How many times should students take college entrance exams?

a) Once.
b) Two or three times.
c) Four or more times.
d) As many times as needed to achieve one’s target score.

According to experts from the school counseling, college admission, and test-preparation fields, the best answer for the majority of students is (b) two or, at most, three times.

The reality is that most test-takers officially test only once, while a small minority test four, five, or more times. Fitty-four percent of SAT test-takers from the class of 2018 tested once while 32 percent took the exam twice and 14 percent took it three or more times. ACT retake rates are comparable. For ACT test-takers from the class of 2015, 55 percent took the exam once, 26.2 percent twice, 11.4 percent three times, and 7.8 percent four or more times.

Once is Probably Not Enough

Retaking the SAT or ACT offers students the opportunity to increase their scores, sometimes dramatically.

On an initial attempt, students can have a bad day, and on a second attempt, they benefit from already having experienced the real thing.

Adam Ingersoll, co-founder of the test preparation company Compass Education Group, and a frequently quoted expert on college admission testing, stresses that it’s “common that a student’s first sitting on a test is kind of a mess because the student is unfamiliar with the test format or succumbing to stress.”

Retaking offers the potential for a big score gain. He said, “The basic experience of having done it before can make a world of a difference.”

As expected, Ingersoll is a believer in test preparation, but he also comments on the considerable boosts that can result from additional schoolbased learning between test sittings.

“Developmentally, most students will peak late in 11th grade at the earliest, or in the early fall of 12th grade,” he said, so students should plan their testing calendars to complete testing no earlier than that.

Increasing scores may also be the result of good fortune, the equivalent of striking SAT or ACT gold.

Few Ramifications to Disappointing Results

A major reason to retest is that posting a disappointing score on a second or third attempt is often not considerably damaging to students’ college admission aspirations.

In many cases, students can use Score Choice reporting options from the College Board and ACT to select which scores to send to the colleges to which they are applying. Most selective institutions endorse the use of Score Choice, and some schools further allow self-reporting of scores when initially applying for admission. These options effectively allow students to hide disappointing scores from the light of day.

A majority of selective four-year colleges, including some that don’t endorse using the Score Choice options, also indicate that they use the combination of students’ highest sub-scores, called the “super-score,” in their admission decision-making.

As an example, Pepperdine University’s (CA) admission website reads, “When evaluating applications, our admission counselors will only consider an applicant’s highest [composite] scores.”

Some colleges that super-score still ask for and look at all test results, but experts report that at these colleges, potential negative perceptions related to over-testing don’t become a factor until the number of tests taken starts reaching four or more. (For a full list of colleges that super-score, see

The Scholarly Research on Retaking Exams

Research affirms the real benefits of retesting. A 2016 paper by Michael Roszkowski, of La Salle University (PA), and Scott Spreat, an educational psychologist, found that the average student who tested twice on the SAT had a second score 26.2 points higher than their first, counting only the sum of the math and critical reading/verbal scores.

New research featured in The New York Times and conducted by Joshua Goodman, a Harvard University (MA) professor, and two colleagues, Oded Gurantz and Jonathan Smith, relies on a novel methodological approach that exploits the higher rates at which students with combined scores just below round-numbers decide to retest, as compared to students with scores just above round-number figures, such as 1,800 on the pre-2016 three-section SAT. Their methodological design (called “regression discontinuity”) takes advantage of the varying retesting rates among otherwise similar students. Applying their novel approach, they find that retesting one time improves combined SAT scores on the old three-section SAT by 46 points and superscores by 90 points. They further find that score gains continue with third, fourth, and additional retests, but diminish with each successive retest.

Goodman said, “It’s absolutely true that retaking boosts scores, particularly super-scores. Retaking a second time or a third time does continue to increase scores, but the effect of each subsequent take is smaller than the first retake. There are diminishing returns to that time and energy.”

For Goodman and his colleagues, an especially consequential finding is that low-income and underrepresented minority students benefit the most from retesting, as compared to higher-income and non-underrepresented minority students.

The Difference a Higher Super-Score Makes

The percentage of colleges assigning substantial weighting to test scores in their admission decision-making process has been declining, according to recent NACAC surveys.

Nonetheless, a higher exam super-score can potentially be the difference in being admissible to any Ivy League college. Or it may be the difference between being admissible only to non-selective institutions and becoming admissible to a selective in-state public college, perhaps even a state’s flagship or an honors program with a firm test-score cutoff.

According to Goodman and his co-authors, retaking increased the probability that students, especially those from low-income and underrepresented minority groups, would enroll in baccalaureate-granting colleges versus not attending college at all or attending only community colleges. This effect was driven by the positive effects on boosting students’ SAT scores. For Goodman, this means that retesting as an intervention that can narrow equity gaps in access to baccalaureategranting colleges.

“It’s absolutely true that retaking boosts scores, particularly super-scores. Retaking a second time or a third time does continue to increase scores, but the effect of each subsequent take is smaller than the first retake. There are diminishing returns to that time and energy.”

Goodman said that a clear takeaway from his and his colleagues’ research is that school counselors should encourage students who test once to test a second time. “I personally think that if I were a counselor, I would say to students to take their first exam sometime during junior year so that if it doesn’t go well, they’ll have at least one more opportunity in senior year,” he said

The issue of retesting is more relevant now than a few years ago because a greater number of students are taking the SAT and ACT than ever before, with many taking each exam just once. In 2017–2018, the SAT was administered for free to students on school days in 10 states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, West Virginia), the District of Columbia, and more than 250 school districts, including some large ones, such as those in New York City and Houston. That’s up from just three states (Delaware, Idaho, Maine), the District of Columbia, and about 110 school districts in 2014–2015. During this three-year period, the total number of SAT test-takers increased from 1.68 million to 2.14 million. Additionally, approximately 400,000 students from the 2017 graduating class used SAT fee waivers, up from 200,000 used by the 2007 graduating class.

As for the ACT, 1.9 million students from the class of 2018 took the ACT. Nineteen states tested all or nearly all of their graduates.

According to Goodman, states and school districts that mandate the SAT or ACT “should make their students aware that retaking can help them.”

“Getting kids to take the SAT for a first time is a big deal,” said Goodman, but “so is retesting.”

Educating Students About Re-Testing in Rural Indiana

At Indiana University in Bloomington (IU), the Office of Admissions partners with Purdue University’s (IN) Office of Admissions and the College Board to coordinate a pre-college program that aims to increase college enrollment among high school students residing in 19 rural counties within the state.

Sacha Thieme, the executive director of IU’s Office of Admissions, said that when visiting schools, the admission officers involved in the program tell students to “take the test early enough to allow for an additional attempt” and to “not be discouraged by a first attempt and to use practice resources before taking the test again.”

Far from Indiana’s rural counties, retesting three, four, or more times is commonplace in some communities, and there are concerns that test preparation and retesting are out of hand.

Ingersoll reported that “test prep is creeping earlier and earlier” in the places where Compass works—communities where the hyper-competitiveness of elite college admission permeates school, youth, and family life. “I used to be asked to talk to 11th grade audiences, and now I speak with audiences much earlier, almost all ninth and 10th grade audiences.”

At Case Western Reserve University (OH), Vice President of Enrollment Management Rick Bischoff reported that he and his staff have seen rare applications from “students who started taking the tests for real as freshmen and sophomores, and by the time they reached their senior years, they will have taken the test six, seven, or eight times.”

When Bischoff sees applications showing more than four test results—if only because some scores were not hidden with Score Choice—what runs through his head is, “Wow! That’s a lot of testing.” He asks himself, “What was the student giving up to do that? That’s actually important.”

Bischoff attributes escalations in early testing, time spent in test prep sessions, and higher numbers of test sittings among elite college hopefuls as the natural consequence of more students applying for a mostly static number of seats at those colleges. “No matter what we do, the reality is that when there is something highly desirable that is not available in quantity, problems will arise.”

He implores parents to “focus on raising healthy and happy kids” rather than on investing time in elongated testing calendars and hours and hours of test prep—all of which may result in only modest score increases—yet he recognizes that his pleas run up against the hyper-competitiveness of admission and the desire among students and families to get any edge that they can. He declared, “What we have to do is train our staff to have the more nuanced conversations with families and hope that it gets through to at least some of them.”

Jeff Neill, director of college counseling at the Taipei American School (TAS) in Taiwan, describes the craziness around testing at his school as abetted by the test preparation industry in Taiwan. He describes a predatory market of test-prep tutors swirling like vultures around TAS’s international students and families. He advised students and parents, “Do all the free testprep things before you pay.”

Neill also reported that the limited number of international SAT and ACT test administrations compared to the number of US administrations has motivated more TAS students to begin their testing calendars earlier. Nonetheless, Neill stands firms in his advice to parents and students to “make an informed choice—SAT or ACT—and to test no more than three times.”

For some college counselors, the standard is two rather than three official test administrations. At New York City’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a public school with screened admission and a four-year college enrollment rate of 88 percent, College Counselor Allison Cohen said that since New York City began offering the SAT once for free through the SAT School Day program, a higher proportion of her students have taken the SAT a total of three times rather than just twice. Yet she argued, “So long as the timing is right and there aren’t personal or health circumstances impacting testing, two official administrations are usually enough.”

But that doesn’t mean that students should relax with respect to the SAT or ACT. “As for unofficial practice exams, the more the better,” she said.

Culled From
Article by By Eric Neutuch

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