Common Sense Talk About the SSAT

November 13, 2015 Leo Marshall
Yet, there are few things I am not going to miss in my conversations with families as I move to retirement. Topping the list are questions about the “test” from parents. “What score does he need? How many times should she take it? What’s a ‘good’ score?”

SSATB tries mightily to help schools educate parents about the test and what it is designed to measure, and I applaud that effort, but when parents get into my office I have to, once again, discuss the numbers and, my favorite: the percentiles. I am at the point of suggesting we, perhaps, drop them as we did those old “national” percentiles. Remember them? They were designed, essentially, to keep our parents from demanding the poor math teacher be impeached because their child receive a 50 percentile on the quantitative sub-test and, of course, a “50” meant they must have failed the test which means the math teacher was doing an awful job of teaching. “But, Mrs. Smith, look over here to the right. See that? A 90 percentile.” Oh.” “Yes, Sally is really in the top 10 percent of all students nationally.” “Oh”. But, alas, the national percentiles are gone and good riddance. Now, we have to just deal with the percentiles. The problem is that most of us adults lived in an era where every grade was about a percentile. If you got, say, a 90% in algebra, well, that was an A- wasn’t it? But it was B if it was an 89%. Horrors! So the mindset is if they see a 50% on the SSAT quantitative section, then, egads! my child has failed!

“No, Mrs. Smith, think of it this way: If Johnny was in a class of fifty students and only the top ten students in the class could take this test and he received at 50% in that group, that would put him in the middle of that group right?”

“Well, yes”.

“But, Mrs. Smith, if the whole class were to then take that test, he would be in a higher percentile because the top ten students he took the test with were the best students in the class. He was competing with a select group.”


“Because, Mrs. Smith, the SSAT tests a self-selecting group, i.e. students who wish to go to some pretty strong schools. Students doing poorly in school rarely take this test.”


For the parent it’s a vanity thing but the conversation stops them every time because I can pretty much forget about trying to explain raw scores which is what our school uses exclusively. It just draws blank stares. Sometimes, if I think they are from my era – a long time ago – I try to remind them that in those days everyone knew what a 1200 total raw score meant on the SAT. No one ever talked about percentiles. You just knew what a 1200 meant, and, for me, it didn’t mean Yale.

Let’s be certain that we have these common sense conversations about where every piece of the application fits. Let’s be completely transparent about how we use the SSAT as a very important tool to help us not only discern a student’s readiness for our school’s academic rigor but what it does and does not say about their child. When I see a child’s record that shows she has taken the test four times I just want to scream. Irrespective of the cost, imagine what it does to the stress of the child. How many of us actually say to that parent, “Stop! Your child needs to spend time being a child and not sitting in one more SSAT tutorial? I see this almost as a sacred duty to protect these poor kids from someday becoming test-crazed parents themselves.

I am a believer that a well-crafted admission test is necessary to our tough job of selecting the right candidate for our school. The SSAT, SAT, ACT are of immeasurable importance to us. They help schools and colleges, among other things, place what are very disparate grading systems in our sending schools in some sort of context. But let’s agree that part of the hard work of admissions is to be certain parents understand how our schools use admission test scores in our selection process--what they mean and what they do not. 

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