If you have SAT questions, we have answers

For Idaho high school juniors, April 12 was SAT Day.

And June 14 will be SAT Grade Day.

Idaho SAT scores will come out Tuesday — and state education officials are already trying to put next week’s data drop into perspective.

“A student’s SAT score is only one snapshot of how they can perform in college or career,” the State Department of Education says on its SAT web page. “That is why colleges and universities take a comprehensive look at the total student.”

Here’s what you need to know heading into Tuesday:

First things first: What is the SAT? It’s one of the best-known and established college-placement exams. Most colleges require applicants to take either the SAT or the ACT, and use the scores as one metric in the admissions process.

What does the SAT cover? Two main topics. Math makes up half of the test, and the score. Reading and writing account for the rest.

Nothing new here, right? Wrong.

The test has undergone a makeover for 2016 — to the point that the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam, hails it as “the New SAT.”

The changes are far-reaching. The essay section is now optional (and Idaho kept it intact for SAT Day). Students won’t be penalized for guessing. The vocabulary section was retooled, in hopes of making the results more relevant to life after high school.

And the scoring system is completely different. The old SAT graded students on math, critical reading and writing; a perfect score in each section was 800, so overall, a perfect score was 2,400. The new SAT has two sections, math and reading/writing, and a perfect score of 1,600.

So, apples and oranges? That’s how the State Department of Education sees it.

The College Board has devised a “score converter” to allow comparisons between old SAT and new SAT scores, but the state considers this nothing more than an estimate. “The new SAT is a different test than the old SAT — you cannot directly compare the two test scores together.”

What is a “good” SAT score? Good question.

Under the old SAT, the College Board considered a combined 1,550 score a benchmark for college readiness. Students who hit that score were seen as more likely to succeed in college.

The new benchmarks vary from grade to grade. For 11th graders, the benchmarks are 510 in math and 460 in reading and writing. Students who hit these thresholds are considered likely to pull at least C’s in college.

There has been a lot of debate about the college-readiness metric before, right? Yes.

Marc Gee, Preston
Preston Superintendent Marc Gee co-wrote a guest opinion earlier this year, saying SAT scores offer only a “tremendously narrow” glimpse into student performance.

Only a fifth of the state’s students reached the College Board’s benchmark, and earlier this year, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation made this a centerpiece in its “Don’t Fail Idaho” ad campaign. Idaho Business for Education also focused on the college-readiness benchmark in presentations to the Legislature. School leaders from the Boise School District to Eastern Idaho objected to the tone of the foundation’s ads — and the suggestion that 80 percent of Idaho students are ill-prepared for life after high school.

Why are SAT Day scores a big deal? Two reasons. First, Idaho high school students must take a college placement exam in order to graduate. Second, 11th graders can take the SAT free of charge, at a taxpayer cost of about $1 million.

More than 15,000 students take part in the April SAT Day, accounting for the majority of high school juniors. If the SAT provides a one-day snapshot of student performance, think of SAT Day as a wide-angle view of a school population.

Report-card-Ybarra-responds-to-outside-audit-of-her-office
State superintendent Sherri Ybarra

But that’s also why state superintendent Sherri Ybarra has downplayed SAT Day results in the past. She has questioned the one-size-fits-all approach of administering a college-placement exam to every student.

How do schools fare? If this year’s scores resemble SAT Day results from the previous four years, expect a sharp break along socioeconomic lines. Charter schools tend to have some of Idaho’s highest average scores — and these schools combine high rigor with low student poverty rates. Alternative high schools post many of the state’s lowest average SAT scores.

The College Board cautions against using the SAT as a sole measure to rank schools — or districts, states or individual teachers.

Is SAT Day here to stay? Too early to say.

Idaho launched SAT Day during Tom Luna’s time as state superintendent, and Ybarra is open to changing the model. She points out that most district superintendents prefer the ACT to the SAT.

But no decisions have been made about a possible switch. For now at least, the SAT remains Idaho’s college-entrance exam of choice.

More reading: Here’s a look at the 2015 SAT scores.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News and the Don’t Fail Idaho advertising campaigns are both funded by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. The foundation also provided funding to Idaho Business for Education in 2015.