Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Feb 21, 2019

Bucknell University has announced the initiation of a 5-year test optional pilot program starting with the next application cycle that will affect the freshman class enrolling in the fall of 2020.

Bucknell is a selective institution (no. 36-ranked among US News national liberal arts colleges; 3,600 undergraduates; 31% acceptance rate; SAT 25th-75th percentile of 1250-1420).


"There is nothing inherently bad about testing," said Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management. "But we've always looked at testing from an arm's length because, in our holistic approach, we feel the most important thing is a student's academic transcript along with the assessment of their character and the kind of challenges they've taken on to get where they are."

Bucknell is also a member of the Character Collaborative, an initiative formed by educators with the goal of changing admissions practice at the higher and secondary education levels to reflect the significance of character strengths in attaining success in school, college and work. The University's test-optional policy contributes toward that goal.

"Every application review begins with the premise: find the evidence that supports admitting the student. Now, if the student chooses not to offer testing as evidence, we won't wonder why. We will focus on other factors," Conley said.

The test-optional policy will be conducted over a five-year pilot to assess the patterns of success for test score submitters and non-submitters.

Eric Hoover of The Chronicle of Higher Education has written a brief article about the upswing in test optional policy adoptions among selective colleges, titled "More Colleges Will Adopt Test-Optional Admissions."


“Nothing’s going to change until Harvard drops the SAT.” People have said that for decades at admissions conferences. As long as the nation’s most-prominent colleges continued to require applicants to submit standardized-test scores, the thinking went, most other highly selective institutions would, too.

Then, last spring, the University of Chicago changed the conversation. By announcing that it would no longer require the ACT or SAT, the university became the most-selective institution ever to adopt a test-optional policy. No, Chicago isn’t Harvard. But it’s a big-name university with international cachet, a 7-percent acceptance rate, and a No. 3 ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s college guide. And it could help accelerate the test-optional trend among top-tier colleges.

After all, colleges are creatures of caution: They often don’t like to be the first among their peer institutions to make a big change. Chicago’s move, some admissions officials have said, can reassure nervous trustees at other institutions who are skeptical of forgoing traditional admission policies.

Chicago found that ACT and SAT scores didn’t tell it much about who would succeed and who would struggle.

Though many other colleges have reached the same conclusion, few have the same potential to sway institutions that are seriously considering a test-optional policy. A small handful of well-known, superselective institutions that compete with Chicago are doing just that. Admissions officials at two of those colleges told The Chronicle that their institutions might announce new testing policies this year. Yes, they said, peer pressure had a little something to do with it.

The student who had attracted media attention by challenging a College Board decision to cancel her much improved SAT score (from 900 up to 1230) due to suspicions of cheating has dropped her challenge to the cancellation, and may re-take the exam.


A Florida high school student has abandoned her fight to validate one of her SAT scores, her attorneys say, weeks after she cried foul over test administrators' decision to investigate it over signs of possible cheating.

Kamilah Campbell, a Miami Gardens high school senior, instead is considering another retake of the SAT, her attorneys and the College Board said in a joint statement given to CNN on Thursday.

"The attention generated by Kamilah's case has been extremely stressful and emotionally traumatizing for her," the statement from Ben Crump Law, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, and the College Board reads.

"Rather than further challenging the score validity process, she is now interested in potentially retaking the SAT and continuing her path forward privately as she pursues her college goals."

Catherine Gewertz of Education Week has written an article tracking a number of initiatives among high schools and colleges that seek to change the way student performance is evaluated at both levels:


Rewriting the admissions script could help usher more underserved students onto campus. And it could build support in K-12 for nontraditional approaches to learning. It could also encourage students to focus on civic virtues, like helping others.

Four initiatives, hatched in the last few years, are poised to turn what one project's leader calls "the huge, huge ship" of college admissions into more inclusive waters.

The one that's gotten the most attention aims high: Making Caring Common, led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is urging colleges to give more weight in admission to the ways students serve their families and their communities.

Colleges are beginning to respond to the initiative's call. Some have changed their essay questions to elicit how students have served the greater good. MIT, for instance, used to ask students to write about a personal trait they're proud of. Instead, it now asks candidates to "describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc."

A cluster of other initiatives focus on finding new ways for students to show colleges a fuller picture of the value of their learning and life experiences. Those new approaches would be especially important for students who learn best in nontraditional ways.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success has created an online platform to bring underrepresented students into the college-application pipeline.

Its application is designed to encourage colleges to recognize and reward a wider range of student characteristics than most applications ask about, including events in students' lives that illustrate their "character" or how they made a "meaningful contribution" to "the common good."

About 140 colleges are members of the coalition. Three years ago, in its first application cycle, 39,000 applications flowed into the coalition's system. By late fall 2018, that number had passed 130,000.

Assessment and the high school transcript are also part of the national conversation about rewriting the college admissions script.

About 225 public and private high schools across the country are designing a new kind of transcript they hope will offer colleges a fuller portrait of students' lives and their learning. The transcript will replace letter grades with measures of skills, such as persistence or the ability to foster honesty. This "Mastery Transcript" also allows students to include videos and projects.

Yet another initiative aims to persuade colleges and universities to accept performance-based assessments in admissions. The leaders of Reimagining College Access argue that evaluating student projects and nuanced descriptions of their work—rather than just grades and test scores—would allow application readers to see students' complexity and accomplishments in new ways.

A recent Washington Post opinion piece addresses some apparent unintended consequences from the recent trend of tracking how many Pell grant-eligible students selective colleges enroll:

[Excerpts] some of the schools most celebrated for providing opportunities for poor students, admissions and financial aid offices appear to be worsening their neglect of the low- and middle-income kids we want them to help.

For decades, U.S. News & World Report rankings distorted schools’ decisions about which students to admit and how to allocate their scarce aid dollars (often throwing them at richer kids with higher test scores).

Then, a second generation of rankings came along, one intended to measure how hard schools were working to enroll high-potential, low-income students who could benefit most from a college degree.

Publications such as the New York Times and Washington Monthly published their own rankings, emphasizing admission and outcomes for Pell Grant-eligible students. U.S. News & World Report eventually introduced its own “social mobility” measure, also pegged to Pell-eligible students. And, in 2017, a team of top-tier economists produced a college report card based on intergenerational mobility. Using tax data, they calculated which schools launched the most low-income students into higher income percentiles than their parents.

Thanks to this public scrutiny, the share of Pell-eligible students has indeed been rising at a number of top schools. Which, in isolation, is a good thing. We want more poor kids getting recruited, matriculated, graduated.

But these well-intended new rankings have also produced some unintended consequences. For that, you can blame Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

In particular, colleges appear to be gaming the Pell-based benchmarks to which they know the media and policymakers are paying attention.

Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby and University of Virginia professor Sarah Turner have found that the schools that have made the most progress in increasing their numbers of Pell-eligible students appear to be doing so partly at the expense of other low-income students — specifically, those whose families make just a few too many dollars to qualify for Pell grants.

Members of that latter group — virtually indistinguishable from their counterparts barely on the other side of that arbitrary federal Pell threshold — get substantially less generous school-awarded financial aid. Their representation on these campuses has also fallen over the past few years as that for the Pell-eligible kids has risen.

The College Board has made changes to the Advanced Placement test registration process that has aroused controversy. Students failing to register for spring 2020 AP tests by November 15th 2019 will have to pay a $40 late registration fee. The previous policy allowed students to register for AP exams just 2-3 months before the May testing dates. AP tests are the single largest source of revenue for the College Board, with over 1.2 million students taking 4.22 million of the $94 exams in 2018.

[Excerpts from the Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss article linked above:]

The cost of each test will remain the same at $94, but a late fee of $40 will be charged if registration occurs between Nov. 16 and March 13. Students will be charged an additional $40 if they do not take an exam after signing up.

Some counselors said students and counselors could be negatively affected, and that giving educators access to former AP test questions could lead to more test prep in classes and a focus on passing exams rather than on learning.

Scott White, interim guidance director at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., blasted the College Board in an email on a discussion group of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, saying:

Asking us to sign students up so early and charging exorbitant fees for anyone who did not do so is usury. The process benefits no one but the College Board and happens for one and only one reason: they have a monopoly and are acting like it.

We need to take back what serves students and schools, not corporations and businesses. The new College Board AP sign-up policy pushes kids too hard and too soon to make decisions. It creates further financial burdens on students and schools which help no one, not one student, not one school.

Adam Lindley, a guidance counselor at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, Ill., said in an email he is “very concerned” the changes will “cause more financial and emotional stress for my students, especially seniors.”

Seniors, he added, will be asked to sign up for a course before they know if the colleges they will attend grant credit for AP test scores. An AP coordinator at his school, Lindley said it would be a burden on counselors working with seniors to get college admissions done early in the academic year.

Analysis of a College Board AP pilot program (which mandated the much earlier AP test registration date) that preceded the policy change shows that while more students took AP tests under the pilot policy, the percentage of students attaining a passing grade of 3 out of 5 declined.


CB [College Board] data indicates that there were 3141 additional low income test takers at the pilot schools but only 742 additional scores of 3+. This gives a pass rate (scores of 3+) of 23.6% for the "additional" low-income test takers. Another way to look at this is that 76.4% of the low-income students who were coerced to take the exams because of the new deadline, late fees, and cancellation fees did not pass (scored a 1 or 2). Clearly an early commitment to the exam does NOT cause students to ". . . earn a score on the AP Exam that qualifies for college credit and/or placement" as the College Board claims.

CB Data shows that the fall ordering deadline effects low-income students significantly more than non-low-income students as there was a 33% increase in low-income test takers, but only a 4% increase in the number of non-low-income test takers.

More detailed analysis of the AP pilot program data is available here.

Jim Jump, academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. has written an article in Inside Higher Ed about the College Board AP registration policy change.


To no one’s surprise, the change has led to anger and anxiety among AP coordinators who will now have to oversee AP registration at the same time they are trying to help seniors navigate the college application process and also serving as unpaid agents for a different division of the College Board by administering the PSAT.

It has also led to suspicion on the part of the conspiracy theorists among us who believe that College Board decisions are always informed by economic considerations. That’s probably inevitable when you are a nonprofit raking in a billion dollars in revenues annually.

I’m far from convinced that the changes are either necessary or a good idea, but I’ll leave that debate for others. I’m more interested in, and bothered by, the rationale offered by the College Board for the change.

As an example of the tremendous attention paid to standardized tests by researchers, consider this Harvard Graduate School of Education article that discusses a study of the level of stress-related cortisol present in students about to take high-stakes tests. The study sought to determine if students from poorer backgrounds exhibited higher levels of stress that might compromise their performance.

Furthering the fragmentation of the high school assessment market at the state level, Florida's governor has signed an executive order to abolish Common Core in Florida.


Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered an end to Common Core-type educational standards in Florida.

DeSantis’ executive order directs Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to develop a road map for a new way to educate the sunshine state’s students.

Florida moved to a Common Core-type system under former Gov. Rick Scott, a change aimed at matching standards for other students in the U.S.

State leaders made some tweaks to Common Core, and re-branded it as ‘Florida Standards’ but they remain very similar to Common Core.

DeSantis gave the order to replace Common Core-type standards with a new system that increases the quality of curriculum, and places a higher emphasis on teaching civics.

Florida education standards will not change this year. Gov. DeSantis said he and Commissioner Corcoran will seek input from teachers and parents, then present a reform plan to the legislature, to enact in 2020.

Creighton University (US News-ranked #1 in Regional Universities Midwest; 4,255 undergraduates; acceptance rate 72%; ACT 25th-75th percentile of 25-30) has announced the adoption of a test optional policy.

US News offers a new list of the 10 Colleges With the Highest SAT Scores:

University of Chicago 1530
Massachusetts Inst. of Tech. 1528
Harvey Mudd College 1506
Wash. Univ. of St. Louis 1505
Yale University 1504
Johns Hopkins Univ. 1503
Harvard University 1500
Amherst College 1493
Princeton University 1490
Northwestern University 1486