With the redesign of the SAT in 2016, scores went up, which made it hard to predict what kind of scores highly selective colleges would want.  With the release of data for the Class of 2017, we now know that at many schools average SAT scores effectively dropped. Check out how 97 highly selective schools reacted to the new SAT in the table at the end of this post.

It’s been a trying couple of years in testing and admissions, thanks to the redesign of the SAT in 2016.  Leaving aside the optional essay, the experimental section, double-percentiles, the trouble College Board had with writing good math questions, and other woes, students, families, and school counselors have had to deal with the confusion sown by the rise of all scores on the new SAT.  Where once a student applying to a highly competitive school had to break 700 on each section, the concordance College Board released with the new exam suggested that 730 is the new 700.  The question was whether admissions offices would go along with this inflation, expecting higher scores than ever before.

The answer is that there is no simple answer, but we think the news is pretty good for students.

We’re about to get into the weeds, so feel free to scroll all the way to the bottom where you can see the 2016 and 2017 middle fifty percent for 97 highly selective schools.

The challenge in figuring out how colleges dealt with the redesigned SAT is that we are comparing apples to oranges, although apples to pears might be more apt.  The old SAT and new SAT, after all, have a lot in common.  They are both scored on the same 200-800 point scale, but the old one had three section scores.  The content on the two tests is pretty similar, although on the new test the reading comprehension and multiple-choice writing sections are combined to make one 200-800 Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) section score, and on the old test the essay was factored into a 200-800 Writing section score.  The essay on the new SAT is optional and does not factor into the ERW score.

The final, particularly important distinction between the old and new version of the SAT is that the redesigned exam no longer penalizes students a quarter-point for wrong answers.  The effect of this change is that it made it harder to get a very low score on the SAT.  Simply filling in (A) for all the answer choices would get a student a score in the high-200 to low-300 range.   As a result of this change, everyone’s scores on the test effectively shifted higher, since they were no longer being penalized for getting questions wrong and were now encouraged to guess rather than leave questions blank. The average combined SAT score went from about 1000 on the old SAT to 1060 on the new version.  The ACT, it should be noted, has the same issue.  It’s average is also not the middle of the scale (18), because it is very hard to score in the single digits on the ACT.

What this change meant is that a 700 on the Math section of the new exam was not equivalent to a 700 on the old exam.  According to the concordance released by the College Board, a 700 on the new SAT was the equivalent of a 670 on the old test.  A 700 on the old test was more like a 730 on the new one.  Admissions officers looking at the roughly 128,000 students from the Class of 2017 who only submitted scores from the old SAT were encouraged to use the concordance to compare their scores to the more than 1.7 million students who submitted new test scores to make sure every one was on equal footing.

So, here come the weeds. That table is still down at the bottom. No problem if you want to skip to it.

The recently released Common Data Set–a collaboration among the College Board, U.S. News and World Report, and Peterson’s–for the Class of 2017 lets us compare the new SAT averages to the old SAT averages among students admitted at schools that expect highly competitive exam scores. Colleges and Universities report the middle fifty percent of students who matriculated, and that is the metric we are using here.  They also report the percentage of students attending by score ranges.  We’ll follow up with a post on that in the future. The important thing to note is that these are the percentages for the students that began attending in 2016 or 2017.

We began with about 120 schools with admit rates below 40%.  Because we wanted to be able to use the ACT as a point of comparison, we eliminated schools that did not report ACT scores.  We also removed a few schools that had clearly reported erroneous data. In the end, we were left with 97 schools.

If we compare the Class of 2016’s middle fifty percent for SAT Math to the Class of 2017’s middle fifty percent for SAT Math without concording the scores, the scores go up for the majority of schools, as you would expect.  Even then, however, there were a surprising number of the 97 highly-selective schools in the cohort where the unconcorded scores stayed the same or even went down.  At about 43% of the schools, the 75th percentile on the Math stayed the same or went down from the previous year.

SAT Math 25th Percentile for Unconcorded Scores SAT Math 75th Percentile for Unconcorded Scores
Higher 78 55
No Change 5 28
Lower 14 14

We could not compare the unconcorded ERW scores of the Class of 2016 to the ERW scores of the Class of 2017, because of the differences in scoring.  The College Board Concordance does however concord the sum of the Reading and Writing sections of the old exam to the redesigned ERW section.

After concording the scores from the Class of 2016 to the Redesigned SAT, we can see that the changes were actually smaller than we might expect. In fact, at a majority of schools the scores effectively went down!

  SAT Math 25th Percentile for Concorded Scores SAT Math 75th Percentile for Concorded Scores SAT ERW 25th Percentile for Concorded Scores SAT ERW 75th Percentile for Concorded Scores ACT Composite 25th Percentile ACT  Composite 75th Percentile
Higher 22 11 6 6 33 24
No Change 21 34 15 13 53 63
Lower 54 52 64 66 11 10
AVERAGE CHANGE -7.49 -8.66 -20.76 -13.41 0.24 0.12

The first three rows count the number of schools in three categories. The single largest group is the number of schools, 66 out of 97 (68%), where the 75th percentile ERW score went down.  The smallest groups were schools where the 25th and 75th percentile went up, just 6% in each category. In Math, more than 54% of schools saw their middle 50 percent drop.

What makes these drops in the scores notable is that the ACT middle fifty percent held or went up at 89% of the colleges and universities.  The average change for each SAT category went down, most significantly for the 25th percentile ERW score, while it went up for the ACT.

The natural question, of course, is why?  Why did ACT scores creep up at more than a quarter of schools while SAT scores did not move nearly as much?  Even the 25th percentile Math score, which went up at 23% of schools, went down at 56%, more than twice as many.

There is probably no single answer to those questions.  We do know that there were many more–between 40,000 and 50,000 more–students scoring in the 700s on Math or EWR in the Class of 2017 than there were scoring in that range in the Class of 2016 on Math, Reading, or Writing.

Year Math 700-800 ERW 700-800 Reading 700-800 Writing 700-800
2017 159,501 127,648 n/a n/a
2016 117,067 n/a 78,204 66,191

What we might have expected is that colleges would have reached up higher into the score range to find students, thus pushing their middle fifty percent even higher.  We do see that occurring in many cases, but the increase is not as large as the concordance would lead us to expect.  Our fear was that, if the concordance was to be believed, and 730 was the new 700, that we would see many more schools were students needed to break 750 on each section in order to get serious consideration.  That, mercifully, is not what happened.

Perhaps with more students in the 700s, admissions officers at many schools actually felt freer to put a little less emphasis on scores, and students on the “lower” end of the scale benefited. “Lower” is definitely relative in this context, something more like a score in the high 600s or low 700s, but with more students scoring in that range on the SAT there was a larger pool to draw from, possibly leading to slightly lower scores at many schools.

To be sure, the scores that highly selective schools are looking for from applicants remain high and the changes in the middle fifty percent are largely ten to twenty point decreases, although they were over forty points at some schools.  It would be rash to say that it has gotten any easier to get into any of these schools.  The good news is that the new SAT probably has not made it harder. Fingers crossed for the future.

You made it. It’s TABLE TIME!

This table compares the middle fifty percent of concorded scores for the students who entered freshman year in 2016 (or the high school Class of 2016) to those who entered in 2017 (HS Class of 2017).  If a score increased it is marked in red.  If it stayed the same, it is black.  If it went down, it is marked in blue.

School Concorded 2016 25%-75% Math  2017 25%-75% Math Concorded 2016 25%-75% ERW 2017 25%-75% ERW 2016 25%-75% ACT 2017 25%-75% ACT
American University 580-670 570-660 630-710 610-690 26-31 26-30
Amherst College 710-790 710-790 710-790 720-770 31-34 32-34
Babson College 630-750 620-730 620-700 610-680 27-31 27-32
Barnard College 640-750 650-740 690-750 660-760 29-32 30-33
Bates College 600-730 630-720 630-720 640-730 27-32 29-32
Boston College 660-760 660-730 680-750 660-760 30-33 31-33
Boston University 650-760 660-760 650-720 640-720 28-32 29-32
Bowdoin College 660-780 640-760 690-770 650-750 30-34 30-34
Brandeis University 690-780 650-760 670-740 630-710 29-33 29-33
Brown University 720-790 700-790 720-790 705-780 31-34 31-35
Bryn Mawr College 630-750 660-770 670-750 650-730 28-32 29-33
Bucknell University 630-740 630-720 640-710 620-700 28-32 28-31
California Institute of Technology 780-800 780-800 750-800 750-790 34-36 34-35
Carleton College 690-780 680-770 700-770 680-760 30-33 31-34
Carnegie Mellon University 750-800 730-800 700-770 700-760 31-34 32-35
Case Western Reserve University 710-780 690-780 660-740 650-740 30-34 30-33
Claremont McKenna College 700-770 680-770 700-760 660-740 31-33 3034
Colby College 660-760 640-740 680-750 630-720 29-32 29-32
Colgate University 670-760 650770 n/a-n/a 660-730 30-33 31-33
College of the Holy Cross 640-720 640-710 650-720 630-700 28-31 28-31
College of William and Mary 640-760 640-740 670-750 660-740 28-33 29-33
Colorado College 640-750 650-760 660-740 650-730 28-32 29-33
Columbia University 750-800 730-800 740-800 720-800 32-35 32-35
Connecticut College 640-730 630-690 660-730 640-710 29-32 29-31
Cornell University 710-790 700-790 n/a-n/a 690-760 31-34 31-34
Dartmouth College 710-790 720-790 710-790 710-770 30-34 30-34
Davidson College 640-750 650730 670-750 660-740 28-33 30-33
Dickinson College 630-730 610-720 650-720 620-700 28-31 2732
Duke University 720-790 700800 710-780 680-770 31-34 31-34
Emory University 690-780 680-780 680-750 670-740 30-33 30-33
Franklin and Marshall College 650-750 640-720 n/a-n/a 620-700 28-31 28-32
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering 750-800 740-800 730-790 710-770 32-35 33-35
Georgetown University 690-780 670-760 n/a-n/a 680-760 30-34 30-34
Grinnell College 710-790 670-770 n/a-n/a 640-740 30-33 30-34
Hamilton College 670-760 680-760 690-760 680-750 31-33 31-33
Harvard College 750-800 730-800 740-800 730-790 32-35 32-35
Harvey Mudd College 760-800 750-800 710-780 720-770 32-35 33-35
Haverford College 690-780 690-770 700-770 700-760 31-34 31-34
Johns Hopkins University 740-790 740-800 720-770 720-780 32-34 33-35
Kenyon College 630-740 620-730 670-750 640-730 29-33 29-33
Lafayette College 640-740 630-730 640-720 630-710 27-31 28-31
Lehigh University 660-760 650-730 n/a-n/a 620-700 29-32 29-32
Macalester College 650-770 640-740 680-760 660-740 29-33 29-32
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 780-800 770-800 730-790 720-770 33-35 33-35
Middlebury College 670-770 660-760 680-760 660-750 30-33 30-34
New York University 650-780 640-760 n/a-n/a 650-730 29-33 29-33
Northeastern University 710-780 690-770 680-750 680-750 31-34 32-34
Northwestern University 740-800 710-800 n/a-n/a 680-760 32-34 32-34
Oberlin College 640-750 630-730 670-750 650-720 29-33 28-33
Occidental College 620-750 630-720 660-730 650-720 28-31 2732
Pepperdine University 580-710 600700 610-690 600-690 26-31 25-30
Pitzer College 670-750 670-750 n/a-n/a 640-740 29-32 29-32
Pomona College 720-780 660-760 720-780 670-750 31-34 30-34
Princeton University 740-800 720-790 730-790 710-780 32-35 32-35
Reed College 640-750 640-760 690-760 670-740 29-33 30-33
Rice University 750-800 760-800 720-780 730780 32-35 33-35
Scripps College 650-730 630-730 700-750 660-730 28-32 29-33
Skidmore College 580-690 600-700 620-710 610-700 26-30 27-31
Smith College 620-760 640750 680-750 650-740 29-33 30-33
Stanford University 730-800 700-780 720-790 690-760 31-35 32-35
SUNY Binghamton 650-740 650-720 640-710 640-710 28-31 28-31
Stevens Institute of Technology 690-770 680-760 n/a 640-710 29-33 29-33
Swarthmore College 690-780 690-780 n/a 690-760 30-34 31-34
Texas Christian University 560-670 560-670 580-680 570-660 25-30 25-30
The George Washington University 620-730 600-700 650-720 580-690 27-31 27-32
The University of Chicago 750-800 750-800 740-790 730-780 32-35 32-35
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 620-740 620-720 640-730 640-720 27-32 27-32
The University of Texas at Austin 600-750 610740 610-710 620-720 26-32 26-33
The University of Tulsa 570-730 560-720 590-710 590-720 26-33 25-32
Trinity University 600-710 610700 620-710 610-710 27-31 27-32
Tufts University 720-780 710-780 710-770 700-760 31-34 31-34
Tulane University 650-740 660-750 680-740 670-740 29-33 30-33
United States Air Force Academy 640-750 640-710 n/a 630-700 27-33 29-33
United States Coast Guard Academy 630-720 610-690 620-700 570-660 26-31 26-31
United States Military Academy 620-730 600-710 620-710 590-690 26-31 23-28
University of California, Davis 560-730 570710 570-680 550-650 24-30 25-31
University of California, Los Angeles 600-760 610-760 620-740 630-730 25-33 27-33
University of California–Berkeley 660-780 640-770 660-760 610-730 29-34 29-34
University of California–San Diego 650-780 590-720 640-720 550-660 27-32 26-32
University of California–Santa Barbara 600-750 620-760 620-710 620-710 25-31 26-32
University of Michigan–Ann Arbor 700-780 670-770 690-750 660-730 29-33 30-33
University of Minnesota–Twin Cities Campus 640-760 650-760 620-730 620-720 26-31 26-31
University of Notre Dame 710-790 690-770 700-770 680-750 32-35 32-34
University of Pennsylvania 730-790 720-790 720-780 700-770 31-34 32-35
University of Richmond 640-750 640-750 660-730 630-710 29-32 29-32
University of Rochester 660-780 650-770 660-740 600-720 29-33 29-33
University of Southern California 670-780 650-770 680-760 650-730 30-33 30-34
University of Virginia 640-760 640-740 660-750 650-730 29-33 29-33
Vanderbilt University 750-800 700-790 730-790 700-760 32-35 32-35
Vassar College 690-760 680-760 700-760 690-750 30-33 31-33
Washington University in St. Louis 740-800 750-800 720-780 720-770 32-34 32-34
Wellesley College 670-770 670-770 690-760 690-760 29-33 30-33
Wesleyan University 650-760 640-760 680-760 660-740 30-33 29-33
Williams College 690-780 690-790 710-780 710-780 31-34 31-35
Yale University 740-800 710-800 740-800 720-800 31-35 31-35

3 thoughts on “How Did Colleges React to the New SAT?

  1. Insightful and useful analysis. Thanks! Yet I can’t help thinking that the highly competitive colleges on this list – several now reviewing applications in seven minutes or less (!) – bothered to concord the scores. Might you have a comparison of unconcorded scores that you could publish? Having this in one place would be very helpful to students. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Alicia. Since there isn’t much space available in the original table, and I worry that having two Math scores but only one ERW score may be confusing, I’m posting the unconcorded scores here. There’s no way to do an unconcorded Reading and Writing score comparison that makes much sense.

      SCHOOL_NAME Unconcorded 2016 Math
      American University 560-650
      Amherst College 680-780
      Babson College 610-720
      Bard College 570-680
      Barnard College 620-720
      Bates College 580-700
      Boston College 640-740
      Boston University 630-740
      Bowdoin College 640-760
      Brandeis University 660-770
      Brown University 690-790
      Bryn Mawr College 610-720
      Bucknell University 610-710
      Cal Tech 770-800
      Carleton College 660-770
      Carnegie Mellon 720-800
      Case Western 680-770
      Claremont McKenna 670-750
      Colby College 640-740
      Colgate University 650-740
      Holy Cross 620-690
      William and Mary 620-740
      Colorado College 620-720
      Columbia University 720-800
      Connecticut College 620-700
      Cornell University 680-780
      Dartmouth College 680-780
      Davidson College 620-720
      Dickinson College 610-700
      Duke University 690-790
      Emory University 660-770
      Fordham University 590-690
      Franklin &Marshall 630-730
      Olin 730-800
      Georgetown 660-760
      Grinnell College 680-780
      Hamilton College 650-740
      Harvard College 720-800
      Harvey Mudd College 740-800
      Haverford College 660-760
      Johns Hopkins 710-790
      Kenyon College 610-710
      Lafayette College 620-710
      Lehigh University 640-740
      Macalester College 630-750
      MIT 760-800
      Middlebury College 650-750
      New York University 630-760
      Northeastern 680-770
      Northwestern 710-800
      Oberlin College 620-720
      Occidental College 600-720
      Pepperdine 560-680
      Pitzer College 650-720
      Pomona College 690-770
      Princeton 710-800
      Reed College 620-730
      Rice University 720-800
      Scripps College 630-700
      Skidmore College 560-660
      Smith College 600-740
      Stanford University 700-800
      SUNY Binghamton 630-710
      Stevens 660-750
      Swarthmore College 660-770
      Texas Christian 540-650
      GWU 600-700
      U Chicago 730-800
      UNC Chapel Hill 600-710
      UT Austin 580-730
      Tulsa 550-700
      Trinity University 580-680
      Tufts University 690-770
      Tulane University 630-710
      USAF Academy 620-720
      US Coast Guard 610-690
      US Military Academy 600-700
      UC Davis 540-700
      UC Los Angeles 580-740
      UC Berkeley 640-770
      UC San Diego 630-770
      UC Santa Barbara 580-720
      Michigan 670-770
      Minnesota 620-740
      Notre Dame 680-780
      Penn 700-790
      Richmond 620-720
      U Rochester 640-760
      USC 650-770
      UVirginia 620-740
      Vanderbilt 720-800
      Vassar College 660-740
      Wellesley Collegee 650-750
      Wesleyan University 630-740
      Williams College 660-770
      Yale University 710-800

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