Campus News

Scoring the new SAT

Admissions director discusses how reformulated test will be used at UGA

The SAT given by the College Board in March differed significantly from that given for the last many years: the verbal section, now called critical reading, no longer includes verbal analogies; the math includes more advanced algebra; and there is a writing section, with an essay. Columns talked with Nancy McDuff, director of admissions at UGA, about the new test and how it will be used.

Columns: I understand you were involved in urging the addition of a writing component to the SAT.

McDuff: About eight years ago, the College Board pulled together a group of admissions folks to talk about what’s next in the SAT. We identified writing as a component that was needed. Then about three years ago, the president of the College Board, Gaston Caperton, asked a group of about 25 of us to come up to New York and discuss the concept. They had been looking at the technology and they had a design. Since then I’ve been elected to a national assembly of the College Board that oversees testing and admissions.

Columns: It makes sense to keep college users involved.

McDuff: And we’re a big user of the SAT. About half of the students in the state of Georgia who take the SAT send their test scores to us.

Columns: Will UGA be using the essay test results?

McDuff: We will now get three scores per test. We know what to do with the critical reading and the math-we have 35 years of experience building a regression to tell us how these help predict success at Georgia. We have no experience with the new writing component, so for the first couple of years we’ll be collecting the data. Then we’ll look at how well students do in their freshman year, and begin to build a regression of how the writing test helps to predict success, when combined with the other two test scores, the curriculum the student has taken, and grades in high school. No one component alone is going to make a huge difference.

But, even for the first couple of years, it will be one more bit of information for us to look at in marginal cases.

The faculty have told us that writing is important at the University of Georgia. By requiring the writing component of either the SAT or the ACT, we’re telling high school students that writing is important.

Columns: It will encourage high schools to limit English class size so students can do more writing.

McDuff: I think the only way that high schools can prep students for the SAT now is to have them writing. The College Board put together a National Commission on Writing as part of the change. It’s chaired by former Sen. Bob Kerrey and it gave an award to Warren Buffett for his writing-for his annual report! It was a way of emphasizing that writing is important in everything we do. And that’s a message that has to get out to young people: It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do in life, you have to be able to communicate through writing.

Columns: The test is longer now?

McDuff: It’s 45 minutes longer than it used to be-three hours and 45 minutes. That is long, when you’re 17. But the College Board did 45,000 field tests on this new SAT, and they discovered that tiredness becomes an issue with students after about 10 minutes. So adding 45 minutes wasn’t going to change things substantially.

The essay is only 25 minutes-one-third of one-third of the test. To reduce anxiety, the essay is the first section of the test.

Columns: The math test is also changed, isn’t it?

McDuff: Yes. They have added questions from algebra II. The old test was algebra I and geometry. At the University of Georgia we require every student to have a course beyond algebra II.

And they found a very strong correlation between the scores on the old math test and the scores on the new test, which means we can use our history to help us evaluate the scores. That’s also true of the new critical reading test.

Columns: The UGA application requires essays too, right?

McDuff: There are five questions that require short answers, because we hear more of the student’s voice that way. If you ask for a long essay, you get it polished, but maybe mom helped.

Columns: How is scoring done?

McDuff: They looked for high school and college teachers of English who would like to work from their home and make a little extra money. It’s all done on line, Web-based. There is mandatory online training. Every essay will be scored by two readers, up to 6 points each, and if there’s a variance between the two scores of more than 1 point, the essay goes to a third scorer. There is constant monitoring of scoring.

If you go to the College Board Web site ( you can see samples of what it takes to earn a 6, 5, 4, 3.

From my perspective it’s going to be nice to have a writing sample that’s done in a standardized format, a controlled environment. We know that students who come from professional families, who go to high schools where there’s a low student-teacher ratio, get a lot more help in preparing their application, and this levels the playing field.

There’s one thing I’d like to emphasize. When we make admissions decisions at the University of Georgia, using only demonstrated academic performance-which is what a student has done that predicts success here-we’re looking at their curriculum and their grades first and foremost. When you combine curriculum, grades and test scores you have a pretty good predictor of success at Georgia, but of those three the test scores are the least important.

I hear over and over again from parents: “My child didn’t get into the University of Georgia because of test scores.” That is seldom the issue.

Usually they didn’t get in because they took easy courses and/or they didn’t do well. Test scores are a minor part of admission, not a major part.