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Jim Hull, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Public Education

What do I need to know about SAT scores in determining school quality?

A: Using college entrance exam scores such as the SAT or ACT to determine the quality of schools, although quite common, is not as straightforward as it seems.

College entrance exam scores are a useful tool in evaluating a high school’s quality, but if you want to use this tool correctly, there are a couple of things you need to know.

First, the school’s average score is not necessarily representative of the school as a whole, or even the graduating class as whole. With the exception of a handful of states that require all high school students to take either the SAT or ACT, only students considering going onto college take either exam. Since these students are typically higher-performing students, college entrance exam scores more accurately represent the achievement of the school’s college-going students. So, if SAT scores fell from one year to the next, it may not be because the quality of your school declined. Instead, it may be that the applicant pool changed. Perhaps your school has been successful at getting more lower-performing students to consider college. That would increase the number of test takers and would likely have a negative effect on the school’s score, but a positive effect on the school’s college-going rate.

Second, it is also important to keep in mind which college entrance exam students in your state and school typically take. There are two major college entrance exams: the SAT and ACT. In most states (see this paper) the vast majority of students take either the SAT or the ACT, not both. When evaluating your school, you need to know which exam students in your school took. If only a small number of students took the SAT, the ACT scores would be a more accurate indicator of your school’s quality.

For more information about how to use SAT and ACT scores to evaluate how well your school is preparing students for college, check out the rest of our Data First Web site. Also, check out the Center’s Chasing the College Acceptance Letter to learn more on what score high school students need to get accepted into a good college.