Integrated Reasoning Update: Scaled Scores, Percentiles, and Your MBA Candidacy

GMACOver the last week, in a series of blog posts, FAQ updates, and conference calls, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) released more information regarding the scoring and implementation of the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) section, which will debut in just over a month now, on June 5. Some of the highlights include:

– The section will be scored on a scale of 1 to 8 in integer increments
– The 12 questions can include multiple responses per question, but no partial credit will be granted: each of the 12 items is all-or-nothing
– Of the 12 questions, some will be unscored, experimental items that do not count toward your score, but rather allow GMAC to gather data about new questions that may soon enter the active pool
– The Integrated Reasoning section is not adaptive: all users will see a (relatively) equal mix of question difficulty levels
– BECAUSE OF the above: your score will not merely be a percentage correct out of the total! Raw scores will be scaled to account for fluctuations in difficulty between your question pool and those of other candidates.
– Percentiles for the IR section will be re-centered monthly for the first six months of the new section, and then annually thereafter.

Now, what does all this mean? (Begin our analysis – the previous list is all factual, straight from GMAT. The following is an informed analysis of those facts)

The fact that GMAC needs to rescale the percentiles on the IR section monthly for the first six months is telling, as is the fact that it must scale the raw scores to account for fluctuations in difficulty. Know this: GMAC takes the validity of its scores incredibly seriously. These steps are precautions to ensure that you are graded fairly and that the scores mean something robust to admissions committees. But they also help you to read between the lines a little bit:

Integrated Reasoning scores for the first few months aren’t going to be nearly as reliable as total (200-800) scores are.

Which isn’t at all surprising, as the total scores have decades of data to back them up, and IR has yet to be tested on a truly active and representative pool of examinees. To date, the IR questions that you will see in June/July have only been tested on “guinea pigs”, not on 100%-committed-to-a-high-score candidates. So question difficulties are still in flux. And GMAC fully expects that as those fluctuations are ironed out the percentiles will need to be adjusted quite regularly. Which also means this:

Admissions officers can’t put too much stock into IR scores from 2012.

Say that you take the IR section on July 10 and score in the 66th percentile with a 6 (out of 8). And by September a 6 is in the 74th percentile. Not only does that potentially suggest to admissions officers that your score maybe should have been higher – it also begs a reason for that fluctuation. Why wasn’t your score reliable? Were the questions you saw slightly flawed? Did the test not provide you a wholly representative sample of appropriate-difficulty questions to showcase your true ability level? Did the test need to change slightly to become more valid, indicating that the section you saw wasn’t germane to its task?

Essentially, GMAC’s high standard for validity of its scores means that the IR section has a lot of work to do to get to that point. And because admissions officers are used to such valid scores that reliably predict b-school success, they cannot rely too heavily on the IR scores when it’s known that they’re not yet to that level. So for you:

If you take the GMAT between June 5 and the end of 2012, a low-but-not-devastating score really can’t hurt you.

A high IR score may not help you all that much either, but overall you shouldn’t stress the IR section. Scoring 10-20 percentile points lower than your ability level just doesn’t provide a reliable reason for a school to doubt you. Your July score isn’t completely comparable to someone else’s September score, and with that in mind schools can’t prioritize the IR score until the scoring and administration has been sorted out to approach the level of reliability of the rest of the exam. A horrid performance – a 1 or a 2, for example – might impact an admission’s officer’s view of you (Did you blow off that section? Are you horrendously unfit to read a graph?), so you can’t just skip the section. But you don’t need to worry much about it at all – at this point, your score is much more valuable to GMAC as a way to validate the new section than it is to schools as a metric to validate your candidacy.

In summary: The Integrated Reasoning section isn’t worthy of worry. If you’ve seen it, practiced it with your practice tests, and understand it, you don’t need to score much more than average to make it a non-factor in your application.

Plan on taking the GMAT after June 5? Veritas Prep will run a couple Integrated Reasoning online seminars to help you get up to speed on the new section! Register soon to reserve your spot. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!