Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Dec 02, 2022

Jeffrey Selingo (the former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who has also written many higher education articles for The Atlantic and is the author of the recent book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions) has written a lengthy article for New York magazine that examines many of the issues related to the mass adoption of test optional policies in recent years.


With little preparation, colleges embarked on an experiment: What would happen if, for two application cycles, nearly every elite institution in America let students choose what to do about their test results? And what admissions deans found was that a test-optional policy, presented to students as a move of compassion, served their own agendas, too. Unsure whether testing was really optional or what a good score was when not everyone sent one, students aiming for selective colleges hedged their bets and applied to more schools than usual; according to forthcoming research from the Common App, average applications per student have increased during the first two years of the pandemic, with 17 percent of students applying to ten or more colleges this year using their platform (known in the industry as “high-volume applicants”). Top-ranked private colleges received the bulk of their applications. Having more prospective students to choose from gave colleges permission to lean more into their priorities, whether it’s admitting students from a particular geographic region, low-income students, men, students of color, athletes, legacies, or full payers. And now that scores weren’t required, colleges could craft a class however they wanted without worrying whether low scores from sought-after applicants might impact the average for the entire first-year class — and ultimately their rankings and prestige.

I saw how schools balanced those priorities while embedded in the admissions offices at three selective colleges for my book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. Typically, institutional priorities really come into play in the final weeks of admissions season after the rough sort of the class is completed. By early March, colleges have a general sense of what their incoming class looks like in terms of their overall academic profile and demographics, so this is when admissions offices focus on smaller groups of applicants — “shaping” the class, as they call it — to add diversity or certain majors or bring in legacies, employees’ children, or donors. But a test-optional policy “gives you more degrees of freedom in selection,” said an admissions dean at a prestigious private university. “It brings other elements of the file forward that had to compete with test scores in the past.”

“I have yet to speak to a counselor at a low-income high school who doesn’t believe that test optional has helped open the doors wider for their students,” Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told me. This fall, I spoke to a first-year college student from Texas named Jorge, the son of a single mom who works as a custodian. In high school, Jorge was interested in Columbia but had worried about his SAT scores; after taking three SATs, his best combined score was a 1230, which fell below Columbia’s middle 50 percent of test scores for admitted students, 1490 to 1560. “Why waste my time when I don’t have the scores?” he thought. “In the back of my mind, I thought, I’m not going to get in.” At the time, he was working with a nonprofit that provides college-counseling to low-income students, and his advisers encouraged him to apply anyway. Jorge sent in his application without test scores and was accepted early decision.

What remains to be seen is whether the switch to test optional at selective colleges has any impact on who stays and graduates. Fans of the tests have long argued that scores are a necessary benchmark for evaluating applications from high schools with varying degrees of rigor. “It’s not a score cutoff we’re looking for but one that’s high enough that you think, Well, maybe the student can do it,” Deacon said. “We don’t want people coming in for whom that is a real question. The really low test score is a warning signal.” But other deans have yet to make up their minds. I asked an admissions dean at one of those highly selective privates if it would be difficult to go back to requiring the tests should they continue to see the rise in underrepresented students admitted. “It’s the million-dollar question,” he said, one his institution is trying to answer by tracking the performance of undergraduates who enrolled without test scores. He’s not alone: One reason so many schools have extended their test-optional policies is so they can conduct an A/B test comparing how those undergraduates who withheld their scores fare over their college careers compared with those who included them, based on grades and how many return to campus.

While an all-star student’s prospects may remain intact, the pattern that seems to be emerging is that a test-optional policy has scrambled the odds the most for the edge-case students. In the spring, Hannah Wolff, a former college counselor at Langley High School, a top-ranked high school in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., heard from admissions counselors at several public universities that a few Langley seniors who were rejected might have been admitted if they had not submitted their SAT scores, which were in the 1350 range. While a 1350 would have been considered a good score in the past at those schools, now, when the only applicants submitting scores are mostly those well above the average, the expectations of admissions officers have risen with the scores — especially for applicants from wealthy academic powerhouses like Langley. For students at competitive high schools who hover at the threshold, the decision to share a score can hurt as much as it can help. But as Georgetown’s admissions dean explained, “If you’re from some unknown high school in the middle of Mississippi and you’ve got a 1200, you should send it because that’s a good score for a place that we’re actually looking to add students.”

Akil Bello and Harry Feder of FairTest have written an article highlighting the nuances of the test optional landscape titled "Why High School Students Don’t Need the SAT Anymore":


Currently, more than 1,800 colleges (roughly 80% of bachelor’s degree-granting colleges) have test-optional or test-free policies for those applying in 2023. These colleges range from Hampton University to CalTech to Michigan State University.
New testing policies — combined with changing demographics and the impacts of the pandemic — have changed the normal calculus of college admissions.

Some colleges have seen significantly more applications, some haven’t. Some families and students feel less certain about the advantage that a high test score provides, some are thankful that they don’t have to worry about testing. Some test prep businesses are worried about fading clientele, some are grateful to see the end of overtesting and test misuse. Some college counselors are happy they can recommend their strong students but poor test takers to colleges that might have rejected them because of a lower test score, some bemoan the loss of a potential advantage for the students they serve that test above their in-school performance.

But while these new policies decrease barriers for many, change can increase uncertainty. Some students and their supporters feel more uncertain about being able to predict the outcome of the admission process.

This nervousness is especially pronounced among those who have long relied on presenting test scores as the “key” to admissions and scholarships. Test makers, test prep companies, and independent college counselors have contributed to the anxiety by stoking fears, despite the assurances of colleges, that not testing creates a disadvantage in either admissions or access to scholarships, even at colleges that are test optional.

According to Ericka M. Jackson, Senior Director of Undergraduate Admissions for Wayne State University, “Many students and parents didn’t trust that they would really get a fair evaluation if they didn’t submit a test score. As college admissions offices, we spent a lot of time during that first test-optional admissions cycle explaining what test optional means at our institution and reassuring students, counselors, and parents that students would not be disadvantaged if they applied test optional.”

Since 2020, test publishers College Board and ACT have become particularly aggressive about marketing their tests as the key to “standing out” in the application process, suggesting that taking the test is intrinsic to securing admissions and “merit” scholarships.

But this narrative is misleading, if not outright false.

Candice Mackey, a college counselor at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, says that “although ALL Cal-States and UCs are test-free, my students and families are ‘programmed’ for testing. It’s actually a little difficult at times to convince them otherwise that test-optional means optional.”
Making matters worse is the national media’s focus on highly rejective colleges, which make up less than 4% of colleges. News reports and prep company advertisements hyper-focus on scores as the reason for admission or rejection, even though these institutions almost always review applications holistically, considering many factors beyond test scores. This causes families to put undue misplaced pressure on testing.

Even in California, where public universities will not look at test scores even if submitted, the legacy of having required scores for 50 years casts a shadow on the current process. Mackey notes that “there is a lot of re-educating, explaining, and reframing what test-optional means and how testing factors into admissions.”

Colleges are not only having to deal with the difficulty of educating a public used to submitting scores, but they are often having to adjust their internal policies as their applicant pools shift from 100% of students submitting scores to less than half doing so.

Students this year and in the short term will be well served to keep asking questions like: “Is the investment of time and/or money to prepare for this test worth it? Is it safe and useful to take the test? And, does submitting my scores increase the likelihood that I’ll help my application or increase scholarship opportunities?

The Hechinger Report cites ongoing research and comments by college admissions officers that suggest the test optional surge has made decision making more difficult than ever:


One college admissions officer at a large public university described how test-optional admissions had spurred more disagreements in his office. A third reader on an application was often called in to break a tie when one staffer said ‘yes’ and another said ‘no.’ Without SAT and ACT scores, he explained, the job of admitting students had become more subjective and more time-consuming. “I feel like everyone who reviews applications has their own perspective or opinion,” he said.

This sobering anecdote comes from a research project led by Kelly Slay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, who has been conducting in-depth interviews with admissions officers in 2022 to understand how the elimination of SAT and ACT testing requirements has been playing out inside colleges and universities. According to Slay, admissions officers often described a “chaotic” and “stressful” process where they lacked clear guidance on how to select students without test scores. Admissions officers at selective colleges were also “overwhelmed” by the volume of applicants that test-optional policies had unleashed.

“One of our key findings were the tensions that were emerging around these test optional policies,” said Slay. “There’s a struggle on how to implement them.”

Slay’s work gives us a rare, unvarnished glimpse inside college admissions offices. It’s especially significant now because a college admissions case is currently before the Supreme Court that could strike down affirmative action, a practice that gives preferences to groups that have been discriminated against. As colleges experiment with alternative solutions, these interviews help shed light on why test-optional policies haven’t been helpful for increasing diversity on college campuses.

Many admissions officers said that they were struggling with how to select candidates fairly and didn’t know how to weigh an application with test scores against one without. “I think the students that do have the strong test scores still do have that advantage, especially when you have a student that has strong test scores versus a student who doesn’t have test scores and everything else on the academics is more or less the same,” an admissions officer told Slay.

It’s not surprising that colleges that went test-optional during the pandemic were suddenly scrambling to decide how to review applications without standardized tests. But the researchers learned that even colleges who had years of experience with test-optional admissions were still working out the details of how to implement it.

Many admissions officers said that they were struggling with how to select candidates fairly and didn’t know how to weigh an application with test scores against one without. “I think the students that do have the strong test scores still do have that advantage, especially when you have a student that has strong test scores versus a student who doesn’t have test scores and everything else on the academics is more or less the same,” an admissions officer told Slay.

“It’s really hard to ignore test scores if that’s the way you were trained to review applications and think about merit,” said Slay. “If the standardized test is there in the file, it might still bias you in ways that you’re not aware of. It’s an anchoring bias.”

Admissions officers also described how they struggled to answer a frequent, but basic question: are you really test optional? Students wanted to know if they would have an advantage if they did submit a test score. Slay said admissions officers wished they had better guidance on how to answer this question. Since college entrance exam scores could also be used for certain scholarships and determining course placements once admitted, it was difficult for admissions officers to say that the test wasn’t still important.

Slay is hearing from colleges that test-optional policies have increased the diversity of the applicant pool, but it may not translate into a more diverse student body.

“One of the things we concluded is that test optional does not mean an increase in diversity – racial diversity or socio-economic diversity,” said Slay. “If we haven’t figured out how to review students who come from diverse backgrounds who come from schools where they may not have the same access to AP or IB courses, then that could mean that these students still aren’t going to be admitted.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune offers an article with many quotes from admissions officers, college applicants, and guidance counselors about the new test optional landscape.


An internal battle waged in Gabby Smith’s mind over her college admissions process.

It wasn’t over which colleges to apply to or which major to choose. It had nothing to do with tuition costs or scholarships.

The Plum senior struggled over a weighty decision that has come to the forefront of college admission prep since the dawn of the covid-19 pandemic: whether to include an ACT test score in an application to colleges and universities.

“Standardized tests always trip me up,” said Smith, who plans to study biology. “I know I’m a strong student, and the standardized tests represent the opposite of what I’m able to do with school and academics.”

Before the pandemic, about 40% of colleges and universities did not require applicants to submit standardized test scores, according to educational nonprofit FairTest.

As of this month, more than 80% of higher education institutions don’t require such scores for admission, FairTest reported. Every college and university in Southwestern Pennsylvania currently allows most applicants to choose whether they want to share standardized test scores. Those seeking admission into honors colleges or other specialty admissions still could be required to submit scores.

That means high school students are left to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT test at all.

“It’s definitely something that everybody is still trying to navigate at this point,” said Penn-Trafford High School counselor Melissa Sutmire. “The kids aren’t sure, and when we’ve contacted admissions reps, they sometimes don’t have a straight answer for us either.”

John Izzo — franchise owner of Class 101 Pittsburgh East, an Irwin educational consultant — encourages students to test regardless of a college’s admissions requirements.

“There’s a difference between getting in and getting in with scholarship money,” Izzo said.

He added that scores can benefit students who wish to explore honors options or specific programs.

Smith of Plum is one of Izzo’s students. She ultimately decided to submit her ACT “superscore” — the average of her best scores after multiple test attempts — to schools that would accept it. She didn’t send a score to Penn State, the only school on her list that would not accept superscores.

“It was strategic,” said Smith, who applied to seven colleges.

Although many colleges insist that a standardized test score won’t give priority to an applicant, Izzo said students still can use scores to their advantage — for example, if students have a score that is at or above the average applicant’s score for that college.

Hoon Kim, a college admissions consultant at Allegheny County educational organization Pittsburgh Prep, agreed. Generally, Kim said, students who wish to attend top schools or seek scholarship money haven’t wavered in their choice to take standardized tests.

What’s more, Kim said, students with unfavorable grades on their transcripts might benefit from a high SAT or ACT score.

“The SATs allow them to showcase their abilities and provide documented evidence that they can succeed,” he said.

It’s too early to tell whether the test-¬optional movement will stick. Regardless, there is a “seismic shift” happening in college admissions, Kim said.

“To think that taking the test-optional approach will resolve all difficulties is naïve,” he said, “but focusing too much on exams can be a barrier for students who would thrive.”

Continuing to illustrate the perils of relying on high-stakes standardized tests, 55 students will probably have to retake the SAT because their answer sheets flew out the back of a UPS truck driving down the road:


Taking the SATs is a stressful, anxiety-inspiring rite of passage for many high school students. But over 50 students at an El Paso high school may have to take the tests again – after their tests flew out of the UPS truck transporting them and were lost or destroyed.

The El Paso Independent School District told CNN that it is currently working with the College Board, which administers the SATs, to “determine a remedy” for the students whose tests were lost.

The El Paso Independent School District said that the loss affected students who took the test on October 27 on campus. Staff were able to recover all but 55 of the tests.

Students whose tests were lost will be able to take the ACT, another popular standardized exam, on December 10 at no cost, according to the school district.

UPS stated that it had apologized to the school and the students in a statement shared with CNN.

“Our employees are working to recover as many tests as possible, and we will work with the school to resolve the situation,” said the company in the statement. “The driver’s actions in this case are not representative of UPS protocols and methods, and we are addressing this with him.”

One student told CNN affiliate KFOX that the loss meant he was unable to apply for Texas A&M University early, as he had intended.

“UPS, just try your best to make it right with us,” Ezra Ponzio, a senior at El Paso High School, told KFOX. “I was mostly looking at A&M, so the early deadline is already shot. Hopefully, the SAT score can come in time for the actual deadline in January, but here’s hoping.”

Here is a video of the answer sheets allegedly blowing in the wind.