Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Jul 29, 2022

The Wall Street Journal has written an article titled "More Students Are Taking Optional SAT and ACT, Hoping to Stand Out":

[Matt note: regarding the testing figures below, it appears to be mixing apples and oranges by contrasting the total numbers of students taking the SAT during high school with the total number of ACT tests administered to the graduating class. In the latter case, many students have taken the ACT more than once.]


An increasing number of high-schoolers are opting to take college-entrance exams amid surging competition for admission, despite the fact that most colleges aren’t requiring applicants to take them.

About 1.7 million students in the high school class of 2022 took the SAT at least once, up by 200,000 from the previous cohort.

The ACT was taken 2.71 million times in 2021-22 by students across all grades, slightly up from the previous year’s 2.69 million, preliminary data show.

Rising seniors gearing up for applications said that they are taking the SAT and ACT to gain an advantage in an admissions landscape that was upended when most colleges decided to make the tests optional after the pandemic hit. More districts and states are also requiring students to take at least one standardized test as a graduation requirement or to receive state-sponsored merit scholarships.

Zachary Kirchhoff, a rising senior at Jenks High School near Tulsa has sat for the ACT three times and plans on taking it again to try to boost his score of 32 by another point. He said he considered not taking a college entrance exam but decided a high score could give him a competitive edge at selective colleges.

“If a bunch of kids at my school are applying with the tests and I’m not, I think it would hold me back,” Mr. Kirchhoff said.

ACT Chief Executive Janet Godwin said a small part of this year’s increase is due to the number of students who took a college-entrance exam because it was mandated by their school district or state, with data showing a forecasted 6% increase from the previous academic year. At least 20 states have a standardized-testing requirement to graduate, with Indiana recently joining the ranks.

About 72% of 4-year-degree granting colleges will be test-optional or test-blind for applicants seeking admission in the fall, a practice that expanded during the pandemic, according to FairTest, a nonprofit that advocates for the test optional approach.

Andy Borst, director of admissions for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which isn’t requiring students to submit SAT or ACT results this coming academic year, said applicants typically decide to submit their scores after comparing them to those of admitted students who fell in the 25th to 75th percentile.

However, Mr. Borst warned that those metrics are likely inflated because those who score well on the SAT or ACT are more likely to send their scores to a test-optional college than those scoring low.

“People are overweighting just how important or not the test score may be,” Mr. Borst said.

Akash Verma, a rising senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., said he considered not taking the SAT because he had his eyes on University of California schools, which no longer allow students to submit test scores.

However, Mr. Verma said he took the SAT in June, and will likely take it again depending on the score. Some schools on his list grant merit-based scholarships based on a standardized test score, which he said played into his decision to take the test.

“In the back of my mind, I always know if things go south with my SAT, then I can apply test-optional and still have a shot,” Mr. Verma said.

Forbes contributor Jonathan Wai has written an article titled "How Do Students Decide When To Submit SAT Scores To Colleges?"


The COVID-19 pandemic may have fundamentally altered many aspects of education. One less appreciated area of focus is on how the college admissions process has been affected. Recent books by Jeffrey Selingo on who gets in and why, Ron Lieber on the price you pay, and Colin Diver on the influence of the ranking industry, all provide current overviews of the landscape, economics, psychology, and politics of higher education, at least up to the point when the pandemic entered our lives. However, what is really needed is solid research on how the pandemic might have impacted higher education and the admissions process. For example, whether and why students decide to submit their SAT or ACT scores to colleges when the pandemic pushed colleges to adopt test-optional admissions policies is important to understand.

Now, a new report by the College Board has just been released which addresses SAT score submission decisions by students and other important ways that the pandemic has impacted the higher education landscape. This report, titled “New evidence on recent changes in college applications, admissions, and enrollments: Focus on the Fall 2021 admissions cycle,” is led by economist and College Board’s vice president of research, Jessica Howell.

I had the opportunity to ask Jessica Howell some questions about this new landmark report, which follows.

Q: How did students navigate the choice about whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores on their college application?

A: Fall 2021 applicants to colleges in our study fall into three categories regarding test submission in a test-optional environment: (1) roughly 50% had an SAT or ACT score and chose to submit it to colleges, (2) nearly 30% had an SAT score that they chose not to submit to colleges, and (3) about 20% did not have an SAT score or had an ACT score that they chose not to submit to colleges.

Among those with a test score and a choice to make about whether or not to share it on their college applications, we find that the biggest driver of the decision is whether their score is high or low relative to typical scores at the college to which they’re applying. Applicants whose scores are relatively high are very likely to submit their scores, while applicants whose scores are relatively low are not very likely to submit their scores. Companion research based on student surveys and focus groups also revealed that relative test scores were central to how students make this decision. Very few other factors appear to influence students’ test score submission decision. We find some evidence that students with lower high school grades are more likely to submit their test scores (presumably to bolster their academic record). Conditional on test scores and high school grades, we find almost no difference in test score submission decisions across students with different demographics like parental education, race/ethnicity, and so on. Differences in score submission patterns by race, parental education, and income documented in previous research are attributable to differences in academic achievement among score submitters and non-submitters. Once you control for test scores and the college to which a student is applying, students with different demographic attributes have nearly the same probability of submitting their test score in a test-optional environment.

Q: Did test-optional change diversity at these colleges?

A: Prior research on test-optional college admissions finds either no change in racial and socioeconomic diversity or small changes. In our new research, we find that, because the enrollment of all subgroups of students increased between fall 2020 and fall 2021, the proportional representation of student subpopulations—by race and socioeconomic status—changed very little at these institutions. Black, Hispanic, and Native students made up about 25% of college enrollees in the sample before and after the pandemic and test-optional admissions policies were in place. Similarly, students from disadvantaged schools and communities made up the same proportion of college enrollees before and after. So, overall, we don’t find a change in trend to the racial/ethnic representation of students in this first year of near universal test-optional policies. The exception to this pattern is among the very selective private four-year colleges, who saw modest gains (about 3 percentage point growth) in both racial and socioeconomic diversity in fall 2021 relative to the prior year. These enrollment patterns in racial and socioeconomic diversity are consistent with separate analyses based on a near-universal set of U.S. four-year institutions, so these results are generalizable beyond this study sample.

Non-profit education website The 74 anticipates the potential impact of pending Supreme Court cases on affirmative action in US college admissions, and examines a recent paper that made use of data made available during recent lawsuits against Harvard and The University of North Carolina.


With the Supreme Court poised to reduce or even eliminate affirmative action in college admissions, a recent study has offered a unique window into the magnitude of racial preferences in America’s elite colleges.

The paper, part of a series of studies conducted in the wake of high-profile litigation against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, shows that Hispanic and African American applicants to both colleges enjoy substantial advantages relative to whites and Asian Americans. Their chances of acceptance are drastically higher than they would be in the absence of affirmative action, but with a somewhat counterintuitive addendum: preferential treatment is relatively weaker for minority applicants from poor and working-class backgrounds than it is for their peers from more affluent families.

Those findings, and those of the preceding papers, are built on data that was made publicly available during the discovery phase of two lawsuits — Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina — that were consolidated for oral argument before the court. Peter Arcidiacono, an economist at Duke University and the studies’ lead author, has provided expert testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs, who claim that the storied institutions have systematically discriminated against Asian applicants.

Those questions are becoming more concrete by the month. Opening briefs have been filed in the case, which will be heard in the 2022-23 term. With plaintiffs asking the nation’s highest court to bar the consideration of race and ethnicity as a factor in the college application process, and Republicans in Congress pursuing legislation that would force colleges to publicize their use of non-academic characteristics in admissions, the stage is being set for a major rollback of affirmative action as it has been practiced for half a century. According to Arcidiacono’s latest study, a significant reversal could shrink the percentage of African American students admitted to Harvard by more than two-thirds.

The acceptance gaps between categories are largest around the middle of the spectrum for academic qualifications, with African Americans applying to Harvard being accepted at a rate double that of Hispanics — and 12 times greater than Asian Americans — at the fifth decile (i.e., between the 41st and 50th percentile of qualifications). For out-of-state applicants to UNC, African Americans at the fifth decile were almost 33 times more likely to be accepted than Asian Americans and 14 times more likely than whites.

The New York Times also examines the potential changes to the college admissions landscape that might occur after the Supreme Court cases, with a particular emphasis on the tenability of legacy admissions if affirmative action is rolled back:


Describing its incoming class of 2025, Yale boasted that its students hailed from 48 states, 68 countries and 1,221 high schools. What’s more, the university announced last year, 51 percent of the class identified as students of color.

Yet even as Yale promotes the diversity of its first-year students, the college has clung to an admissions tradition — legacy preferences — that mostly benefits students who are white, wealthy and well-connected. Of the incoming students, 14 percent were the offspring of a Yale graduate, receiving the kind of admissions boost also used at other elite institutions.

Not much has made a dent in the century-old tradition, despite efforts to end the preference that have been waged by progressive students, lawmakers and education reformers. Many colleges say legacy students cement family ties and multigenerational loyalty. And only a few elite colleges have abolished the preference.

The practice of legacy admissions, however, may soon face its greatest test yet — and in a twist, its future could be tied to the future of affirmative action.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall about race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. If the court ends or rolls back the widely used practice of considering race in selecting students, as many experts expect, the ruling could prompt a reconsideration of legacy applicants. Explicitly favoring the children of alumni — some of whom would be competitive applicants regardless because of socioeconomic advantages — would become harder to defend if racial preferences are no longer allowed.

“If the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action, legacy preferences will not be long for this world,” said Justin Driver, a professor at Yale Law School. Mr. Driver, an expert on the Supreme Court and education, supports race-conscious admissions and called legacy preferences “a little like rooting for Elon Musk to purchase the winning lottery ticket.”

Students for Fair Admissions, the conservative group that filed the Supreme Court cases against Harvard and North Carolina — and also sued Yale — has argued that eliminating legacy preferences is one way to help achieve racial diversity without using affirmative action, which the organization says is discriminatory. One member of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas, has openly opposed affirmative action and signaled his belief that legacy preferences and other factors poison the admissions process.

That context puts universities in a decidedly awkward position when it comes to defending legacy admissions. The topic is so sensitive that few officials at selective colleges with legacy preferences would discuss them.

An op-ed in The Hechinger Report questions the actual effects of the widespread adoption of test optional policies in the last few years:


In response to the pandemic, many selective colleges and universities across the nation temporarily dropped testing requirements for admission. Such a drastic and quick shift in admissions practices demonstrates an unprecedented nimbleness by colleges that have largely subsisted on supposed notions of merit.

But despite its promises, test-optional admission has not been the game changer for racial and class-based equity that many hoped it would be. And, as colleges and universities prepare for a new academic year, the hourglass on test-optional admissions policies is running out.

Why hasn’t this seemingly progressive policy at selective postsecondary institutions led to meaningful and permanent change for historically excluded populations?

First, colleges that went test-optional during the pandemic did so because their bottom line was at risk. It took middle-class families threatening to opt-out of tests and higher education altogether — along with increased pressure from the re-energized civil rights movement — for universities and state legislatures to move swiftly and decisively to adopt test-optional policies.

Revenue sensitivities — not attitudinal shifts — are why some colleges instituted test-optional policies that will sunset in a few years’ time. And seemingly progressive legislation in some states allows these shifts back to the old status quo. For example, Colorado’s new test-optional law doesn’t ban the use of tests, but colleges’ obligation to use them — in other words, public colleges can decide.

Second, having test-optional policies doesn’t mean that the most selective colleges significantly change who they admit. In fact, evidence points to little to no effect on whether going test-optional increases the representation of marginalized students at selective college campuses.

Elite colleges that went test-optional experienced a boom in applications immediately after doing so, as students of all stripes applied to their dream schools. Now these schools are awash with applications — the currency that colleges accumulate to become even more selective.
Many insider admission websites and blogs advise students to strategically submit their scores to improve their prospects. A report from Common App shows that students from racially underrepresented communities are overall less likely to report their scores than their advantaged peers, and especially so at more selective institutions. There is likely, in effect, a chasm between the messaging and advising that middle-class and marginalized families receive.
Finally, students from more privileged backgrounds continue to submit scores. Test-optional policies do not mean that admissions officers won’t consider scores, and the most advantaged students are the ones more likely to submit them.

Many insider admission websites and blogs advise students to strategically submit their scores to improve their prospects. A report from Common App shows that students from racially underrepresented communities are overall less likely to report their scores than their advantaged peers, and especially so at more selective institutions. There is likely, in effect, a chasm between the messaging and advising that middle-class and marginalized families receive.

While at first blush the omission of scores may seem like a strategic advantage for students who have markers of disadvantage, the lack of scores may raise assumptions about what those scores would have been.

The New York Post has published an article by members of The Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute that asserts that colleges are applying test optional policies unevenly according to the ethnicity of applicants in order to quietly employ affirmative action in the admissions process:


The Wall Street Journal reports that 1.7 million students in the high-school class of 2022 took the SATs, up 200,000 from the previous year. The number taking the ACT went up, too. Yet almost three-quarters of colleges offering four-year-degrees have gone test-optional or test-blind. So fewer schools now require tests but more kids are taking them. What’s going on?

The short answer: Test-optional schools have created a two-tier system to get around complaints about their affirmative-action preferences. They don’t want scores that might screen out applicants they’d otherwise like to accept. But they do want test results from wealthier white kids because the tests provide valuable info.

They’re perpetuating an unfair system.

It’s clear that the folks who claim tests are biased have had a large effect on admissions policy. It’s just not the one they want us to think it is.

As the Journal noted, “Seniors gearing up for college applications said they are choosing to take the SAT and ACT to gain an advantage in an admissions landscape that was upended when most colleges decided to make the tests optional after the pandemic hit.” As one student explained, “If a bunch of kids at my school are applying with the tests and I’m not, I think it would hold me back.”

And, of course, that’s the point. The tests help colleges figure out among kids who have similar backgrounds and similar transcripts which ones to admit. Since administrators want a class that reflects a particular kind of racial and ethnic diversity, they have to be willing to overlook test scores for certain sets of kids.

Members of underrepresented groups needn’t submit their test scores; colleges will assume the best. But white students and Asian students will take the SATs as many times as they can and submit the scores to beat out their peers.

The admissions office has effectively created two different pools of students — those for whom tests are optional and those for whom they are more important than ever.

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear two cases regarding whether colleges are engaged in racially discriminatory admissions processes to favor blacks and Hispanics at the expense of others. Adopting a test-optional policy will presumably help the schools’ defense, at least in the forum of public opinion: How will anyone prove they are admitting minority students who are less qualified if those students never submit their scores in the first place?

But the point of these policies and their effects are an open secret. If more kids are taking the tests than they did last year, then these students, their parents, their teachers and their advisers have all figured out the reality of test-optional: It means different things for different people.