Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Dec 12, 2023

David Deming, co-author of a recent study that received significant attention for analyzing the correlation between family income, SAT/ACT scores, and admissions to selective colleges for hundreds of thousands of specific students, has written an article for The Atlantic titled, "The Single Biggest Fix for Inequality at Elite Colleges."

Legacy admissions are in trouble. Applicants from the richest one percent of families are nearly twice as likely to be admitted to elite Ivy Plus colleges than similarly qualified low- or middle-class applicants, and many of these privileged students benefit from being the children of alumni or donors. Left-leaning groups recently filed a lawsuit challenging legacy admissions on civil-rights grounds, the Department of Education has announced an investigation into the practice, and, last month, the Republican Todd Young and the Democrat Tim Kaine introduced a Senate bill that would effectively ban it. The preference for legacy applicants may be the most visible symbol of unearned intergenerational privilege.

But that’s mostly what it is—a symbol. The truth is that banning legacy admissions wouldn’t level the college-admissions playing field at selective schools like Harvard, where I teach. My team’s research suggests that a ban would make a small impact at best. Elite colleges would replace some rich legacies with rich non-legacies, and little else would change.

This may seem counterintuitive, because legacy applicants receive a huge advantage in admissions at most elite colleges. Using internal admissions data from several Ivy Plus colleges (the Ivy League, plus MIT, Stanford, Duke, and the University of Chicago), we find that legacies are about four times more likely to be admitted as non-legacies with similar academic credentials. Concretely, this works out to be about 112 “extra” legacies in a typical Ivy Plus college class of 1,650 students.

And yet, eliminating legacy preferences without making any other changes would do little to improve economic diversity. My colleagues and I estimate that it would reduce the number of students from families earning more than $600,000 a year—that is, the top one percent—by only two percentage points, or about 35 students in a typical class. This is because the children of high-income families still enjoy so many other advantages. For example, they are far more likely to be recruited athletes, or to receive high extracurricular and other nonacademic ratings in the admissions process. And because the children of alumni are more likely than other applicants to be rich, they would continue to benefit from these advantages in a post-legacy world. Many of them would still get into their preferred institution, and those who didn’t would mostly be replaced with other wealthy students whose parents happened to attend different schools.

So what would make a real difference? Over the summer, my colleagues and I published a report measuring the advantage that high-income applicants have in elite-college admissions. I was stunned by the attention our research received. After all, the fact that prestigious universities favor the rich was hardly new information. Still, simply quantifying this affirmative action for the rich more precisely was enough to trigger a big wave of media coverage and public outcry. The lesson is that if we want to fix the problem, the first step is to make that type of data available by default.

Universities have a long track record of making big changes to admissions in response to public pressure. During the civil-rights movement, for example, colleges dramatically increased the number of Black students they admitted over a period of just a few years. To make similar progress on economic diversity, we must be able to hold colleges accountable for results. Currently that’s impossible, because we know only a limited amount about the income diversity of college classes. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. The U.S. Department of Education should require colleges to add an application question about family income, perhaps reported in categories that correspond to different parts of the household income distribution, such as the top one percent. Colleges are already required to report race, ethnicity, gender, and other attributes through the DoE’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, so adding income would be straightforward.

Better income data would ratchet up public pressure on highly selective colleges, whose leaders care deeply about their reputation. One encouraging recent example comes from efforts to use public data on the share of students who are eligible for federal financial aid to measure economic diversity. The Washington Monthly has long ranked colleges on how well they contribute to social mobility. Outlets such as U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times have recently followed suit by ranking schools according to the number of students receiving Pell Grants, which corresponds roughly to the bottom half of the income distribution. Elite schools such as Princeton and Yale have responded by increasing the proportion of their students receiving Pell Grants by more than 60 percent from 2011 to 2021. This shows that public pressure can work. But focusing on Pell eligibility has serious limitations. It doesn’t distinguish between families with comfortable middle-class incomes and the truly wealthy, and it encompasses only students who have applied for financial aid. We need better data.

Transparency alone is not enough, of course. Real reform will require sustained public pressure on highly selective private universities to start valuing economic diversity as much as other forms of diversity. That will make a much bigger difference than ending legacy admissions ever could.

In a Forbes article, Brennan Barnard uses a gambling analogy to examine the situations in which students applying to college should either share or withhold their SAT/ACT scores:


Aaron Fulk, director of college counseling at the University School of Nashville explains that testing is truly optional “if a college is either test free or test optional AND your test score does not offer any additional context to your application.” He says, “You might consider the middle 50% of test scores at the college, the major to which you are applying, your own localized context (do you attend a public or private school? Did you do test prep? Did most of your friends do test prep? Do you identify as a historically excluded person or the first person in your family to attend college?) and then your own GPA.” Fulk adds, "As a gross generalization, the higher your GPA, then the higher your test scores would need to be to be a value add.”

If the scores don’t add value then fold up and move on. Let’s say you are a student who earns mostly A’s in a challenging curriculum. Maybe the middle 50% of admitted students at the college made between a 1350-1420 on the SAT and you are consistently scoring in the low 1300’s. Unless there is some extenuating circumstance, all else being equal, withhold your scores and let your hard work and achievement in and out of class speak for itself.

One admission dean (who wished to remain anonymous) says, “Take the PSAT. If you are not a strong tester, the road should happily end there, without additional pain and suffering. Colleges that value scores in their admissions practice require them; schools that do not, do not.” They add, “From both sides of the desk, from Ivy to not, over 20 years I have seen students miss amazing opportunities to distinguish themselves in favor of studying for another standardized test. Stop feeding the beast.” Know when you are “out of aces” and run in another direction.

Life is a gamble, and so is selective college admission. The cards that you are dealt may not be what you wish they were, but the truth is that “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.” Your life, its direction, and certainly college admission, isn’t so much about the cards you’re dealt as it is about how you play them. Spend less time hand-wringing about whether test-optional colleges and universities are bluffing with how they are managing their policies and practices. Ultimately, that has no bearing on how you score on tests. Control what you can control.

WBUR covers the pending arrival of digital SAT testing:


It's the end of an era for the SAT.

On Dec. 2, students taking the standardized college admissions exam will be the last to take the test with pencil and paper. Going forward, the SAT will only be offered in a digital format, via an app.

"Students are now doing more of their learning and testing digitally, and the SAT shouldn’t be the exception," said Holly Stepp, a spokesperson for the College Board, maker of the SAT.

The move follows a successful pilot program and positive student feedback. Stepp said surveyed students found the new digital format was less stressful.

"We’re now taking full advantage of what delivering an assessment digitally makes possible," Stepp said. "A test that is easier to take, easier to give, more secure and more relevant."

Students must still take the SAT in an official testing center with proctors that monitor the test takers. However, the new app-based test will allow students to use their own laptops or tablets. The College Board will also provide devices to students who either don't have one or don't want to use their own.

The app is called "Bluebook," and administrators said the SAT test it offers also is designed to be "adaptive." That means the app will track how students perform on the first module of questions to determine if the test should give the student an easier or harder set of questions in the second module. Once fully digital, the test will also be an hour shorter in duration.

The app, the College Board said, also ensures students won't lose time or work if their computer loses power or internet connection.

"I think it's a good change," said Brian Leaf, an SAT prep teacher in Massachusetts and author of 10 SAT and ACT prep books. "I think it will be a better, more efficient test, but time will tell."

Leaf said students he works with privately and through a UMass summer program were not concerned about the shift from paper to digital.

"Students aren't thinking about the specifics of the SAT until the time comes," Leaf explained. "So some of the students who are taking it digitally have barely even processed that their predecessors were taking it on paper."

Leaf said the biggest shift will be in his own work flow. In the past, the practice tests he used were all paper-based. Going forward, he'll make sure at least half his practice exams will be digital.

But critics of the College Board's decision expressed worries about reducing the length of the test. Akil Bello, senior director at FairTest, an advocacy group focused on fairness in standardized testing scores, said that with fewer questions, wrong answers will have a greater impact on a student's overall score.

Bello also worried the SAT's new digital format will not address historic performance gaps between racial groups.

"Standardized tests will never be a tool of fairness or equity," Bello said. "That's not in their DNA."

Another Forbes article also looks at the pending arrival of the SAT as a computer-administered exam in the spring of 2024:


A 2021 pilot project by the College Board—the nonprofit that runs the SAT and PSAT programs—revealed that 80% of students found it less stressful to take the test in a digital format than with paper and pencil. As a result, in January 2022, the College Board announced the format change would soon become permanent.

Various practice tests for high schoolers, including the PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT/NMSQT, have already made the shift. The PSAT 10 will graduate to a digital-only format in 2024. Last year more than 5 million students took those tests.

The College Board says the transition to digital testing makes the SAT easier to take, easier to administer and “more relevant.” One key difference: The time limit on the SAT is being shortened from about three hours to roughly two hours and 15 minutes. However, the new exam format also allows students more time to answer each question.

“The shift to a digital test for the SAT may be intimidating for many students,” Abby McLaughlin, lead SAT tutor for Ivy Tutors Network, tells Forbes Advisor in an email interview. But, she adds, the change may present new opportunities as well.

“The new version of the test will play to more students’ abilities and more accurately measure skills relevant to college success,” says McLaughlin.

[End excerpts]


It remains to be seen if SAT computer testing will run smoothly in the US next year. There were widespread and serious problems in administering the new digital PSAT this past October, resulting in the cancellation of many tests.

MSNBC has published a piece by a New School professor titled, "Why getting rid of the SAT is even more problematic than keeping it", that argues that the SAT should not be discarded, but used in a different manner:


Anti-testing activism has spread across the country and has been especially effective in the past few years, when Covid created practical concerns that converged with this philosophical project. In New York, the Regents exams, once required for graduation, were suspended and then made optional in 2021. The same year, the University of California system dropped even the SAT/ACT testing option in response to a lawsuit that labeled the SAT and ACT “racist metrics.”

Abolishing these tests and some advanced placement programs will certainly make some disparities less glaringly obvious, but it will not solve the underlying problem. In fact, eliminating these instruments and learning environments is more likely to exacerbate already dire educational disparities by making them less apparent.

Ironically, eliminating standardized assessments reopens the door to all sorts of ambiguous “qualitative” measures that serve to disadvantage kids in the same, difficult-to-detect ways that the old boys’ network of yore did. Such a shift will only ensure that students who have legacy connections, extracurricular opportunities and in-depth recommendations written by guidance counselors at well-resourced schools have an even greater advantage.

Not exactly progress.

Eliminating these tests, or advocating for a kind of undifferentiated educational experience, will not solve these insidious issues but mask them or make them worse. Imperfect as these tests are as objective instruments, they are crucial tools to illuminate what kids know and don’t, and to identify what support they need. Furthermore, casting students into environments for which they’re unprepared — academically and otherwise — sets them up to fail.

The answer to solving educational inequality is, unsurprisingly, much more complicated than simply abolishing tests and metrics: It demands investing in early childhood programs, nutrition, health care and housing. It means essentially eradicating the poverty that is concentrated among lower-income people of color and tightly correlated to gaps in educational attainment.

The need for such reforms is obvious and urgent but such policies are unlikely to gain traction in the U.S. So, instead, reformers seize on the singular, more tangible, target that is testing. But it’s a mere symptom of this larger problem, and could perhaps play a role in its resolution.

The issue is not tests, SAT or otherwise, but the outsized power we have ascribed to them as “objective.” We’d do better to acknowledge that these tests are imperfect measures of intelligence and aptitude, but can be useful assessment tools to identify what students and teachers need.

If we don’t assess kids often, then we don’t know how they are doing, which makes it far harder to argue for resources. Yes, we must stop equating testing and curricular differentiation with high-stakes, door-closing decisions, and instead embrace these tools to expand access for students at all academic levels to the educational resources they need to thrive — in college, and in the many years before and after.

Several Ohio colleges are not only making test optional policies permanent, but are also de-emphasizing SAT/ACT scores in their scholarship formulae.


Several colleges across the state and country are dropping ACT and SAT testing requirements for admissions.

Kent State University is one of those schools, and they said it gives the university a chance to take a more in-depth look when reviewing student applications.

Collin Palmer, the associate vice president for enrollment management for admissions at KSU, said the university first implemented the test optional policy during the height of the pandemic.

“First and foremost, we are going to look at the grades that they received and the courses that they took and their overall GPA that is a result of those grades, but we are also interested in grade trends,” Palmer explained. “We are looking at the rigor of their schedule and the courses that they took.”

He said not only does the test optional policy make the application process easier and less stressful for students, it can also help them financially and academically.

“Through scholarship awarding processes at Kent State and otherwise, students may be eligible for scholarships that they may not have been eligible for should their test scores have been included and so that might make college more affordable to them,” he said. “It might open up opportunities for an honors college experience, which is an academically rigorous experience, that if you didn’t have a certain test score, might have kept you from that experience.”

A recent article asserts that the percentage of a state's students taking each exam should be considered when assessing relative SAT/ACT scores between states.