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What Role Do Scores Play in High School Admissions?

As fall takes a firm position in our lives and the winter holidays loom on the horizon, our students are visiting schools (in person or remotely) and preparing for the next round of standardized tests. Clearly, we want our students to maximize their scores and to give themselves as many options as possible. We want the investment of time, energy, and financial resources to yield the greatest number of best-fit schools. While appropriate standardized test scores are a part of the application package, they are, surprisingly, not the most important part. 

High School Admissions are Different from College Admissions

Parents sometimes reflect on their own college application experience when thinking about the secondary school admissions process. They think about the weight that college admissions officers place on test scores — often not far behind academic rigor and performance in class. Naturally, parents worry that their student’s high school admissions scores will also be weighted heavily in a school’s decision to admit or deny. However, the high school admissions process is structurally different. 

Even with the recent trend toward test-optional admissions policies, most colleges care deeply about standardized test scores — partly because of the national rankings published by organizations such as US News & World Reports. As has been widely studied, standardized test scores on their own do not directly correlate with success in college. However, scores from admitted students are reported to ranking institutions. To a college admissions office, scores can mean a lot, so they are tracked, reported, and analyzed thoroughly.

Private high schools, however, do not have any nationally recognized rankings that encourage this same kind of collection and dissemination of data. Try asking a high school admissions representative what their minimum score requirement is or the average range for admitted students, and you’ll get a vague answer at best. Although the schools want to see the student’s test performance, that does not carry the same relative weight as the SAT or the ACT do for college admissions.

Private high schools use standardized test scores to corroborate what they see in a student’s grades and letters of recommendation, and the percentiles will give an admissions officer an idea of where the student falls within age and gender groups, but are used only for context to help understand a student’s academic preparedness. Scores are not used metrically as cut-offs. Private high schools admit a much wider range of scores than parents might realize. 

In short, deciding on where to apply should not be dictated by scores alone. They are one small piece of the puzzle. 

No Silver Bullet for High School Admissions

Another commonly held misunderstanding is that there is an ideal score above which admission is virtually guaranteed. Like other institutions, private schools admit students with a wide range of test scores. If you have heard of a certain score level absolutely needed for admission, it has likely been passed through the grapevine, and is most likely more rumor than fact. We frequently visit and talk to school admissions officers about their policies and trends. Consistently, we find that schools have no concretely defined expectations about scores. 

Similarly, parents, students, and tutors often discuss test-score percentiles. It is important to remember that percentiles are not percentages. Sixty-seventh percentile is qualitatively different than scoring 67%, or a D, on an exam. The former means that the student performed better than two-thirds of other students on that particular test, which is above grade level and a desirable position to be in. In our desire to see our students perform their best, it is easy to forget that the 50th percentile is right where a student should be for their age. A student at the 50th percentile has done what they need to do in terms of subject proficiency.

While a higher percentile is, of course, a positive accomplishment, it is important to remember that the scores are not considered in isolation. If a student has a relatively low score in a test section, school officials will take a look at the supporting documentation to complete the narrative. Is there an issue in that subject area that the school will not be able to support? Is there anything indicated by the scores that the school cannot supplement to help the student thrive in the new environment? Again, the idea that a student is not admitted solely because of a score is a myth. Scores have meaning to private high school admissions only within the context of the rest of the academic narrative. 

OK, What Should We Understand About High School Admissions? 

As we’ve discussed here, the standardized test scores are not the most important component of a student’s application to the school. Several other factors carry more influence. What are the student’s grades? How are the teacher recommendations? Has the student fleshed out a convincing personal narrative? How successful were the student and parent interviews?

It is important to remember that each school will have its own institutional goals that have little-to-nothing to do with your own student. What is the class makeup based on this year’s applications (e.g., geographic, academic, demographic, extra-curricular, financial, etc.)? These institutional goals are beyond your control. As such, we should not concern ourselves with them. Again, none of these institutional goals are related to the test scores schools receive.

Putting It All Together

While it is important to take advantage of the standardized test process as a learning tool for the students, we need not place undue weight on the outcome. Students are advised to do their best. Everyone is reminded to keep the big picture in mind. What school is the best fit for our family, on multiple levels? Which environment will allow my child to most completely reach his full potential by the end of his high school career? By keeping our focus on the larger goal, we are less likely to be blown off course by the intermediate issues that arise during the process.

Jeff Knox contributed to an earlier version of this blog.

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