This March, high school juniors taking the SAT will have the option of choosing which scores to send to colleges while hiding those they do not want admissions officials to see.
The new policy is called Score Choice, and the College Board hopes it will reduce student stress around the SAT and college admissions.
But when it comes to college admissions, few things are ever simple. Some highly selective colleges have already said that they will not go along with Score Choice, and the policy is stirring heated debate among high school counselors and college admissions officials.
Some argue that it is really a marketing tool, intended to encourage students to take the test more often. Others say that, contrary to the College Board’s goal, the policy will aggravate the testing frenzy and add yet another layer of stress and complexity to applying to college.
“In practice, it will add more anxiety, more confusion, more testing for those who can afford it and more coaching,” said Brad MacGowan, a college counselor at Newton North High School in suburban Boston and a longtime critic of the College Board and standardized testing.
Many students take the SAT more than once, and the College Board automatically sends colleges the scores of every SAT test a student takes.
Under Score Choice, students can choose their best overall SAT sitting to send to colleges, but they will not be able to mix and match scores from different sittings. (Each sitting includes tests in critical reading, mathematics and writing, with a top score of 800 in each area.)
There is no additional charge if a student selects Score Choice, which also applies to SAT subject tests, formerly called SAT II and given in areas like history, sciences and languages.
Score Choice is not a new concept. From 1993 to 2002, students were allowed to take as many SAT subject tests as they wanted and to report only their best scores to the colleges they applied to.
In ending that policy in 2002, the College Board said that some students who had stored their scores had forgotten to release them and missed admissions deadlines. It also said that ending Score Choice would be fairer to low-income and minority students, who did not have the resources to keep retaking the tests.
Now, the College Board sees things differently.
“It simply allows students to put their best foot forward,” said Laurence Bunin, a senior vice president with the College Board.
With Score Choice, Mr. Bunin said, students can “feel very comfortable going into the test center because, goodness forbid, if for whatever reason they don’t feel comfortable, it won’t be on their permanent record forever.”
William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, shares that view.
“In some respect,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said, “Score Choice will help defuse some of the pressure and give students a sense that not everything is riding on the tests, which really is the case.”
But Jerome A. Lucido, the vice provost for enrollment policy and management at the University of Southern California, said, “Students will like it because they’ll have a sense of control, but my sense is that it’s not worth the trade-off in terms of complexity and more gamesmanship.”
A major concern has to do with how colleges will handle Score Choice.
Admissions officials at some highly selective colleges — the University of Southern California, Stanford, Claremont McKenna and the University of Pennsylvania, among others — have said that, Score Choice or not, they want all the scores — from the SAT and the ACT.
It is in the students’ best interest to send all scores, these officials say, because their practice is to combine the highest subscores from all of the score reports.
“Our plan is to first tell students to relax,” said Bruce Poch, director of admissions at Pomona College. “The habit here is like many colleges, which is to see it all, but consider for admission purposes the highest individual score.”
Gary Meunier, a counselor at Weston High School, in Weston, Conn., said one reason he favored Score Choice was that while he believed that most schools did look at the highest subscores, he had also seen schools rule out students with any scores below 500.
“Some kids, their performance in the classroom far exceeds the way they perform on standardized tests,” Mr. Meunier said. With Score Choice, “they get a couple more shots at it,” he said. “For those kids, they take it with a little less anxiety. At one test, if they blow it, no one’s going to see it.”
Some critics of the new policy note that the SAT’s main rival, the ACT, which has been drawing increasing numbers of test takers, has long had a de facto Score Choice policy.
“Was this a student-centered decision?” said Richard H. Shaw, dean of admissions at Stanford, referring to the College Board’s reason for introducing Score Choice. “Or was it business-centered because they’re worried about losing market share?”
Mr. Shaw added that he was equally opposed to the ACT’s de facto Score Choice. “I don’t want to give them any credit whatsoever,” he said. “I think they started this.”
Score Choice was developed in response to student demand, Mr. Bunin said. “The students were clear,” he said. “They thought that having some control over their scores would reduce their stress.”
The College Board surveyed more than 3,000 high school students from a range of income groups and ethnicities, Mr. Bunin said. It also surveyed 700 counselors from a diverse group of high schools across the country, and 70 percent favored Score Choice, he said.
But other counselors, as well as admissions officials, have expressed concern that the policy will give affluent students who can afford to take the SAT many times an even greater advantage.
Among the questions being asked about how Score Choice will work is this one: What if a student opts for Score Choice and tries to apply it to a college that requires all the scores?
Mr. Poch of Pomona said: “My own view is that tests are a transcript. I don’t get to choose which grades appear on a transcript any more than I get to suppress a driving record from an insurance company.”
Tamar Lewin contributed reporting.