Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update
May 26, 2022
The New Yorker has published two articles focusing on the SAT. The first is titled "How the Pandemic Remade the SAT."
The College Board has steered its signature test, the SAT, through celebrity bribery scandals, international cheating rings, rain-induced Scantron malfunctions, the rise of the rival ACT, and a steady onslaught of bad P.R. But the covid-19 pandemic presented a new kind of crisis. Because of lockdowns, 2020 exam dates were cancelled across the world. Hundreds of universities suspended their testing requirements in response. The Washington Post declared “the beginning of the end of our obsession” with standardized exams. The College Board, which brought in more than a billion dollars in revenue in 2019, had considered designing a digital version of the SAT before, without much urgency. Now they scrambled to make it happen. In mid-April of 2020, they announced the development of an at-home version of the test that they internally referred to as the eSAT—“e” for both “electronic” and “emergency.”
By the summer, those plans had fizzled. One reason was the bumpy début of a computerized, at-home version of the Advanced Placement exams, in May and June of 2020, during which thousands of students experienced technical difficulties. Changing course, the College Board designed a kind of hybrid test. The digital SAT, which was announced this past January, will still be administered at testing centers, under proctored supervision, but students will use laptops or tablets—no No. 2 pencils necessary. It runs just two hours long. For a first trial run, last November, the College Board paid five hundred high schoolers from across the world a hundred dollars each to sit for the test. (“I only really did it for the money,” one participant told me.) A few days before Thanksgiving, a dozen senior staff members of the College Board gathered virtually to review the feedback.
The mood was optimistic. “This is my favorite slide,” a staff member said, as she pulled up a summary of the pilot results. “With only one exception”—a test-taker in São Paulo, Brazil, whose laptop had shut down and would not reboot—“every single student who started the exam was able to finish and successfully submit.” Another team member read aloud approving reviews from test-takers in New York City and Mumbai. The majority of students across every demographic had found the new test less stressful.
The paper SAT is notoriously vulnerable to security breaches and logistical snafus. During the review meeting, one staff member said he’d just learned that a sitting in rural Alaska had been cancelled because the booklets didn’t reach their destination in time. Since 2020, the test has been on hiatus in Egypt owing to leaked exam forms. For the digital SAT, which will roll out internationally next spring and in the U.S. in 2024, questions will be preloaded onto students’ computers and unencrypted on exam day. A teen-ager who shows up late—or needs to troubleshoot a faulty trackpad, as one pilot participant had—will be able to begin after the rest of the group instead of being sent home.
Through each iteration of the SAT, one constant has been vehement pushback. “I think I’ve been through half a dozen overhauls,” Robert Schaeffer, of FairTest, told me. A tawny Florida resident, Schaeffer has worked for FairTest since its founding, in 1985, and is now the executive director. Retooling the SAT is “largely rearranging deck chairs, or putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. “In my experience, it’s never made the test a better or fairer predictor, which is what it’s supposed to do.”
Jonathan Burdick, the vice-provost for enrollment at Cornell, told the Times that none of the university’s efforts to diversify its applicant pool had been as effective as waiving the testing requirement. It’s less clear, however, whether more diverse applicant pools translate to more diverse enrollment numbers. Burdick told me that thirty per cent of Cornell’s entering freshman class in 2022 chose not to submit scores. The same class included fifty per cent more first-generation students than in the previous year, but only a “modest increase” in students of color. At Amherst College, where roughly a third of admits didn’t submit scores, the proportion of domestic students of color also “increased modestly,” according to the school’s dean of admission and financial aid. Several schools that I contacted declined to provide me with similar data. One admissions officer told me, “We believe the forces at play are complicated and are not easily captured by simple descriptive statistics.”
What’s certain is that test-optional policies have influenced the College Board’s latest rebranding. When the organization announced the digital SAT, in January, it described the exam as a “lower-stakes test” in a “largely test-optional world.” “Simply put, the debate in our society is no longer ‘Should every student be required to supply the SAT?’ ” Coleman told me, one morning last winter. “That debate is over.” We were in his office at the College Board’s New York headquarters, on the seventeenth floor of a high-rise near the World Trade Center. A framed portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., hung over his desk. With the lighter-weight digital SAT, Coleman said, his goal is to provide “the most widely available, inexpensive way” to help students stand out. He added, dryly, “There’s a part of me, if you want to know, that likes the fact that people will no longer be able to blame the SAT.”
Some critics have dismissed the digital SAT as the College Board’s ploy to remain relevant in the face of financial losses. An investigation in Forbes estimated that cancelled testing during the spring and fall of 2020 may have cost the College Board as much as two hundred million dollars in lost revenue. Last January, in what many interpreted as a sign of downsizing, the organization announced that it would scrap all of its subject tests, as well as the SAT’s optional essay section. Neither Coleman nor Rodriguez would quantify the losses that the College Board has suffered as a result of the pandemic, but Coleman cited the “pleasure of being nonprofit.” (Public disclosures from 2020 show that the College Board was operating with more than three hundred million dollars in cash and savings, plus more than eight hundred million dollars in investments.) I asked whether the organization would go out of business if every university in the country ditched its testing requirements. “Not even,” Coleman said. Rodriguez pointed out that, in a recent survey, the College Board found that more than eighty per cent of students still wanted the option to submit test scores to colleges.
The second New Yorker item is a discussion with the author of the article above.
The New Yorker: The SAT feels like such an integral part of the college-admissions process—some students even have parents who enroll them in rigorous after-school test-prep programs just so that they can ace the exam. But the SAT is also partially a relic from another time, something that has evolved as times have changed. What’s your sense of its importance as a factor in college admissions today?
Writer Eren Orbey: I was surprised, in my reporting, how quickly executives from the College Board were willing to say that the test is lower stakes, as they put it in their press release. They really do seem to be advertising the digital SAT as a different kind of tool, focusing on its power to help certain students stand out rather than on its potential threat to students who don’t score well. But there’s still so much pressure on the other side, from high-school administrators and test-prep tutors and others. I think the SAT has become a kind of cultural relic with a lot of weight and meaning that is perhaps separate from what the College Board is actually intending.
To me, the most interesting question in this new moment is whether the messaging from the College Board and from test-optional universities will affect the way kids look at the test. Because there are so many new doubts now, like, If I don’t submit an SAT score, are colleges going to assume that I did poorly, or will they assume I didn’t take it and direct attention elsewhere? There isn’t a lot of consensus. That has created a different kind of panic.
The New Yorker: As part of your piece, you actually took the new digital SAT. How did that experience compare with your experience taking the paper test a decade ago, as a high-school student?
Eren Orbey: It just felt simpler. It was a two-part reading-and-writing section followed by a two-part math section, and the user interface they designed was sleek and straightforward to use. Taking the test on a laptop, instead of having to worry about bubbling in answers, felt like it removed a lot of the stereotypes about the test that make the experience feel kind of robotic, or otherworldly. One student I spoke to said that she loved being able to test on her own laptop, because she felt like she was familiar with it.
My first question for the College Board executives when I finished the test was: Are you worried you made it too easy? They said that the same number of students are getting the questions right and wrong. So the test has still retained its predictive capacity, but what’s changing is that students feel it’s easier.
Most colleges and state university systems have retained the test optional policies adopted due to the pandemic, but the University of Tennessee is bucking that trend:
The University of Tennessee system will once again require standardized test scores to be submitted on admission applications after suspending the requirement in 2021.
After a meeting amongst the UT Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee on May 6, the decision was made to require standardized testing scores for the fall 2023 admission cycle. The university system now plans to return to their pre-COVID admissions policies, which requires prospective students submit scores from the ACT, SAT or both.
“The Chancellors and I and our colleagues in the system, and campuses, are extremely thankful for the very thorough engagement that we have had with the board regarding the test optional exception," UT System President Randy Boyd said during the May 6 executive committee meeting. "Based on our review, and the thoughtful conversations at our recent board meetings, the campuses do not intend to bring forward any proposed revisions to the universities’ revisions policies. Consistent with the outstanding pre-COVID admission policies, the submission for standardized tests for student applicants will be required for the upcoming Fall of 2023 admission cycle."
Michigan State University has gone in the opposite direction, announcing the extension of test optional policies through 2026.
Submitting ACT and SAT scores will continue to be optional for prospective Michigan State University students through at least 2026.
The pilot program, which began in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, aims to remove barriers and provide additional access to higher education. School officials chose a six-year window to evaluate retention and graduation rate trends for students who do not submit their test scores when applying.
“The decision was born out of an emergent situation because of COVID and students not having the capacity or ability to test,” said John Ambrose, executive director of admissions at Michigan State University. “When we did it, we tried to add some forethought and said let’s make it a pilot to gather data on not just retention and enrollment numbers, but graduation rates as well.”
While it’s too early to evaluate the program, data from the first class given the opportunity to apply test-optional has been promising.
The latest freshman class included 9,290 admitted students, which marked an 8% increase from the previous year. MSU received about 5,000 more applications from each of the previous two years, and class diversity expanded across a number of groups.
Additionally, about 50% of the enrolled freshman class opted not to include ACT or SAT scores.
The NCAA is extending its test score waiver, and is considering permanently eliminating the SAT/ACT requirement.
The NCAA Eligibility Center has announced it is extending the COVID-19 waiver that was first put into place in April 2020 in response to the disruptions to academic life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally meant to provide relief for the high school class of 2020, its provisions were extended to the classes of 2021 and 2022 in April 2021. Now, student-athletes entering college in the 2023-24 school year will enjoy the same benefits.
The provisions of the waiver include:
SAT or ACT test scores: the NCAA Eligibility Center has eliminated the SAT/ACT score as a requirement of academic eligibility. With the pandemic raging in the spring of 2020, test centers closed and students were unable to sit for the required standardized tests. Universities responded by dropping testing requirements – some for a trial period, some permanently – and the NCAA quickly followed suit.
In April 2022, the Standardized Test Score Task Force recommended the permanent removal of the test score requirement. Its recommendation will be voted on at the NCAA Convention, which will take place from January 11-14, 2023, in San Antonio, Texas.
The NCAA is quick to point out that students may still need to take the SAT for admission to a particular college or university or for an academic scholarship that might complement an athletic grant, so it is up to the student to determine whether or not to take the test.
Without the SAT or ACT, which together with a student’s GPA used to be the basis of a sliding scale of academic eligibility, the NCAA will now determine academic status by the GPA alone. Prospective student-athletes must achieve a GPA of 2.3 in the 16 core courses for Division I and a 2.2 for Division II.
A professor at the University of Chicago has written an article for EducationNext regarding what he sees as a little-known source of inequality in standardized testing: older students within the same school year (those born months earlier than their classmates) consistently perform better on tests, including the SAT and ACT.
Age allowances have a proven track record and should be included in any test for which there is indication that age matters. There is clear evidence that age makes a difference in the measurement of intelligence until at least age 18. Just as important, there is also evidence of the effects of age on the SAT and ACT, the two most popular college admissions tests in the U.S. For example, a study by Steven Hemelt and Rachel Rosen found that 12 months of age bump scores on the ACT by as much as three percentiles. According to my preliminary analysis of the impact of age on SAT scores, students who retake the test one year after their first time gain about eight percentiles. To be sure, second-time testers may be more familiar with the SAT format and have undertaken more preparation than students sitting for the test the first time. But given the impacts of age on test scores we saw in Figures 1 and 2, the fact that they are one year older also would seem an important factor.
Recent moves by a growing group of prominent U.S. institutions to make standardized test scores an optional part of student applications won’t make life easier for relatively young applicants. College admissions officers are focused on other signs of talent, and those signs are also biased by age. For example, one analysis of GPA among high-school seniors shows that relatively younger students are outperformed by their older classmates. To correct for this bias, age allowances could also be made in subject-specific grades as well as any academic achievement test whose score is used to award entry into competitive programs, compare performance, or give feedback to students and families.
Age allowances could also reduce academic redshirting by removing families’ incentive to delay kindergarten. This isn’t a minor point. At a societal level, redshirting is a wasteful practice. Essentially, it is a zero-sum game, since there will always be younger and older children in the same school class. Equally important, since redshirting is more prevalent among white children from high-income families, it contributes to the gaps in test scores observed along income and racial or ethnic lines. By making redshirting less appealing, age allowances could simultaneously save resources and help level the playing field—a rare chance to enhance efficiency and equity at the same time.
Les Perelman, former writing professor at MIT, has written an article defending MIT's reinstatement of its SAT/ACT requirement. However, Perelman writes that few other colleges and universities should follow suit in mandating test scores from applicants.
In 2014, an article in The New York Times Magazine described me as one of the SAT’s harshest and most relentless critics, beginning with my discovery in 2005 that essay readers were trained to value length more than any other factor. My later research demonstrated that untrue details posing as facts and quotations, regardless of their relevance to the essay’s argument, significantly raised an essay’s score. That Times article also describes a 2012 conversation I had with the then-incoming president of the College Board, David Coleman, that convinced him to scrap the mandatory SAT essay. Consequently, that I applaud the decision of many colleges and universities to scrap the SAT is by no means shocking. However, that I strongly support the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s decision to reinstate the SAT requires an explanation based on my 30-year history with that institution.
MIT differs from most other American colleges and universities, including most other selective institutions, in that its programs in undergraduate majors begin in the second year rather than in the third. From the first semester of their sophomore year until graduation, students are expected to devote 75 percent of their coursework to intensive majors in science, engineering, economics and management that all require an expertise in calculus and, in most, knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology. Consequently, because calculus and physics are essential to so many disciplines, the coverage in the first year is comprehensive and the speed of instruction intense. Each entering student takes two semesters of both calculus and physics, each two-semester class being the equivalent of three or four semesters at many other universities, and one semester each of chemistry and biology.
Most students who attend MIT have very high SAT math scores. Over 75 percent of entering first-year students have SAT math scores of between 780 and 800, the top score. Moreover, fewer than 10 percent of applicants with SAT math scores of 750 or above are accepted. Therefore, the test is not used to distinguish among applicants with similarly high scores. The test, however, can be used to identify candidates with lower scores who almost certainly lack the necessary mathematical preparation, and that is its primary use at MIT. There are, however, better predictive tests that provide MIT with much more relevant information, such as the College Board’s own Advanced Placement Calculus tests and similar tests as part of the International Baccalaureate program. But many students do not have access to these Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. Teacher preparation is expensive, as is the scoring of the tests by a team of high school AP teachers and college faculty who teach the college-level equivalent of these courses. (At this moment, the Educational Testing Service is still advertising for faculty to evaluate AP tests during this summer’s grading sessions.) While AP and IB courses and tests are abundant in wealthy public school districts and private schools, access is either severely limited or nonexistent in poorer school districts.
These facts explain MIT’s motivation in reinstituting the SAT. Rather than being an instrument to distinguish among highly qualified students who have access to advanced coursework, it is primarily used to identify students who do not have access to more advanced programs and who would nevertheless succeed in MIT’s curriculum. What would happen to students who have strong academic records but no advanced coursework, but who did not take the SAT either because it was either optional or completely abolished? Absent the better predictors of success, the AP Calculus and the IB math tests, the SAT math score is the best available tool to distinguish between those students who would succeed at MIT and those who would not.
Despite widespread test optional adoption, there is still intense focus among students (including many overseas) upon obtaining high SAT/ACT scores, even at the cost of cheating, as we see in this story from Turkey:
Six suspects, including Iranian and Azerbaijani nationals, were arrested for stealing and selling the questions and answers to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exam in Turkey, media outlets reported on Monday.
The suspects allegedly charged “buyers” $2,000 to $3,000 for the questions to the May 7 edition of the exam, which foreign students sit for admission to universities in the United States and Turkey. The Chief Prosecutor’s Office in the capital Ankara launched an investigation after receiving a tipoff about the scheme. The investigation revealed that the suspects were running the scheme over Telegram and named two individuals, one identified as C.M. and the other as M.N., as the suspects who brought the questions obtained in Azerbaijan to Turkey.
The questions were then supplied to buyers in what the network of suspects called “quarantine houses.” Searching the addresses where the suspects were arrested, the financial crimes unit of the Turkish police found SAT admission papers, official examination question booklets and a trove of digital evidence.
Police found question booklets in the residence E.G., a suspect who claimed during questioning that he was simply studying with other students who were at his address at the time of the raid. He said that many applicants were already in possession of the questions before the exam. “(Other students) told me that they obtained it via a Telegram group. I did not know they were stolen,” he told police.
A.K., another suspect, however, said that questions could have been “stolen” from Turkey, claiming that he heard the questions are stolen every year. He added that the questions are sent in PDF format over Telegram as well.