Q & A with Dean of Admissions Jim Bock on the Recently Announced SAT Changes

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Daily Gazette sat down with Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 to discuss the recently announced changes coming to the SAT in 2017. These changes include the elimination of the infamous vocabulary section, making the essay optional, the elimination of the guessing penalty, and  returning to the 1,600 point score with subscores in reading and math. 


Daily Gazette (DG): How do you use the SAT and ACT?

Jim Bock (JB): In the process, we require [these tests] but we put it into context of where the student is coming from. So, what percent of students go to a four-year college [or] what is the rigor of the curriculum? So we will look also at what the student scores within his or her cohort and we use the school profile. Many high schools will submit a profile, so someone whose scores might be below our median but 200 or 300 points above the next closest person in the school, that might be a pretty good scoring context. Are the scores a little bit low but they’re number 2 in a class of 500 taking full IB program?

So again, it’s context. If they’re at a very good public school where the median score for all of our applicants is 1500 [out of 1600] we know they can do the work so it’s not about the score. Are we going to take all 15 of them? Maybe yes, maybe no. Realistically, probably not. So we may or may not take 15 students from one high school group […] So the score is different based on […] what context it has. To be honest, we haven’t given undue weight to the writing sample because they don’t write essays like that for Swarthmore. So we have looked at the writing score and we do look at the subscore but we haven’t done a lot of comparison of the actual essay prompt.

[SAT or ACT scores are] all another piece of the puzzle. It helps us balance out schools that don’t give grades or homeschooled students who may not have a traditional background. I’m not saying that we give them more weight, but in certain cases we do because it’s a self-reported transcript with a parent which could be truly valid — so for that cohort in particular we encourage [taking] community college courses so we can get a recommender beyond the parent. Scores have more impact when they have more impact, but it varies between each individual.


DG: How do you think that this change will affect the submission of SAT or ACT in the coming years before the 2017 change and then after?

JB: Before I don’t think it will change. The ACT I believe has gained market share — more people are taking the ACT. It’s not better or worse. You know, I grew up in Texas and so I was told to take both and this was 30 years ago and we were taking both so what I did was take the concordance table and I submitted my better scores […] I think it will encourage students to look more closely at the ACT because it’s giving it a little bit more press. There’s the question whether the College Board is reacting to [the ACT gaining market share], but who knows? I think there’s some reality to that they want to make it a more relevant test and make it more subject-based versus reasoning skills […] I think the SAT is moving more towards testing [subject-based knowledge]. Is that good or bad? Who knows. Only time will tell.


DG: How will the Admissions Office approach understanding these new changes and learning how to accurately interpret them?

JB: One thing that I was impressed by with the College Board’s announcement is that they made the announcement saying this is two years away. For example, that’s not what the Common App did. They said, ‘we’re going to make this change, we think we’ll be ready, but they weren’t.’ […] We have time to answer the question that you have. To the people who have asked I say, “I don’t know. Not because I’m not trying to answer your question, but we need to see the product first.”

So I’m heartened that the College Board has said that they want to work with us as partners [and] they’re going to have time to test it, we’re going to have time to look at it to say whether it’s valid or not valid, and there’s no push to get rid of the SAT. But a valid question is will we require the writing? It’s too early to tell. I’m heartened that it’s a 50-minute essay. It’s more like an essay you would do at Swarthmore College. It’s not the same. There is some argument that now that the writing is a separate portion, what kind of access questions does that create? Is it going to cost more money in terms of access? Is it going to be more expensive for low-income kids? Is that covered by the fact that they’re offering the fee waivers that they’re sending directly to the family.

One of our questions is: is the test better or different, will it add value to our decision-making, is it something we should require or make optional? Right now we do require the ACT with the writing and if push came to shove right now I think we would include [the SAT writing portion].


DG: Did the College Board consult with you and ask for feedback or recommendations?

JB: Yes they did, in fact I was invited to speak with David Coleman [the president of College Board] about this.

Our regional representative came and asked what works well and what doesn’t, how we use it in our process, what can make a better test, what do our faculty want? I was invited by [Coleman] to speak to a group of his office at [the College Board national headquarters] and we had multiple opportunities to do webinars and have other meetings. But I figured for my purposes those two meetings were sufficient. Then we also had a pre-release phone call, so we had a conference call [an hour before the official press announcement].

Then our representative also called us after saying, “Any questions that you have, we’re here to help.” And I said, “Look, I have to get [decision] letters out.” I picked up the phone because I saw it was College Board so I said, “I don’t want to ignore you, but we’re in committee right now. But I want to say thanks for including us. It was great to be on the conference call and I appreciate you giving us two years so we don’t have to implement this starting next fall with the new cohort.”


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