holistic review of the student."

The standardized testing system has been criticized for years, most prominently by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. NACAC has gone so far as to say standardized tests should be removed from admissions processes altogether, and that standardized prep services benefited only those who could afford them.

Whether you agree or not, you'll probably be faced with the prospect of taking some kind of standardized test in your college or post-graduate career. Although hundreds of schools across the country have done away with the standardized testing requirement, many more still require students submit their ACT or SAT results. If you're planning on going to law or graduate school, you'll also need to take either the LSAT or the GRE to gain admittance into those programs. It's best then to at least familiarize yourself with the formats of the tests. Best case scenario, you'll also take some time to practice taking the tests and studying up on the main themes you'll be asked to recall on the exams. If you're worried, browse through our tips for taking standardized tests. Being prepared will help you feel more confident come testing day, potentially raising your final score.


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by Agnes Jasinski

American University has expanded its “test-optional” application policy, giving all students who apply to the school before Nov. 1 the option of choosing whether or not to submit their ACT or SAT scores as part of their applications. The college had up to this point only allowed early-decision candidates to opt out of providing standardized test scores.

Although the early-decision deadline is later—Nov. 15—being accepted by a college early typically means you need to decide right then and there whether you’ll accept admission to that college or go elsewhere. Opening up the policy to even those regular decision students will give more students the power to decide what they’d like to include in their applications to the school. Those students who do take advantage of the policy and submit their applications early won’t necessarily hear back about whether they’ve been accepted to the school early; they’ll be notified by the regular April 1 deadline.

According to an article yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a good number of even the early-decision candidates chose not to submit their standardized test scores last fall. Of the 538 early-decision applicants the school received, which in itself was an increase of about 33 percent over the previous year, 191 did not submit test scores, according to The Chronicle. While administrators said it takes longer to review applications that don’t include the test scores, giving students who may not do as well on their standardized tests but who excel elsewhere an opportunity for admission is worth it. Admissions officials now pay more attention to the kinds of courses students took, including AP classes and other college-level work.

Standardized testing has been criticized for years, with the National Association for College Admission Counseling going so far as to say the practice should end altogether in favor of a more holistic application process. American University isn’t the only college to go test-optional in recent years, either. Saint Michael’s College in Vermont no longer requires that potential new students submit SAT scores as part of their application process. The school reasons that some students are better test-takers than others, and that there are other ways to evaluate applicants instead. Students there may still choose to submit either their ACT or SAT scores if they feel it will help their applications.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Although average ACT scores were lower this year than the previous year, it wasn’t all bad news on this year’s ACT score report. High school graduates who took the test this year are slightly more prepared for college than their peers in years prior, despite the average lower scores.

According to the report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2010, about 71 percent of test-takers met at least one of four college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading or science. About 47 percent met between one and three benchmarks, and 24 percent met all four benchmarks. Last year, 23 percent met all four benchmarks; in 2006, that figure was around 21 percent.

An article from the Associated Press in USA Today this week explains that test-takers this year were a more diverse group of students. While they did score lower overall, how they did meeting benchmarks is encouraging to the authors of the test. To measure college readiness, the standardized test translates students’ subject area scores into data that shows their chances of receiving passing grades in college coursework. The content on the ACT can relate to courses like biology and general education social science and psychology classes, for example. It’s also important to note that more students in general are taking the test, so slight gains like this in any area may mean more than you think.

Other data pulled from the report included the following:

  • 29 percent of test-takers were of a minority group, up from 23 percent in 2006.
  • Average scores for Hispanic students decreased slightly, from 18.7 last year to 18.6 this year, but the number of students from that student population taking the ACT has nearly doubled in size.
  • Average scores among other race/ethnic groups were 23.4 for Asian students, 22.3 for white students, 19 for American Indian students, and 16.9 for black students.
  • The national average for all student groups was 21, down from 21.1 last year. (The ACT is measured on a scale of 1 to 36.)
  • Those students who took a core curriculum in high school were more likely to meet their college readiness benchmarks; students who took more than three years of math in high school were more than 42 percent more likely to meet their benchmarks in that subject area than those who didn’t.

While more colleges are going “test-optional” when it comes to providing standardized test scores as part of your college application, both the ACT and SAT remain important at most institutions of higher education. At those schools with a high number of applicants, there may even be a cut-off score as part of the admissions process. You’ll probably then still need to take either test, despite growing criticism over the effectiveness of standardized tests. Take a look at our Standardized Testing section for more information on how you can better prepare for not only undergraduate admissions tests, but graduate and professional school tests like the GRE and LSAT as well.


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Meet Scholarships.com's Virtual Interns: Casandra Pagni

by Casandra Pagn

At 18, I was going to be a lawyer. I had the next four years of my life planned out well. I was to attend the University of Michigan, double major in political science and economics, take the LSAT, attend law school, pass the bar and go from there. I even got into arguments with my older brothers when they told me to be open-minded as I left for school. But life took a few turns — some of them sharp — between then and now.

I chose Michigan for its large campus, student diversity, and rigor in academic disciplines. Okay...I confess. At 18, I chose Michigan because of the Big Ten sports. I was ready to see national championships first hand. But as my sports expectations came crashing down, the other things that Michigan offered began to shine. I joined a sorority. I played intramural sports. I went to concerts, saw the Dalai Lama and wrote for the campus newspaper. I followed the hockey team to the Frozen Four. Oh yeah, and I studied, too! I took and enjoyed classes with incredibly passionate professors.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment I knew I was going to become a teacher, but the person I became at Michigan is a more relaxed and open-minded version of the 18-year old aspiring lawyer I once was. I am now the ecstatic recipient of a degree in English and a high school teaching certificate. I am also committed to writing whenever and wherever I can and to making real changes in the way writing is taught today.

As a recent college graduate smack-dab in the middle of a job search, I plan to combine my passion for writing with my absolute love for the college years to bring you weekly posts with tried and true advice, honest perspective and a little bit of humor along the way. As a Scholarships.com virtual intern, I'll be looking back while looking ahead.


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by Emily

For high school seniors entering the last leg of the college search this fall, questions and frustrations are bound to arise, and the early source of confusion this year appears to stem from standardized testing. The final SAT and ACT test dates before college applications are due take place this month, meaning more students will soon have their first encounter the College Board's SAT Score Choice program, which allows students to choose which SAT Scores they want to report to colleges.

On the surface, Score Choice seems like a great innovation and a source of stress relief for students, and it might prove to be such if it were accepted by all colleges. However, a number of colleges and universities require applicants to report all scores from all standardized tests taken, and this is where students are running into problems.

Specifically, not all schools that require the Common Application, an application shared by many private colleges and intended to simplify the application process, share policies on reporting SAT scores, yet the Common App currently doesn't allow students to self-report different SAT scores to different schools. This has left students unsure of how to address what should be one of the easiest sections of their college application (after all, it's just transcribing numbers).

New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg took up this question for the paper's blog The Choice, and his answer should help students get over this bump and onto the more difficult parts of the Common Application, like the application essays. The advice he received when posing this question to the executive director of the Common Application was to simply leave the section blank. The College Board echoed this in a written statement.

Basically, since colleges will receive the official SAT scores (or ACT scores) you report to them when you take the test, they don't need you to also self-report on the Common Application. The question is asked only because some colleges take self-reported scores into account to get the ball rolling on the admissions process while waiting for your official scores. So if you're completing the Common Application and have multiple test scores that you don't plan to report to every college on your list, you can safely abstain from self-reporting your SAT scores.

However, the jury's still out on whether Score Choice will ultimately be worth the hassle it's begun to present to schools and students this year. Opting to withhold your lowest test scores may not make that big a difference in your admissions prospects, anyway, since taking the SAT multiple times was popular before withholding scores was even an option. In fact, some schools use your highest scores from all test dates, even dates with lower composites, when considering your application for admission or university scholarships, so withholding the test score where you finally nailed the verbal but completely tanked on the math section could conceivably hurt your prospects slightly in some cases.


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by Emily

Standardized tests area huge part of the college application process, and one of the biggest issues college-bound students and their families face is whether and how extensively to make use of ACT and SAT test preparation services. Standardized test prep can range from taking a practice test online to spending hours in intensive one-on-one tutoring sessions, with countless options in between.  Debate has raged for years over how much test preparation courses actually pay off, and a new study published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling represents perhaps the most ambitious effort to quantify these gains.

Through analysis of previous research, the NACAC study concludes that a consensus has emerged that score increases for students who use test prep services tend to be fairly small, often only 5 or 10 points on the critical reading section of the SAT and 10 or 20 points on the math section.  Evidence is still inconclusive as to ACT score gains, according to the study.  However, the study also surveyed college admissions offices to determine the impact of score gains and found that score increases on the upper end of this average range can have a significant affect on a student's chances of being admitted to a top college.  Inside Higher Ed has a more detailed breakdown of the study and its implications.

With many high school juniors already signing up to take, or in some cases already awaiting scores from, the SAT and ACT, the release of this study is timely.  It is not a ringing endorsement of extensive and expensive test preparation programs, but does provide an argument for at least taking some time to familiarize yourself with the standardized test you will be taking before you show up for the test day.  If you're competing for admission at your dream school or vying for an academic scholarship, those few extra points on your test score could make all the difference.


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by Emily

The National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) plans to address questions of early decision admission and the role of standardized testing in the admission process in panels during their annual conference this week.  In preparation, they have released the results of a survey showing that early decision admissions had begun to fall, as well as commentary on the state of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Test (ACT) in college admissions.

A special panel convened by NACAC released a statement suggesting that standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT may play too prominent a role in college admissions.  While the report emphasizes that standardized tests can play an important role in the admissions process, especially in helping students choose which schools may be a good fit for them, it also declared the importance of avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to testing.  This position represents a shift from previous NACAC commissions' stances on standardized testing.

Another survey released this week by NACAC highlighted other shifts in college admissions, namely a slowing of the increase in early decision admissions as compared to previous years.  Many schools are giving students going through the college application process the option to make a binding committment to attend that college if accepted in a process known as early decision.  Critics argue that this puts poorer students who are unwilling to commit to attending a college without receiving their financial aid package at a distinct disadvantage in being considered for admission.  While many colleges still are embracing the idea, this shift in figures could show some hesitation on the part of admission offices or students regarding the still-controversial issue.

Additionally, the survey illustrated some doubt regarding a new practice of priority applications, which are sent to students based on a variety of criteria and are already partially completed.  Priority admission applications are sent by the school, rather than requested by the student, and are typically sent out based on prior contact with the admissions office, test scores, or geographic location.  Only 4% of these forms, which occasionally come with an application fee waiver, are sent to students based on economic status.

Other survey results showed that more students seem concerned with ensuring they make the right college choice, and that most students who apply to schools are given the opportunity to go to college.  An increasing number of students are applying to more than seven colleges, and that about the same number of students as the previous year applied to more than three schools.  Nationally, 68 percent of students who apply to colleges are admitted.  Online applications also continue to gain popularity.


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