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Colleges are Reporting Higher Score Ranges. Are They Real?

This college admissions season, high school seniors everywhere are seeking an answer to the fundamental question launched by the test-optional revolution: should I submit or withhold my scores? 

The answer was already complicated. And recently released middle 50% score ranges for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle will only add another layer of confusion. Many parents and counselors have been surprised, if not shocked, by the numbers from certain schools. Do you really need a 35 on the ACT to get into Penn? Of course not. Here’s some guidance for how to interpret these new ranges and how to avoid reading too much into a highly skewed data set.

Inflated score ranges at Penn and what they really tell us

On a recent call with our experienced college counseling colleagues, we pulled data from the University of Pennsylvania and found that Penn’s reported middle 50% ACT range is now 35 to 36. Take a moment to digest that statistic. For those admitted students who submitted ACT scores, 75% scored a 35 or higher and a full 25% scored a perfect 36. How is that possible? Does this mean that if I’m applying to Penn, I should withhold any score below a 35? 

To begin, context is everything. It’s important to look at a school’s pre-pandemic enrollment data to get a sense of its complete profile. Penn enrolled a freshman class in the fall of 2020, prior to the pandemic, with a middle 50% ACT range of 33-35. Similarly, Penn enrolled the freshman class of 2019 with a middle 50% ACT range of 33-35. So what do we make of that 35-36 range? That range is for Penn’s admitted students, not enrolled students. Penn gave offers of admission to 3,305 students, but typically enrolls about 2,300. Some 1,000 of those admitted students who declined Penn’s offer will likely have some of the highest test scores of the cohort. That skews the data to some extent. 

The rest of the skew comes from the non-submitter effect. Of the 2,121 students who were admitted Regular Decision, 26% did not submit test scores. Of the 1,183 Early Admits, 24% did not submit scores. So we are wiping out the bottom quarter of students who either felt their scores were too low to strengthen their applications, or were unable to test to their satisfaction given pandemic testing constraints. When you wipe out the bottom quarter of testers, the score ranges are naturally going to shift up. It is notable that Penn’s applications spiked dramatically from 42,205 in 2021 to 56,332 in 2021, driven largely by non-submitters taking advantage of the novel test-optional policy.

In terms of the 35-36 range, let’s break that down further. Of the 3,304 admits, 2,469 submitted scores. For the freshman class of 2020, 65% submitted SAT scores and only 35% submitted ACT scores. Similarly, the ratio was 62% SAT and 38% ACT the prior year. Based on those trends from prior years, let’s estimate that 36% of the students who sent admissions test scores submitted ACT scores. That would bring the total number of ACT submitters to roughly 888 students. So 444 students scored in the 35-36 range; the 222 students in the top quartile scored a perfect 36, and 222 students in the bottom quartile of submitters scored a 34 or below. There were only 5,579 perfect ACT scores for the graduating class of 2020. It seemed surprising that Penn could claim such a significant percentage of the perfect scoring students, but this is not the case. Penn’s data includes superscores, and the total number of students with perfect scores admitted to Penn is still a relatively small fraction of the national total.

The inflationary score effects that we are seeing at Penn are taking place at selective schools across the country. Take UGA for example. For the class of 2020, Georgia enrolled a class with a middle 50% SAT of 1220-1390 and a middle 50% ACT range of 27-32. The pandemic hits, non-submission rates spike, and suddenly UGA boasts eye-popping stats for its admitted students: Middle 50% SAT of 1350-1490 and middle 50% ACT range of 31-34. Again we have the enrolled/admitted discrepancy, but this is by and large a reflection of non-submission effects. The lower scoring students are not sending their scores, and this skews everything north. UGA did not publish its rate of score submission/non-submission, so it’s harder to contextualize these numbers. It’s meaningful to note that Georgia’s astronomical score gains are unlikely to endure, as all students applying to schools in the University System of Georgia will once again have to submit test scores starting this fall.

The problem with the inflated ranges

Conventional wisdom used to suggest that students should submit their scores if they were at or above a college’s published middle 50% range and withhold scores that fall below that range. However, in this moment where the ranges are so inflated, withholding a score in the bottom quartile would mean not submitting a 34 to Penn or a 1340 SAT to UGA. Historically, a 34 is a solid score for a Penn applicant. Only 42,000 students nationally scored a 34 or higher on the ACT, out of 1.67 million ACT takers and 3.4 million high school graduates. A 34 is a strong score, putting a student in the top 2.5% – 4% range (considering super-scoring). A 34 was smack in the middle of Penn’s middle 50% for 2019 and 2020 (33-35). Similarly a 1340 SAT score would have put a student well into the top half of UGA students before the pandemic (mean score of 1310). 

The risk here is that students might look at these artificially inflated ranges, unmoored by the absence of lower-scores, and decide to withhold competitive scores. We know from data provided by the Common Application that students are being much more strategic regarding where they send scores and where they withhold them. Pre-pandemic only 4% of students were strategic submitters, while in the 2020 cycle, six times as many students (24%) chose to submit their scores to some colleges and not to others. Many students may see their scores fall below the midpoint for selective colleges and withhold them from the admissions office. And as students begin to withhold 34s from Penn or 1340s from UGA, the ranges will skew ever higher. This could lead to an unvirtuous and increasingly inflationary cycle.

The importance of context and signalling

What kind of message are colleges sending to students when they publish inflated SAT and ACT score ranges lacking appropriate context? Students could see these ranges and believe that if their scores aren’t perfect, they aren’t worth sending. And how could these ranges impact students attending under-resourced schools, students who are the first in their families to go to four-year colleges, and BIPOC students? These are the very groups that colleges claim they want to recruit and serve, yet the numbers they are publishing may send the signal that scores below the top 1% aren’t welcome. Students may worry about their ability to be successful at schools with ranges so high. But we know that you don’t need a 35 to be a successful student at Penn, or a 1400 to be successful at UGA.

Colleges may be in something of a bind here. The greater the percentage of non-submitters, typically the larger the upward shift in the score ranges. If a college reports the higher score ranges, they may appear unwelcoming. However, if the college chooses not to report the new scores, or simply resubmit pre-pandemic score ranges, that college may appear to be withholding highly relevant information. It seems the optimal move is to report the scores with full context. Here are the new ranges, and here are the number and percentage of students who submitted test scores to establish those ranges. It’s very helpful to know if the middle 50% is only for 60% of students. Without this context, the ranges are simply too misleading to be helpful. 

Counsel for students

Our counsel to students throughout the pandemic has been if your scores can help strengthen your application, submit them. This has been reinforced by many admissions officers with whom we have spoken and presented over the last several years. A few closing notes about testing:

  1. Don’t be afraid to try the tests: Doing so will give you some good information about how ready you are for college, any weak spots you might want to address before you get there, and whether or not your test scores can help you secure admission or a merit scholarship award. Take a practice test with Applerouth this weekend.
  2. Have a growth mindset: If you commit to working at it, you can improve your scores to the point where they can help you achieve your goals.
  3. Read the fine print: Take these newly published score ranges with a grain of salt. They aren’t showing trends over time, just a snapshot from one, potentially anomalous year. 
  4. Dig a little deeper: Pull a few years’ worth from the Common Data Set before you decide whether or not to submit your scores. There is a feeling now that if scores aren’t submitted it is because the student didn’t do well. You might want to submit a score that is in a prior year’s middle 50% range to reinforce what the admissions office is seeing in the rest of your application.
  5. You’ve got this: You are more than your score and the colleges you are applying to will be considering the whole person you are and the great potential you have to offer their communities.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or info@applerouth.com.