Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Mar 24, 2024

[Matt note: the tide has definitely turned in favor of the SAT (especially) and ACT in recent months. High-profile universities have announced the resumption of test requirement policies, and op-eds in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times have welcomed these developments. It will be interesting to see if less-selective colleges and universities will abandon their test optional policies in the coming months.]

The University of Texas at Austin (ranked #32 in National Universities) has become the latest selective university to reinstate an SAT/ACT testing requirement for all applicants. The reasons cited include lower relative performance by non-submitting students, and the usefulness of the exams in identifying students requiring remedial coursework (on the lower-scoring end), and in allocating slots in more demanding programs of study to students most likely to excel. The New York Times has the story:


The University of Texas at Austin said Monday that it would again require standardized tests for admissions, becoming the latest selective university to reinstate requirements for SAT or ACT scores that were abandoned during the pandemic.

U.T. Austin, which admits a cross-section of high-achieving Texas students under a plan designed to increase opportunity in the state, cited a slightly different reason than the other schools in returning to test requirements. Without requiring test scores, officials said, they were hampered in placing the admitted students in programs they would be most suited for and in determining which ones needed extra help. After making test scores optional the past few years, the university will now require applicants to submit either SAT or ACT scores beginning Aug. 1, with applications for fall 2025 admissions.

In an interview, Jay Hartzell, the U.T. president, said that the decision followed an analysis of students who did not submit scores. “We looked at our students and found that, in many ways, they weren’t faring as well,” Dr. Hartzell said.

Miguel Wasielewski, the university’s vice provost of admissions, said that many of those students have 4.0 grade point averages. “There’s just not a lot of variation there,” he said, adding that the test scores provide more granular information that helps determine placement.

U.T. Austin operates under a race-neutral admissions rule adopted more than two decades ago to allow a broader group of students to attend, automatically admitting those in Texas who graduated in the top 6 percent of their high school classes.

Among the students from Texas admitted to the university, 75 percent are regarded as “automatic admits.” Other Texas students, as well as out-of-state students, are evaluated through a “holistic” admissions process that includes standardized test scores. In the admissions process for last year’s entering class, 42 percent of students opted to submit their test scores.

At U.T. Austin, students are asked to rank their choices among three programs of study. Test scores help the university place those students in the major where it thinks they can succeed and identify students who need more support, part of an effort to boost graduation rates. The university’s four-year graduation rate climbed to 74.5 percent in 2023, up from 52 percent in 2013.

The scores are particularly important in determining which students will do well in the university’s more rigorous programs, such as engineering and business, Dr. Hartzell said.

According to the university’s figures on its current first-year class, a group of 9,217 students admitted last fall, students who submitted test scores were 55 percent less likely to have a first semester G.P.A. below 2.0, the university said.

Those who submitted test scores had higher G.P.A.s — an average of .86 grade points higher — in the fall semester, according to the university, which said the data was controlled for factors such as high school grades and class rank.

Dr. Hartzell said the university had consulted with the College Board, which runs the SAT, and found that nearly 90 percent of the students who apply to U.T. Austin have taken either the SAT or the ACT.

Reason magazine has additional details regarding UT Austin's announcement:


This week, even more evidence arrived indicating that standardized test scores are much more useful than other tools when it comes to predicting later student success. The University of Texas (U.T.) at Austin, in a press release announcing the school's return to requiring test scores in admissions, revealed startling data showing a massive achievement gap between students who submitted their test scores and those who didn't.

"University's own data further revealed that on average, students who submitted standardized scores performed significantly better on those exams and in their first semester of college, relative to those who did not take the test or chose not to have their scores considered as part of a holistic review," the press release reads. "The University has also demonstrated that knowledge of standardized test scores contributes to higher graduation rates."

According to the press release, students who submitted their SAT score had a median score of 1420, while those who didn't scored just 1160—a more than 250-point gap amounting to more than a standard deviation. Of the students who were admitted and enrolled in U.T. Austin, those who submitted their scores were estimated to have earned a first semester GPA .86 grade points higher than those who didn't, when "controlling for a wide range of factors, including high school class rank and GPA."

Students who sent in scores were also estimated to be 55 percent less likely to have a first-semester GPA less than 2.0 than students who didn't submit test scores.

While U.T. Austin is just one school, the stark divide in the performance of students who did and didn't share their test scores with the college provides a striking example of just how much information colleges lose when they don't have an applicant's scores.

"Our goals are to attract the best and brightest students and to make sure every student is successful once they are here," President Jay Hartzell said in the press release. "Standardized testing is a valuable tool for deciding who is admitted and making sure those students are placed in majors that are the best fit. Also, with an abundance of high school GPAs surrounding 4.0…an SAT or ACT score is a proven differentiator that is in each student's and the University's best interest."

In The Washington Post, Megan McArdle offers an opinion piece regarding the recent back-tracking on test optional policies by selective colleges:


From time to time, all of us are tempted to ignore unhappy realities. And unfortunately, reality usually comes calling anyway, bill in hand.

The pandemic provided several vivid illustrations of this principle, including the fallout from the decision many colleges made during the pandemic to relax their requirements for standardized test scores.

This was a quite reasonable thing to do in 2020, when, through no fault of their own, many kids had difficulty taking the SAT or the ACT — their scheduled test was canceled, or they or someone they lived with was immunocompromised. But the colleges’ policies continued long after we had excellent vaccines, in part because those tests gave us a lot of very unwelcome information.

They told us, for example, that academic ability is unequally distributed. Some people are better at math, some people are better at English and some people aren’t terrific at either. And with that information came an even more painful fact: Many of those differences mirror other inequalities in our society, including the most pernicious ones. Very generally: Rich kids do better than poor kids. White and Asian kids do better than Black and Hispanic kids. On the math sections, boys perform better than girls.

Despite decades of attempts to narrow those gaps, they’ve stubbornly refused to close. Eventually, people decided that the problem was the tests themselves. A sizeable cottage industry sprung up to provide critics with dubious research supposedly showing that the tests don’t predict college performance very well.

Demand for research suggesting tests don’t mean much was fueled by another uncomfortable fact: Test scores gave critics of affirmative action a way to quantify the boost (or detriment) various groups were getting in admissions. This problem became urgent as lawsuits filed by Students for Fair Admissions wended their way toward a Supreme Court that seemed eager to end affirmative action as we know it.

Last year, UT received 73,000 applications to join its freshman class. The 42 percent of applicants who submitted test results had a median score of 1420 on the SAT, while those who opted out of submitting scores had a median of 1160. Enrolled students who had submitted scores also performed significantly better during their first semester of college: Controlling for a wide range of factors, their grade-point average was nearly a full letter grade higher than that of students who didn’t submit, and they were 55 percent less likely to end up in the sub-2.0 danger zone.

We can’t know whether this is exactly what other schools were seeing, but we can suspect. And if we’re honest, everyone should have suspected it even before we got this data. The SAT is not a measurement of innate human value, but it is a measurement of whether a person can do the kinds of things people have to do in college courses, from performing basic mathematical operations to quickly gleaning meaning from written passages. It would be shocking if results on this test weren’t correlated with college performance.

It’s a major problem that, as things stand, the acquisition of those skills is also correlated with factors such as race and parental wealth. But we cannot fix that problem by simply throwing away the messages that reality is sending us.

The editorial staff of The Los Angeles Times recently offered an editorial titled "Why it’s smart for universities to bring back the SAT requirement."


The tests were criticized long before the pandemic as giving an unfair boost to more affluent students who could afford tutoring. And it’s true that scores are closely correlated with family income. But the pause in testing gave colleges a chance to study the issue more closely. They found that SAT scores were extremely effective at predicting whether students would succeed in college.

No one should be surprised. The University of California convened a panel several years ago to study the issue at length and it reached the same conclusion. The standardized tests were more equitable than grades, the panel said, because grade inflation is more pervasive at affluent schools. Yet UC refuses to consider test scores, after bowing to pressure from critics. We hope that the trend toward reinstating the tests in admissions makes UC leaders rethink this position.

There is nothing inherently evil about the SAT or ACT. It all depends on how they’re used. They can act as a reality check — a student who didn’t get great grades might show a lot of potential in the test scores, and vice versa. And, as UC did before it scrapped the tests, colleges should consider the scores in context, such as, is this the best score in a generally low-scoring high school? A score might reflect the education at that school, not the student’s aptitude for college work.

These latest changes also point to a larger problem in admissions at selective colleges: Every school seemingly wants different things. Some want high SAT scores, others care more about AP exams, and others don’t want any standardized test scores. Some enhance grade-point averages depending on how tough the courses are, others don’t, and others in just some cases.

Of course, schools have a right to seek out the students who will fit best at their institution. But the lack of transparency and consistency has given rise to a nearly $3-billion-a-year industry of pricey college-admissions consultants.

Talk about tilting the playing field.

David Deming (professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education) has written an article in The Atlantic stating that test optional admissions are "The Worst Way to Do College Admissions."


Critics argue that the SAT and ACT are biased against disadvantaged students, and just one more way for children of wealth and privilege to get an unfair advantage. And yet Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown all made the exact opposite claim in their announcements. They say that bringing back testing will allow them to do a better job of identifying and admitting talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Colleges care about diversity and equity, but they also care about academic excellence. Standardized-test scores do a good job of showing who is ready for college-level work, and they are equally predictive of later life success. In our study, my co-authors and I linked all SAT and ACT test-takers to internal college-admissions data and to U.S. tax records. We found that test scores were much better than high-school grades at predicting who would be a top earner or attend a prestigious graduate school. Importantly, the tests were equally predictive for disadvantaged students.

Even if you buy all that, you might still favor test-optional admissions. After all, colleges still allow applicants to submit their test scores if they think it will benefit them. Choice is good, right?

Not necessarily. To understand the impact of test-optional policies, Dartmouth commissioned a study of its own admissions data. The study compared the application cohorts of 2017 through 2019, when tests were required, with the test-optional cohorts of 2021 and 2022. During this time, the average SAT score for Dartmouth students was about 1480. Applicants from the test-optional cohorts who scored below that mark were, understandably, much less likely to submit the score. However, internal data from the Dartmouth study showed that low-income and first-generation applicants scoring in the 1400s were twice as likely to be admitted if they submitted a score than if they did not. There was no such gap for high-income students. The study also found that low-income applicants were less likely overall to submit their scores, and concluded that “there are hundreds of less-advantaged applicants with scores in the 1400 range who should be submitting scores to identify themselves to Admissions, but do not under test-optional policies.” In other words, low-income students were harmed by test-optional admissions because they underestimated how much Dartmouth wanted them. A test-optional policy turns out to be the worst of both worlds.

The fact that more schools aren’t following the lead of Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown should trouble anyone who cares about fairness in higher education. The SAT and ACT aren’t perfect, but they are the best way to identify talented low-income students who can succeed at highly selective colleges. Their universality is their virtue. To make college admissions more equitable, we should test more, not less.

Standardized testing could be made even fairer by solving some practical problems. Colleges should discourage “super-scoring,” in which only the highest score on each subtest is included in an application. This creates a strong incentive for applicants to take the test repeatedly, because there is no cost to racking up low scores on the way to a better one. A recent study found that high-income students are more likely to retake the SAT and that, for them, retakes increase scores by 40 to 50 points. Colleges could instead require applicants to submit all scores, as Georgetown and a handful of others currently do. Colleges should also take on the responsibility of making sure potential applicants know about and can access free or low-cost test prep through online resources such as Khan Academy.

Because selective college admissions is so competitive and high-stakes, the rich will exploit any advantage, including buying access to academic and extracurricular experiences that are unavailable to ordinary families. Instead of scrapping college-entrance exams, we should focus on making them universal and fair—allowing talented poor kids to earn the academic distinction that money can’t buy.

Some unintended consequences of The University of California's decision to no longer consider SAT/ACT scores even if students submit them are being felt by Bay Area students. Many college applicants from California still want to take the exams, but UC's abandonment of the exams, along with the lingering effects of the pandemic, have resulted in a significant drop in the number of available testing centers. The San Francisco Chronicle has the story:


The SAT — the college admissions test feared by generations of high school students and criticized by some educational experts as discriminatory — is at an inflection point.

This month, the test moved entirely online, though students still must take it at designated testing sites. Meanwhile, some elite colleges that shunned the test during the pandemic are moving to require it again. In the Bay Area and across California, a shortage of testing sites is stressing out families and forcing them to travel — sometimes to other states — and to wait in long lines.

The changes and challenges come as college admissions continue to be a high-stakes, highly competitive and nerve-wracking rite of passage for the state’s high school students and as families struggle to afford college educations.

For many of the high school juniors preparing to apply to colleges, the competition begins early — with a battle to sign up to take the SAT. While the University of California and California State University systems won’t even consider the test results and other schools have made them optional, some private and out-of-state schools still require them. And many prospective students believe the test scores can help their admissions chances, even where they’re not required to submit their scores.

Some Bay Area students recently had to travel an hour or more to take the test, often to Sacramento or Fresno, according to parents, college consultants and test tutors. A few were forced to go even farther.

“I get plenty of stories here of people having to travel to Barstow or Nevada or Oregon to take the test,” said Erin Billy, who runs TestMagic, a San Francisco SAT tutoring center. “If you don’t jump on registration as soon as it opens up, all the (nearby) seats fill up.”

Sarah Feldman, an independent college admissions consultant who lives in Alameda, said some of her clients’ families are even planning spring breaks or vacations around locations where SATs are available. Feldman’s daughter, a junior, is opting not to take the SAT because of the stress.

“I just don’t understand why they make it so difficult,” said Caroline Gould of Albany, the mother of twin juniors. “Why do they have to make people travel an hour or more away? It just doesn’t make sense.”

The College Board, the nonprofit that runs the SAT, acknowledges the difficulty of signing up for the test in the Bay Area. Fewer than half of the schools that served as testing centers before the pandemic have returned, it said. To deal with the shortage, the board has set up some “pop-up” testing centers like one March 9 at the South San Francisco Conference Center near San Francisco International Airport.

The lack of SAT testing sites in California is not just an inconvenience — it raises equity concerns, experts said. Not all families can afford to fly their student to another state to take the test or embark on an SAT vacation.
Some students may not be able to get a ride or even catch a bus to a site dozens of miles or more from their home and school.

“It is unbelievably inequitable,” said David Blobaum, who runs a test tutoring business in New Jersey and is on the board of the National Test Prep Association. He said the lack of tests particularly shortchanges underrepresented students who may not have superior grade point averages but perform well on tests.

“So many out of state schools in particular have automatic scholarships for students who meet certain score thresholds,” he said. “Without the opportunity to test, California residents are automatically excluded from these and other scholarships.”

Bloomberg reports that the recent decisions by Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and UT Austin to reinstate SAT/ACT requirements, coupled with the advent of a digitally-based SAT, has led to an increase in demand for tutoring services:


Kat Cohen has been fielding a high volume of calls in recent weeks from desperate parents looking to book SAT tutors for their teenagers at up to $500 an hour.

The founder of a test prep and admissions counselor service on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue says tutoring demand has jumped since some of the most selective universities in the nation reversed their four-year hiatus on requiring standardized testing.

“Many families are realizing that test-optional might not be so optional anymore,” said Cohen, chief executive officer of IvyWise. “They don’t know how many more schools are going to require test scores again.”

Business is booming for SAT tutors and prep centers after some elite colleges pivoted back to mandatory testing this year and as students seek help in mastering the first-ever digital format of the SATs that began this month.

Kaplan, one of the largest test prep agencies, has seen a “double-digit” rise in enrollment this year, mainly due to the new digital tests, said Heather Waite, director of college admissions programs. While the increase could also be partially due to the return of required testing at some colleges, those shifts may become a more significant booster to business “as more and more schools are making these decisions.”

David Blobaum, who runs an SAT tutoring service for students in wealthy Short Hills, New Jersey — with rates from $175 to $520 an hour — said he told panicked parents of high-performing athletes that there are enough schools to apply to that won’t switch from optional testing because it benefits them in recruiting star players.

“It’s not a dire issue, at least not yet,” Blobaum said. “It might be in two years.”

Patti Ghezzi, who is both an admissions essay coach and mother of a 17-year-old, said she’s relieved some schools are ending optional testing. That policy boosted average test scores as students chose to omit lower grades, and it reduced transparency into how colleges choose applicants, she said.

“We’re putting students through a mind-bender,” said Ghezzi, who is spending $2,000 for 10 hours of her teen’s ACT prep. “They’re so demoralized by these SAT policies, more so than before.”

Recent reporting by Forbes seems to confirm what many sources are saying: the new, shorter and computer-based SAT debuted with an unusually difficult math section:


For the first time, the March SAT was completely digital and adaptive. Each student taking the test got easier or harder questions depending on whether or not they correctly answered previous questions. Numerous students who took the test thought the verbal sections were of expected difficulty but that the math questions were significantly harder than the practice questions they were provided by the College Board and Khan Academy.

Tik Tok star Jake the SAT Guru stated that the second SAT math module was “massively challenging”. “The College Board should have made their test materials more in line with the real thing,” he commented. The test was also available as a school-based test (given just to the students of that school during the school day). One student on Reddit, who previously got a perfect math SAT score, had similar feelings about the school-based test: “Math was much harder. Math kids (including me) missed a question or two.”

Andrea Vanzo, who runs an Instagram page “75 Percenters”, a college counseling website, noted that she heard the same thing from many of the students she counsels:

“This pivotal shift [to a digital adaptive format] was not without its challenges, most notably in the second module of the math section, which was widely criticized for its difficulty level. Students across the country reported that the questions were unexpectedly challenging, diverging significantly from the practice materials and previous assessments. This discrepancy not only heightened test-day anxiety but also raised concerns about the fairness and the ability of this new format to accurately reflect students’ capabilities. The fallout from this section underscores the need for adjustments in the test’s design and the provision of more representative preparation resources.”

The scores are graded on a curve, so if the questions were harder, the scores would adjust for that. Given that each student got different questions according to how they were performing, the scoring will also be different than the paper-and-pencil test.

Not surprisingly, the College Board declared the debut of the new SAT as a success:


A shorter and online version of the SAT college admission exam debuted Saturday, and the College Board — the company behind the test — has already declared the switch from the longer, paper version a success.

More than 200,000 students took the digital SAT at 3,000 test centers in 173 countries. Of those test takers, 99.8% successfully completed the exam and submitted their results through the College Board’s new digital testing app Bluebook.

“Our goal was to provide a testing experience that is more relevant to today’s students and is less stressful for students to take and easier for educators to administer,” Priscilla Rodriguez, senior vice president of College Readiness Assessments at College Board, said in a Tuesday statement.

The statement also said the SAT plays “a vital role in a holistic admissions process” and that the test scores “can confirm a student’s grades or demonstrate their strengths beyond what their high school grades may show.”

However, FairTest, a group that advocates for limited application of entrance exams, criticizes the updated test as being more cost effective for the College Board to deliver and score, while not solving certain challenges for schools, counselors or students. Specifically, FairTest raised concerns about gender, race and income disparities among test takers.

“The digital SAT still creates burdens on counselors and schools to provide free labor to the College Board. The digital SAT is still susceptible to test preparation,” FairTest’s website said.

As mentioned above, the University of North Carolina system is considering the reinstatement of testing requirements, initially for students with marginal GPAs.