Emails and phone calls from this year’s applicant families are fresh on the minds of admission officers everywhere. More than once, admission officers were likely asked by anxious parents, “Should my child take the SSAT again?” Admission directors who require the SSAT for their schools do so because they see the value of an SSAT score as a standard cognitive measure across disparate (and perhaps unknown) educational programs and as a comparative data point that remains stable over time. For highly competitive schools, the ability to distribute numerous A and B students across a scale is a necessary part of their committees’ review. Yet despite good reasons for requiring the SSAT, many admission officers feel unprepared to answer this age-old question from parents.
Of course, the answer depends on how the school uses and weights SSAT scores in the admission process. It also depends on the test taker—and to better understand and communicate these data, it is necessary to know why retesting is available in the first place.
In 1957, a group of independent school admission directors decided that asking their applicants to sit for different admission tests and/or take the same exam repeatedly at their respective schools was not good for them or their families.
As a result, the SSAT was born, and in the past 59 years, The Enrollment Management Association has emerged as the leading nonprofit membership association providing independent schools with the tools, research, and programming to support their enrollment management needs.
As the SSAT’s governing board, The Enrollment Management Association establishes policies and practices to ensure both the quality of the tool and the quality of the service and support to schools and families. Guiding our efforts in these areas are the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing - industry-wide standards developed jointly by the American Educational Research Association, American Psychology Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education.
Since its inception, The Enrollment Management Association has maintained a policy that allows students to take the SSAT more than once during the application season. As noted in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, “Policies regarding retesting should be established by the test developer or user … for example, some testing programs specify that a person may retake the test; some offer multiple opportunities to take a test, for example when passing the test is required for high school graduation or credentialing” (Standard 6.1). Therefore, when the stakes are high, it is extremely appropriate to allow students to test more than once, thus lessening the anxiety of test day.
Each year, tens of thousands of students take the SSAT as part of their applications to EMA member schools. The vast majority (80%) take the test one time. Those who opt to take the test again do so for a variety of reasons. Some students feel they were unprepared for how the test is structured and timed; some may have been sick; an irregularity may have occurred during test administration requiring a retest; and others may simply want another opportunity to do their best. It is also important to note that EMA provides schools and access organizations with thousands of fee waivers each year, so the opportunity to take the test more than once is not limited to an elite group.
Our research indicates that when SSAT test takers take the test a second time, on average they have modest score gains: 9-10 points on the Middle Level test and 12-14 points on the Upper Level test. Regarding the relationship between repeating the test and the first-time scores, groups whose initial scores are in the middle of the score range (between 25th-50th percentile ranks and/ or between 50th-75th percentile ranks) are more likely to repeat the test. There is also a relationship between the score variations and first-time scores. Essentially, the lower the first-time scores, the more likely the test takers will see their scores increase the second time they take the test, and the greater the score increase will be. Our research also indicates that most of the score variation is within the Standard Error of Measurement (SEM) and that the test’s reliability remains stable across multiple test-taking instances (EMA Test & Scoring Brief, Spring 2015).
For some students, there may be a benefit to taking the SSAT a second time if there is room for improvement. However, common sense and reason do not support taking the SSAT three, four, or even five times. And there is no guarantee that a student’s score will not decrease— particularly if it was relatively high originally. Because we are most familiar with criterion-based tests, it is easy for educators and parents to forget just how extraordinary a 75th SSAT percentile really is (for example), given the test’s design and norm pool.
The more information families have, the less anxious they become, and what is universally true is that schools admit students with a range of SSAT scores. The key is for schools to be clear about the percentage of students typically admitted in each score range and communicate this with families and their boards. Most importantly, boards should focus less on the “vanity metrics” of high average test scores and rather should support enrollment leaders in ascertaining the minimum score that students generally need to achieve (in combination with other credentials and available support) to successfully manage the school’s academic program.