Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Apr 29, 2022

NBC News has published a detailed article regarding the impact of test optional policies at elite universities, titled "Inside the vast national experiment in test-optional college admissions."


“It’s a sea change in terms of how admissions decisions are being made,” said Robert Schaeffer, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of the way standardized testing is used. “The pandemic created a natural experiment. Colleges were forced to see how test optional worked.”

MIT made headlines recently when it announced that it will again start requiring applicants to submit their scores — in part because MIT’s leaders believe tests can help identify talented students whose circumstances in high school affected their grades. Hundreds of other institutions, such as the University of California and California State University campuses, have gone the other way, adopting test-optional or test-blind policies permanently.

But many of the most competitive colleges, including those in the Ivy League, are still gathering data, watching to see how the experiment turns out.

“We will be studying this first cohort,” Jon Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment, said of the current freshman class. “We’ll be studying this next cohort and trying to tease out and unpack in a legitimate model what kind of effects created what kinds of outcomes.”

At Cornell, managing the surge in applications wasn’t easy, Burdick said. The university hired several admissions officers and about a dozen part-time application readers — paid for in part by the additional application fees.

The staff developed a numeric system to compare high school grades, with applicants getting more points if they took more challenging classes.

In the end, Cornell enrolled a more diverse class, including a nearly 50 percent increase in the share of first-generation college students. “It showed me that these students, given the opportunity, can show really impressive competitive credentials and get admitted with the test barrier reduced or eliminated,” Burdick said.

Yale University had previously studied the value of SAT and ACT scores and found that higher scores predicted better academic success, even when researchers controlled for other factors, said Mark Dunn, Yale’s associate director of admissions.

But now that the pandemic pushed Yale to go test optional, researchers are studying a new set of data and administrators plan to give the experiment a bit more time.

“It has been really illuminating and instructive to be frankly kind of forced into this policy,” Dunn said.

Craig Robinson, the CEO of College Possible, a nonprofit that helps first-generation students access and succeed in college, worries that test-optional policies will lead some schools to decide that their equity work is done and fail to make other needed changes, such as making college more affordable and ending admissions preferences for the children of alumni.

“We’d be fooling ourselves to think that this one decision or one trend is going to be the game-changer that addresses years of systemic inequity in admissions,” he said, but added that dropping test scores is a good start.

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post has devoted her column space to a guest article by Bob Schaeffer of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which examines the state of college admissions testing in the wake of MIT's decision to reinstate SAT/ACT requirements:


As more than two-thirds of all U.S. colleges and universities continue to make admissions decisions without requiring ACT or SAT scores, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made news by restoring its admissions testing requirement. Exam supporters jumped on the story, suggesting a wave of similar decisions at other schools. One story declared that the SAT isn’t unfair, it’s society that is, as if both couldn’t be true.

Such reactions based in the false notion that standardized test scores measure “merit” fairly and accurately both over-generalize from MIT’s announcement to reinforce their biases and ignore the details of the school’s policy.

In fact, MIT is an outlier. ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind/score-free schools are the new normal at all levels of U.S. higher education. Check out the current numbers compiled by FairTest:

There are 2,330 total number of bachelor-degree granting colleges and universities in the United States (per National Center for Education Statistics).

Before the pandemic, there were 1,075 four-year colleges and universities with test-optional policies.

During the pandemic, approximately 750 bachelor-degree granting institutions suspended ACT/SAT requirements.

For fall 2022 applicants, there are 1,836 schools with test-optional or score-free policies. (Here’s a frequently updated list:

More than 1,600 schools have already extended ACT/SAT optional policies at least through fall 2023 applicants, many for years beyond or permanently.

Decades of well-documented critiques of the ACT and SAT set the stage for the wholesale adoption of test-optional policies during the pandemic. The data demonstrating that test scores strongly correlate with measures of socio-economic status — family income, racial and ethnic group membership and first-generation college-going status, for example — led many schools to review their admissions exam requirements. The impact of high-priced coaching courses and tutoring firms, which provided a score boost for applicants whose parents could afford multi-thousand-dollar fees, added to these concerns.

Perhaps even more important to the growth of the test-optional movement were studies conducted by schools that eliminated ACT/SAT requirements. In general, schools that dropped standardized exam requirements experienced more applicants, better qualified applicants based on high school grades and course rigor, and more diversity of all sorts in their applicant pools. This evidence persuaded peer-institutions that test-optional policies were a sound initiative.

As MIT’s own announcement statement made clear, its policy is not designed to be generalized, even to other highly selective schools. Rather, the purported utility of SAT math scores at MIT is specific to the unique curriculum of that institution — the introductory physics course that all first-year students must take assumes that everyone has completed introductory calculus.

In fact, MIT has supplied little data to justify its policy. The school even said that the decision to restore a test submission mandate was not based on the performance of the undergraduates who had been admitted without ACT or SAT scores. Rather, MIT appears to have relied on some unpublished historic correlations. Since the mean SAT math score for MIT students is 790 and well more than half of its applicants posted 800s, it is difficult to figure out how the school might be using test results to cull its applicant pool.

For MIT, some key questions include: Is the school relying on a cutoff score — a minimum level applicants must meet to be considered for admission? Such a process would violate the exam-makers’ guidelines for proper test use. If most applicants submit incredibly high SAT math results, how does the admissions office know whether a score reflects a several-thousand-dollar family investment in test-prep “steroids” or if the applicant took the test “cold.” Even the College Board admits that it cannot be certain that a student really is stronger than another on whatever the SAT measures unless their scores differ by more than 42 points. So is an applicant with, say, a 740 math score really less qualified to do first year work than one with a 780? At best, MIT’s process lacks transparency.

MIT may yet be able to produce data to show that a testing requirement makes sense for its specific situation. But most of the world of college admissions testing is headed in a different direction based on decades of data and real-world experiences.

Of course, ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind/score-free policies do not eliminate all inequities in the college admissions process. No one ever seriously made that claim. But they do eliminate one major barrier to access. That’s a crucial step.

The widespread adoption of test optional policies over the past two years has raised a fundamental question: would the de-emphasis on the SAT and ACT by colleges and universities result in fewer students taking the exams? From New Jersey, here is evidence that it has. However, it remains to be seen if testing numbers will rebound in the next few years due to a reduction in pandemic-related test center closures.


The SAT, a time-honored rite of passage for students applying for college, stopped being required by many colleges when the coronavirus pandemic upended education.

So what did New Jersey students do? They stopped taking it in big numbers.

The cancellation of several spring 2020 test dates by the College Board limited the number of chances Class of 2021 students had to take the exam, and almost certainly contributed to the drop in test-taking for students who were juniors when the pandemic began.

Less than half of New Jersey students who graduated in 2021 took the SAT at some point in high school, down from more than 70% of students in the year before the pandemic, data released by the New Jersey Department of Education on Wednesday shows.

And the ACT, a different college entrance exam that has typically had lower participation rates than the SAT in New Jersey, saw its participation cut in half.

It’s unclear if this will be a sustained drop, or if students will return to testing. Some New Jersey colleges had previously said their “test optional” policies were temporary during the pandemic.

Highly selective Davidson College in North Carolina (ranked #13 by US News among National Liberal Arts Colleges) has announced the permanent adoption of a test optional policy:


Davidson College is making permanent its test-optional policy that allows students to apply without SAT or ACT scores.

The move announced this week turns a pilot program into policy and adds Davidson College to other Charlotte-area institutions that do not require standardized tests for admission.

Chris Gruber, vice president for admission and financial aid and dean of admissions, said standardized tests create barriers for some students. Test scores also show only a fraction of academic potential, Gruber said.

“What we didn’t know was the impact of test-optional on the overall class,” Gruber said. “Two years later, we have the answer: This shift allows students to present themselves fully and the caliber of our incoming classes has not only remained stable, it has increased — in grades, life experiences and even test scores.”

Jay Pfeifer, Davidson’s director of media relations, said campus officials want to know what kind of person a student is, not just what kind of student they are.

“We also know that those tests can be an obstacle for students without access to test preparation or Advanced Placement classes in high school,” Pfeifer said. “The Admission team found that other parts of the application better demonstrate how a prospective student will thrive on campus.”

The University of North Carolina system has announced a 2-year extension of test optional policies:


Students applying to University of North Carolina System schools will not have to submit SAT or ACT scores for another two years. The UNC Board of Governors decided Thursday to extend its waiver through fall of 2024.

The problem at the start of the pandemic was that testing was routinely canceled or postponed. The problem now is the disruption the pandemic had in the classroom over the past two years.

“There is a real danger that some of our students have not been exposed to some of the material on the standardized test,” the UNC System’s chief academic officer, Kimberly Van Noort, told a committee Wednesday.

She also pointed out that two-thirds of colleges and universities have adopted test-optional admission policies at least through 2023.

Temple Sloan, the chair of that committee, said it’s a bridge too far to do away with standardized tests, but another waiver makes sense.

“What we’re trying to do is do what’s right for the universities for the next two years, keep them competitive with their peer groups, and be fair to the high school students who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic,” Sloan said.

The University of Texas at Austin (ranked #38 by US News among National Universities) has announced that its test optional policy will be extended through the fall 2023 admissions cycle.