Each year, the University of Hawaii Manoa awards up to 80 Chancellor’s scholarships, merit-based financial aid for in-state freshmen that offsets yearly tuition by $10,000 for all four years of college. That’s practically a full ride.

Aside from a personal statement and letter of recommendation, eligibility for the competitive scholarship is determined by having at least a 3.5 GPA and cutoff test scores for either the SAT or ACT.

UH sets those cutoff scores as either a 1200 on the SAT or 27 on the ACT — either standardized test is accepted. The problem is, according to a new analysis by college prep service The Princeton Review and higher-ed price comparison start-up Edmit, that score comparison gives SAT test-takers an “extreme” advantage over ACT takers in having a shot at the scholarship.

The use of this scoring cutoff is not purposefully skewed, according to James Murphy, Princeton Review’s director of national outreach and author of the analysis. But it could have far-reaching implications for college access among Hawaii’s high school students.

Graduates at the 2017 University of Hawaii Manoa graduation ceremony. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

“Hawaii pays for students to take the ACT,” Murphy noted. “It’s a good move for college access. Students with more resources — wealthier students — will take the SAT.”

Since either the SAT or ACT is accepted by most colleges and universities — though more institutions are gravitating to a test-optional admissions policy — officials need some method of comparing scores.

The College Board, administrator of the SAT, released new guidance in 2016 on what a corresponding ACT score would be to the SAT in light of the SAT redesign that year. Most flagship public universities around the U.S. used this table to adjust cutoffs scores for 2017-18 scholarship recipients, the first year the new recommendations took effect.

But two states didn’t adjust their scores: Hawaii and Florida.

For about five years now, Hawaii’s Department of Education has administered the ACT for free to high school juniors in all traditional public high schools, part of its plan to boost college readiness. Up until this school year, it was mandatory. Now, each complex area makes an individual determination whether to require the test or not, according to Tom Saka, director of the assessment and accountability branch of the DOE.

The SAT with essay portion, meanwhile, costs $60 to take.

The SAT revamp switched the scoring from a possible 2400-point total back to a 1600-point total. The College Board also removed the penalty for guessing inaccurately on questions, causing scores to be worth more on both the math and evidence-based reading and writing sections.

“The (SAT) numbers should be 80 points higher,” Murphy said of UH’s scoring cutoff. “It puts ACT students at a serious disadvantage against those who took the SAT.”

Scoring Cutoff

According to the College Board’s guidance, a 27 (out of a possible 36) on the ACT is roughly equivalent to an SAT score range of between 1280 to 1300 — which is at least 80 points higher than what UH currently requires for students applying for the Chancellor’s scholarship using an SAT score.

“That’s problematic,” said Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and psychometrician whose research is based around test design and scoring, when informed of the situation. “They’re docking 80 SAT points from ACT takers as an estimate.”

Ho said there are two potential consequences: scholarship reviewers may assume that ACT takers, who may be disproportionately lower-income, are scoring lower to their SAT taking peers than they actually are. Second, lower-income students who disproportionately take the ACT may look at the scholarship cutoff scores, believe they’re not eligible and fail to apply.

According to numbers UH provided to Civil Beat, there were a total of 326 applicants for the Chancellor’s scholarship this school year. Eighty-one of those applicants submitted an SAT score for consideration; more than twice as many — 125 — applied with an ACT score.

The average SAT score submitted was 1247, while the average ACT score was 25. Again, the cutoff for eligibility is a 1200 on the SAT or 27 on the ACT. That means the SAT takers who would otherwise be ineligible under a 1280-point threshold were ultimately considered for the Chancellor’s scholarship while the ACT takers who failed to reach 27 were not.

When informed of the discrepancy, UH officials said they are considering changing its score cutoff for the 2019-20 school year. It is too late to adjust the scoring cutoff for the 2018-19 scholarship applicants, since the Jan. 15 deadline is fast approaching.

“We did base the criteria based on an earlier concordance table that had been since adjusted,” said Ryan Yamaguchi, associate director of UH Manoa Office of Admissions. “We will need to adjust our criteria for next year’s (2019-20) applicants.”

Growing in Popularity

The ACT has risen in popularity in recent years on a national level. Whereas 42 percent of high school students who graduated in 2007 took the ACT, 60 percent of graduates took the standardized test by 2017.

Underserved students, defined as minorities, those who come from low-income families, or the first in their households to attend college, also represent 46 percent of all ACT test-takers in 2017, according to the ACT.

In Hawaii, the percentage of ACT takers has increased by an even greater degree.

In 2017, 12,015 of high school graduates in 2017 took the ACT, compared with 5,345 in 2013, a 125 percent increase. The average ACT score in the state was 19, compared with the national average of 21.

Prospective students who take the SAT, rather than the ACT, may have an inadvertent advantage competing for some scholarships. 

In comparison, only 7,352 students who graduated in 2017 took the SAT, earning a total mean score of 1085 out of a possible 1600, with a mean math score of 541 and mean ERW score of 544.

The DOE’s Saka said the department’s decision to offer the ACT for free was to give more kids the chance to go to college.

“We want to make sure that students who otherwise couldn’t take the test because they couldn’t afford it had that opportunity,” he said.

Public school students in Hawaii applying to college overwhelmingly sent standardized test scores for admissions consideration to the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Nineteen states administer the ACT free of charge, including Hawaii.

Civil Beat reached out to UH officials to inquire about the alleged scoring imbalance for the Chancellor’s scholarship.

In a phone interview, admissions officials acknowledged that the ACT cutoff score for the Chancellor’s scholarship is “a little on the high end” compared with the SAT.

But UH Director of Admissions Roxie Shabazz said test scores are just one piece of the package the school looks at when reviewing scholarship applications.

“The cutoffs are minimum scores,” she said. “We will not send an application back that does not meet the minimum scores. I’m going to consider it if the student completes an application. Are their chances high? No, but it wouldn’t make sense to me to send applications back.”

When asked to explain whether a student who fails to achieve the cutoff score would still be deemed eligible for the Chancellor’s scholarship, Shabazz deflected, saying the review process is “a full holistic review.”

“All I can say is, I would review that application. I think it’s a positive thing (they are applying),” she said. “With any admissions or scholarship process, the most important thing given weight to is the students’ GPA. We’re going to look at recommendations and essays as well as test scores.”

A representative for the ACT said it endorses such a holistic review. The nonprofit organization also supports a comparison of the SAT and ACT that doesn’t go by the College Board’s concordance table.

“While not perfect, it is far better to use percentiles to match scores until a new concordance table is issued,” said Wayne Camara, senior research leader of the ACT.

The imbalanced scoring cutoff hasn’t just affected Chancellor’s scholarship applicants, but those who applied for the UH Manoa Excellence Scholarships for 2017-18, which uses the same scoring cutoff. Those scholarships are awarded to out-of-state incoming freshman. Out of 116 applicants for that award, 16 scholarships were awarded this year.

Combined, the Chancellor’s and Excellence scholarships distributed a total $1.2 million this school year.

About the Author