Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Apr 01, 2019

One aspect of the recent college admissions scandal was the "gaming" of the system by wealthy parents by falsely claiming their children suffered from a learning impediment in order to allow the students to have more time to complete the SAT. In response, an article in The Atlantic opines that The Time Crunch on Standardized Tests Is Unnecessary, and asks " Could slowing down tests for everyone make them fairer?"


These parents went to such great lengths to get extra time for their kids only because these tests run at breakneck speed—a feature that routinely stresses out test takers of all abilities. Students are often encouraged to be strategic about budgeting their time: how long to spend on a given question, whether to use a calculator or do mental math, when to give up and fill in bubbles at random. A time-limited test is a bad measure of the things that schools theoretically want to see, such as critical-thinking skills and college readiness, says Ruth Colker, an Ohio State University law professor and a scholar of disabilities discrimination.

“Whether you can tell me the answer quickly has nothing to do with whether you, in fact, know the content,” she told me. “And there are some people who, for whatever reason, are pretty quick at things. They don’t necessarily have more depth of knowledge, and depth of knowledge [is] what we should care about for admissions purposes.”

In a paper in the Seton Hall Law Review, Colker makes the argument for eliminating that quick pace altogether. Under the ADA, organizations such as the College Board aren’t permitted to use tests that have a “disparate impact on the basis of disability”—in this case, timed tests that students with disabilities have trouble completing—unless they can prove that those conditions are necessary for a test’s measurement. Colker says that testing organizations haven’t sufficiently shown that the time limit meets that standard.

Another recent article from The Atlantic, authored by Jeffrey Selingo, takes the view that There Is No Way to Prevent the Next Cheating Scandal.


“Every student thinks they need a hook,” says Hannah Wolff, the college and career-center specialist at Langley High School in Virginia, who is also a part-time admissions reader at UC Berkeley. “They have an impression that being in the honor society, doing community service, getting all A’s in AP courses is not enough.”

All this has left admissions officers wondering if the overall application—test scores, grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and essays—remains an accurate portrayal of the student who is applying. “The concern I have is not fraud, but the overall fidelity of the correspondence they send us,” says one admission dean at a prominent university, who asked to remain anonymous to talk freely about the scandal. “Grades are inflated, activities are embellished, recommendations lack negative comments, and the standard now is test prep and multiple editors for essays.”

Inevitably, whenever colleges shift what they want in their application, students change their own behavior in response, or new industries sprout up to assist them. As long as applications to elite schools are abundant and seats scarce, applicants will look for ways—even sometimes those that push up against ethical lines—to stand out. And because admissions officers tend to trust applicants and have neither the time nor the resources of the FBI to check out anything they might question, the only safeguard built into any admissions system (now or in the future) is cultural norms about honesty.

In response to the admissions scandal, Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss asks, Is it finally time to get rid of the SAT and ACT college admissions tests?


The question, long asked by testing critics, is being revived with new urgency amid the explosive college admissions bribery scandal rocking the world of higher education. As part of an investigation they called Operation Varsity Blues, federal prosecutors last week charged some 50 people, including famous Hollywood actresses and wealthy financiers. The alleged schemes included hiring impostors to take SAT and ACT exams, or rigging the test by asking for additional time to take it even when that wasn’t necessary.

As high-profile as Varsity Blues is, it is just the latest issue facing the College Board, which owns the SAT, and ACT Inc. — including repeated cheating scandals and fundamental questions about the value of the scores. Now, the testing giants find themselves again defending the integrity of their exams.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of a nonprofit organization called FairTest, or the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said some of those charged in Varsity Blues were alleged to have engaged in at least four different test-cheating techniques. Those alleged schemes included hiring impersonators to take the exams; making phony “disability” claims to gain extra test-taking time; paying to change wrong answers or fill in missing responses; and bribing proctors and test-site supervisors to ignore these illegal acts.

For years, questions have been raised about the validity and value of SAT and ACT scores in college admissions. The College Board has paid for research touting the “predictive value” of SAT scores in forecasting how students will do in college and beyond, but critics have questioned the research.

Said FairTest’s Schaeffer: “Combined with the University of Chicago’s decision to go test-optional . . . and the University of California’s review of its use of the ACT/SAT, there’s no question that the still-unfolding scandal will lead more higher education institutions to drop their ACT/SAT testing requirements.”

“How," he asked, “can any college admissions office tell whether the ACT/SAT score they receive reflects an applicant’s actual test-taking skills or whether it was inflated by test-coaching ‘steroids’ (legal, even if ethically questionable) or, worse, was manipulated through any of the illegal techniques disclosed” in Operation Varsity Blues? The test scores, he said, are not “valid” or “credible.”

Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago, which is test-optional, wrote in an e-mail:

“Scandal or no scandal, colleges have an obligation to do research on the efficacy of standardized tests, and to consider the value of them in the admissions process. If tests are valuable and add something beyond what is already in the file, colleges should keep them, of course; but most research shows they add only the tiniest bit of predictive power as we attempt to figure out who is going to succeed in college.

“Academic performance, as well as retention and graduation rates are almost identical when comparing test submitters and non-submitters, despite substantial differences in test scores (we collect them after admission is granted for research purposes), and despite the fact that test-optional students tend to be lower-income and from families where parents are not college-educated," he said.

A California assemblyman is once again advancing legislation to allow school districts in the state to substitute the SAT or ACT for the Smarter Balanced exam currently used by California high schools for federal accountability purposes. However, this proposal comes at a time when both the University of California and the California State University system are performing analyses to consider whether to maintain their SAT/ACT mandate for all applicants. In addition, some other California legislators are pushing legislation to de-emphasize the SAT/ACT.


Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, remains undeterred in his quest to give school districts the option of replacing the state’s current 11th-grade standardized test with the college entrance exams SAT or ACT and reimbursing them for the costs.

O’Donnell is again authoring legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last year, and on Wednesday the Assembly Education Committee, which he chairs, gave it the first push. It passed AB 751, this year’s version, 5-0 with support from the dozens of school districts that already offer the college admissions exams at their own expense.

But less than 24 hours later, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, introduced legislation calling on the University of California and California State University to re-examine the SAT and the ACT with an eye toward phasing out and replacing the tests as criteria for college admissions. UC is already undertaking this study, but the Legislature’s action would add urgency to its work.

The two bills reflect conflicting views of the SAT. McCarty’s bill captures the public’s resentment toward families who can afford SAT coaching and test prep and, in the extreme, commit crimes to get children into prestigious colleges. These tactics “perpetuate the opportunity gap,” McCarty said Thursday.

District superintendents behind AB 751 view a free and universal SAT as a great equalizer, vital to qualifying more low-income and minority students for college. Many are using the PSAT in earlier grades to improve reading and math skills and Saturday courses to close the test-prep gap.

“We should be constructing a solid policy for all students, not reacting to headlines of a scandal. Some of this is blaming the bank for getting robbed,” said O’Donnell, a middle and high school social studies and English teacher before his election to the Legislature.

Several evolving developments may complicate or thwart O’Donnell’s bill. They include new research showing that the Smarter Balanced exam is as effective as the SAT in predicting freshmen’s success at CSU and UC campuses.

Months before the scandal broke, UC President Janet Napolitano requested a faculty task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the ACT and SAT. It could issue its initial recommendations later this spring, said Eddie Comeaux, a professor of higher education at UC Riverside and chairman of Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, known as BOARS, which sets admissions policies for the UC system. Beside phasing out the tests, other possible options include: de-emphasizing the tests as a factor in admissions, using the tests to determine overall UC eligibility but not for specific admissions decisions, or making the tests optional.

This page from an Assemblyman's website offers a more detailed look at the California proposals put forth in the wake of the admissions scandal.


(Sacramento, CA) – The college admissions process must be fair, with no student gaining advantage over another because of their family’s wealth or social connections. Assemblymembers Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Orange County), and Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas) unveiled a legislative package today aimed at reforming the system and curtailing abuse. The proposals come after an Assembly Budget Subcommittee hearing on higher education was held last week, where lawmakers discussed the recent college admissions scandal.

“For every student admitted through bribery, there was an honest and talented student that was rejected,” said McCarty. “This legislative package of college admissions reforms will ensure that there are adequate checks and balances to catch fraudsters, but more importantly to protect the sanctity of the admissions process.”

The proposals include:

--- Strengthening Checks and Balances on Special Admissions: Requires any special admission, also known as “admission by exception,” to have approval from a minimum of three administrative staff members prior to a student’s acceptance. That includes the Chancellor/President, the Vice President/Vice Chancellor/Provost/Admissions Director and the staff or faculty member recommending the special admit.

---Banning Preferential Admissions for Donors & Alumni/Ting (AB 697): Prohibits any California college or university from granting preferential admissions to applicants related to the institution’s donors or alumni, or risk exclusion from the Cal Grant program.

---Phasing Out Use of the SAT & ACT: Requests the California State University and University of California systems to conduct a study of the usefulness, effectiveness and need for the SAT and ACT to determine student admissions.

---Regulating College Admissions Consultants: Directs private college admissions firms and consultants to register with the Secretary of State’s Office, if they generate more than $5,000 in annual income. A stakeholder group will determine regulations for the industry within a year of registry’s enactment.

---Prohibiting Fraudulent Tax Write-Offs: Provides that any taxpayer named in the complaints stemming from the college admissions scandal and found to be guilty may not deduct related charitable donations from state income taxes. If a deduction related to the fraud conviction has already been claimed, it must be refunded to the state along with paying a fine.

---Auditing Risks of Fraud in Admissions: Calls upon the State Auditor to review risks of fraud in the University of California’s admissions processes, with a close look at the admissions process for student athletes and other special admissions. The audit will also examine admissions processes and procedures at California’s public universities.

McCarty, Ting, Low, Quirk-Silva, and Boerner Horvath expect the proposals to be heard in committee after the Spring Recess.

The University of San Francisco has announced the adoption of a test optional admissions policy. The institution (ranked no. 96 by US News among National Universities; 6,900 undergraduates; 66% acceptance rate; SAT 25th-75th percentile of 1100-1290) will make the submission of scores optional for the freshman class enrolling in the fall of 2020.


“We believe this is the right thing to do, both in terms of USF’s mission and values as well as in light of studies consistently showing that high school performance is a better predictor of first-year college performance,” said Donald E. Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “Studies also show that standardized test scores have a low correlation with persistence and graduation – and that’s particularly true at USF.”

Michael Beseda, vice provost for strategic enrollment management, added: “USF is already one of the most successful institutions in the nation at enrolling and graduating a diverse student body.” Well-documented findings (many of which are detailed by Fair Test and other researchers) show an ACT or SAT score is often more reflective of a student’s economic background and the resources of their high school rather than their academic abilities and college preparedness, as well as racial, ethnic, and gender bias in test construction.

Adding to the already significant stress of dealing with the crucial junior year of high school, 450 students in Maryland will have to retake the SAT after a fire alarm went off hours into the test.


About 450 juniors at South River High School will have to retake the SAT after a fire alarm upended the exam Wednesday morning, said Bob Mosier, a spokesperson for Anne Arundel County schools.

The entire junior class was about three hours into the exam when they were forced to evacuate the building. Per guidance from College Board, the organization that administers the test, students’ tests will be invalidated, Myers said.

“We contacted the College Board today and provided them with information related to the interruption and what occurred with our students between the time the test was halted and the time it resumed,” he said in the letter. “During that interruption, a number of our students accessed their cell phones, an action that is strictly prohibited by College Board rules.”