Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

May 29, 2023

Vox offers an article that examines "How the SATs lost their grip on college admissions." It offers an overview of the expanding use of the SAT/ACT as a high school achievement metric and the impact of test optional policies on test-taking and score submission.


The number of test-takers plummeted during the pandemic and has only partially rebounded. Moreover, a sizable number of those who do take the exams aren’t submitting their scores, as policies like Columbia’s become the norm.

Meanwhile, an expected Supreme Court decision outlawing affirmative action admissions policies may give top colleges another reason to pull back from tests that have long played a key role in defining American meritocracy. Going test-optional or test-blind — that is, not even submitting test scores as an option — could be seen by colleges and universities as a way to continue their commitment to diversifying their student bodies in a post-affirmative action world.

Despite these developments, it’s too early to declare the death of college testing. Even as the SAT and its chief rival, the ACT, have become less important in admissions, they are becoming more universal for a different purpose: as a measure of high school achievement. More and more high schools have turned to the SATs and ACTs as their standard assessment tool for their students’ progress, entirely separate from the college admissions process.

The result is a standardized testing landscape that has been shaken up, and whose future looks murky, at best.

While news outlets trumpeted that Columbia had “dropped,” “dumped,” or “ditched” the SAT, those depictions elided a more nuanced truth: Test-optional, Columbia’s policy, does not mean no tests at all.

Indeed, it’s likely that many Columbia applicants will continue to voluntarily submit scores. The only major institutions to go “test-blind” — meaning they refuse to consider tests in any way — are California’s public universities, which opted to do so in 2021 and 2022.

Given their sheer size — California State universities enroll nearly 500,000 students, along with another 280,000 in the University of California system — such a move by itself is a significant blow to admissions testing. But other public systems haven’t followed suit. Students took around 3 million SAT and ACT tests last year, up from 2.8 million in 2021, but down from 4 million in 2019.

The key question is whether test-optional is the new normal or a transition state to test-blind. According to a database maintained by FairTest, an anti-testing organization, fewer than 10 of the colleges that stopped requiring tests in the 2000s went fully test-blind.

According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, the first results of mass test optionality were roughly: 20 percent of students skipped the test, 30 percent took the test but didn’t submit their scores, and 50 percent took the test and submitted their scores. That means that the raw-number drop in the number of tests taken understates the true decline of testing, because it includes a lot of scores that weren’t submitted.

But it’s hard to predict what will happen next, because different colleges use admissions tests in very different ways.

Their stated reasons are often similar — they say they want to make sure students are prepared to succeed in college. While research shows that college success can be mostly predicted by high school grade point averages — unsurprisingly, doing well in school is a good indicator that you’re going to do well in school — grade point averages and tests together are more predictive of college success than GPAs alone. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s real.

But at super-elite institutions, there are probably 10 or 20 students in the applicant pool smart enough to succeed for every one who is admitted. Predicting success is not the issue. The Harvards and Princetons use the SAT more like an IQ test — they want an exam that reliably distinguishes the 99th percentile of smart from the 95th. That’s why the SAT deliberately includes questions that almost everyone gets wrong — and why high SAT scores are still the most widely accepted currency of undergraduate prestige.

The New York Times reports that the Common App has initiated a change to its application process that will allow colleges to remove students' self-identified race from the information college admissions offices see. This is apparently motivated by an expected ruling by the Supreme Court next month that could eliminate or curtail race-based affirmative action in admissions decisions.


Each year, the million or so students applying to college through the Common App are given the option to check a box, disclosing whether they identify as Hispanic, Asian, Black or white, among other choices.

Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to rule soon against race-conscious admissions — and with colleges wanting to follow the law — the Common App has made a pre-emptive move on what is known as the “race box.”

Beginning Aug. 1, colleges will be able to hide the information in those boxes from their own admissions teams, said Jenny Rickard, chief executive of the Common App, in an interview.

The new option will help colleges comply “with whatever legal standard the Supreme Court will set in regards to race in admissions,” Common App said in a statement. A nonprofit, Common App administers a universal application used by more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

The decision, which appears to be aimed at immunizing colleges from litigation, is one of the first concrete examples of how college admissions may be transformed if the Supreme Court bans or restricts race-conscious admissions. The college opt-out could also put more pressure on applicants to signal their racial and ethnic background through other means, primarily in essays or teacher recommendations.

The scope of the court’s decision, expected in late June, is unknown. But the justices showed a keen interest in the use of race boxes during the oral arguments last fall.

Colleges have said they will follow the law, but are wary of future litigation. Groups opposed to affirmative action have said that they may file lawsuits that could test the boundaries of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The potential case against race boxes is obvious, according to Edward Blum, founder of Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiffs in the current court cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

“If racial preferences are determined to be illegal, then it must follow that racial classification boxes should not be allowed on college application forms,” he said.

Patrick Strawbridge, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, sparred with the justices over when it would be appropriate for admissions officers to know the race of an applicant. He suggested that much would depend on the context of the revelation.

“What we object to is a consideration of race and race by itself,” Mr. Strawbridge told the justices.

“Race in a box-checking way, as opposed to race in an experiential statement?” Justice Amy Coney Barrett, one of the conservative majority expected to be sympathetic to the plaintiffs, elaborated.

Mr. Strawbridge said it would be harder to object to a thoughtful essay that invoked the student’s race in the context of a highly personal story.

A new and costly means of distinguishing oneself from competing college applicants has arisen in recent years: the mentored research and publication of a student-authored article in a scholarly journal. ProPublica has the details:


...colleges are grappling with the latest pay-to-play maneuver that gives the rich an edge: published research papers. A new industry is extracting fees from well-heeled families to enable their teenage children to conduct and publish research that colleges may regard as a credential.

At least 20 online research programs for high schoolers have sprung up in the U.S. and abroad in recent years, along with a bevy of journals that publish the work.

The consequence has been a profusion of published research papers by high school students. According to four months of reporting by ProPublica, online student journals now present work that ranges from serious inquiry by young scholars to dubious papers whose main qualification seems to be that the authors’ parents are willing to pay, directly or indirectly, to have them published. Usually, the projects are closely directed by graduate students or professors who are paid to be mentors. College admissions staff, besieged by applicants proffering links to their studies, verify that a paper was published but are often at a loss to evaluate its quality.

The business of churning out high school research is a “fast-growing epidemic,” said one longtime Ivy League admissions officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak for his university. “The number of outfits doing that has trebled or quadrupled in the past few years.

“There are very few actual prodigies. There are a lot of precocious kids who are working hard and doing advanced things. A sophomore in high school is not going to be doing high-level neuroscience. And yet, a very high number of kids are including this” in their applications.

The programs serve at least 12,000 students a year worldwide. Most families are paying between $2,500 and $10,000 to improve their odds of getting into U.S. universities that accept as few as 1 in every 25 applicants. Some of the biggest services are located in China, and international students abound even in several U.S.-based programs.

The services pair high schoolers with academic mentors for 10-15 weeks to produce research papers. Online services typically shape the topic, direction and duration of the project, and urge students to complete and publish a paper regardless of how fruitful the exploration has been. “Publication specialists” then help steer the papers into a dizzying array of online journals and preprint platforms. Almost any high school paper can find an outlet.

Scott Jaschik reports that some college admissions offices have begun to use AI in their student selection processes.


This story is not about ChatGPT. Most admissions offices are terrified that some (many?) students will find ways to use the new technology to submit essays that are not their own.

But that doesn’t mean that AI hasn’t entered admissions offices—by their invitation.

Some admissions offices are starting to use AI, for instance, to review transcripts, which are a key part of a college application.

College officials, association leaders and the companies involved all insist that systems are safe and that there is plenty of (human) checking of the work of machines. And they all insist that no one is being admitted entirely through AI.

But a few colleges are starting to use AI technology, and to talk about it.

One of them is Maryville University, a small private college in Missouri (if you are counting only traditional undergraduates on campus) that has 6,500 students enrolled online.

Phil Komarny, the chief innovation officer at Maryville, said the university recently contracted to use Sia (a tool from the company OneOrigin) to begin reviewing applicants’ transcripts in September.

Komarny stressed that the university’s use of Sia isn’t “just about the automation of reading the transcript.” When the AI reviews the transcripts, it enables admissions officers to spend their time on other things, he said.

It’s about a change in philosophy at Maryville for IT functions from “control” to “community.” He added, “We are a collective obsessed by data.”

Banshan Syiem is vice president for sales and marketing at OneOrigin. He said his company has about 22 higher education customers using Sia. Generally, they pay $500 to $3,000 a month, depending on the number of transcripts being reviewed.

“We’ve eliminated the manual processes, which are error-prone,” he said.

“We read the transcripts from high schools and colleges,” he said. “It knows the content is there.”

Other colleges are experimenting with AI in admissions.

Stephen W. Harmon, executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said Georgia Tech Is “not yet using AI in admissions, but we are experimenting with it.”

One project is to try to replicate admissions decisions using machine learning techniques. “We are using one of our large online master of science programs as a test case, and we are currently at about a 93 percent match with our admissions advisers’ decisions,” Harmon said.

What is the appeal? “The volume of applicants continues to increase at Georgia Tech, so anything we can do to improve their workflow is helpful. I don’t see us relying solely on AI for admissions maybe ever, but it could become a useful tool in the process, “ he said.

Frederick M. Hess and Richard Kahlenberg have written a piece in TIME magazine calling for the end of legacy college admissions.


Imagine high schools across the country adopt a new rule for track meets: If years earlier, a prospective student’s parent had competed for their high school, that student would get a head start. If and when this rule sparks talk of unfairness, the athletic muckety-mucks respond that it’s helpful in getting those parents to donate money and forging “a sense of intergenerational community.”

Absurd? Well, it’s more or less what about half of four-year colleges— and four in five highly selective colleges (those admitting fewer than 25% of applicants)—do each year, a tactic known as legacy status. While these colleges awkwardly try to explain that legacy status is just a “tiebreaker” between equally qualified students, research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education finds that having had mom or dad be an alum can triple the odds that an applicant will be admitted. And unlike the partisan debate surrounding private school vouchers, ending legacy preferences is one place where the right and left should be able to find common ground.

For liberals, legacy preferences violate important equality principles. Legacy preferences began as a way to limit Jewish enrollment at Ivy League Colleges and today disproportionately hurt students of color. At a time when policymakers are seeking ways to promote social mobility, ending preferences that reward kids for being born into college-educated families is a no-brainer. This is doubly so because data from multiple studies find that attending a selective college can be a life-changing event for low-income students, catapulting them onto a different economic trajectory. Filling up seats with legacy admittees is not a victimless crime.

For conservatives, this is about hypocritical college leaders (who talk endlessly about “equity”) stacking the deck for the privileged and connected. Legacy admissions allow rent-seeking college officials to sell fast-passes to good jobs and graduate school, pocketing dollars that subsidize their agenda-driven programming and bloated bureaucracies. The result makes it harder for less prestigious regional colleges or entrepreneurial start-ups to raise funds, while encouraging alumni to steer contributions to deep-pocketed institutions.

So, how do legacy preferences survive? In part, colleges have done a good job of propagating the dubious claim that legacy preferences raise funds that are used to aid low income students (as opposed to underwriting administrative salaries, modish business schools, and extravagant facilities). (And, if elite institutions were truly worried about their low-income students, they could dip into their endowments.)

But the truth is that the survival of this anachronistic practice is a classic example of interest groups politics at work. A 2022 Pew Research poll found that 75% of Americans oppose legacy preferences. But an ardent minority of college officials and alumni groups love them (the former because it gives them an important carrot they can wave at alumni and the latter for the advantages they confer on their kids), and the higher education lobby has stymied even modest efforts to advance reform.

Legacy preferences have always been hard to defend, but will be even more glaringly indefensible if racial preferences come to an end. As Yale law professor Justin Driver argues, “If the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action, legacy preferences will not be long for this world.” In fact, when UC Berkeley, UCLA, Texas A&M and the University of Georgia stopped using race in admissions, they dropped legacy preferences as well.

An alternative test to the SAT/ACT has been receiving increased attention lately due to developments in Florida.


New College of Florida will accept a "classical and Christian" alternative to the SAT and ACT standardized tests for college admission, the college announced in a press release Monday.

New College would be the first Florida public university to accept the Classic Learning Test, which is only accepted by about 200 colleges and universities nationwide, including the conservative, Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan. The test awards a student a score out of 120 and tests for proficiency in English, grammar, math and comprehension skills, according to the release.

New College Board of Trustees member Christopher Rufo also sits on the CLT's board of directors.
The college's announcement references new legislation, HB 1537, in which the state is looking at the CLT as an alternative to the SAT for Bright Futures scholarship eligibility. The legislation also comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis grappled with the College Board over the company's AP African American History course.

DeSantis tasked a newly-appointed Board of Trustees majority at New College to turn the school into a more "classical liberal arts college" akin to Hillsdale College.

The University of Houston (which enrolls over 37,000 students) has announced an extension of its test optional policy.


Teri Longacre is the Dean of Undergraduate Student Success at UH and said the extension gives the university the ability to better evaluate students who do well academically in school.

"We're able to evaluate and admit students who may not be good standardized test takers, but do quite well in their courses," she said.

Around 44% of incoming freshmen for the university's Fall 2022 semester used the test-optional policy. Longacre said she's not too surprised the policy has worked well for UH so far.

"Because of the factors that we're using to admit students under this policy," she said. "Using their high school performance to predict college performance. I'm glad that it's all worked out."

Longacre added that so far, there has been no significant difference between students who chose to provide their test scores and those who opted out of including them in an application when it came to performance in classes.

As test-optional admissions become more popular nationwide, administrators at UH are considering making the change permanent. Other universities with test-optional policies currently in place include Rice University, Baylor, and Texas Tech. Rice will keep its policy until at least 2024, while Baylor and Texas Tech plan to keep the policy until at least 2025.

Many public colleges in Georgia will also extend their test optional policies.


"We're going test-optional for 23 of the 26 institutions in the system," says Stephen Schultheis

Schultheis is the Vice President of Enrollment at Middle Georgia State University. He says in the past, USG waived test score requirements in the fall 20-22 admissions for some institutions.

It's extended to all USG schools except Georgia Tech, The University of Georgia and Georgia College and State University. That means the other 23 schools will look at another number for admissions: a student's grade point average.

With USG's announcements come opportunities for high schoolers participating in dual enrollment.

"We have a pathway that dual enrollment students do not have to submit an ACT or SAT to get in the program," says Schultheis.

He says students are already benefiting.

"Approximately 60 students we've been able to offer admissions to because of this change," says Schultheis.

Students applying for the Zell Miller Scholarship will still need test scores.