Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

May 13, 2019

There has been a flurry of test optional announcements in recent months. So far in 2019, 16 colleges have announced the adoption of test optional policies. Chief among the most recent announcements were two made by large public institutions:

The University of New Hampshire (US News-ranked no. 106 among National Universities; 12,700 undergrads; 77% acceptance rate ; SAT 25th-75th percentile of 1080-1260) will implement a three-year test optional pilot program. Students enrolling as freshman in the fall of 2020 will be the first UNH class to include non-submitting students.

Indiana State University (US News-ranked 2nd tier among National Universities; 11,600 undergrads enrolled; 85% acceptance rate; SAT 25th-75th percentile of 900-1110) has also announced the adoption of a test optional admissions policy beginning with applications for the fall of 2021. Students with high school GPAs below 2.5 will still have to submit scores, as will those seeking merit-based scholarships and advanced placement.


"Test-optional admissions criteria are increasingly the standard for both colleges and universities of similar size and mission as ISU and flagship institutions," said Mike Licari, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Indiana State. "Making test scores optional at Indiana State removes what can be an obstacle for many of the students we are proud to serve."

Other institutions that have recently announced test optional policies are Alma College, Keene State College, Simpson College, and Southwestern University.

Kristin Tichenor, Senior VP for Enrollment at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has written an article in the Concord Monitor that considers test optional admissions within the context of the college admissions scandal: My Turn: High-stakes testing leads to high-stakes cheating


The University of New Hampshire announced on Monday that it will no longer require applicants to provide SAT/ACT scores during a three-year pilot program.

The public university is the latest in a growing roster to recognize that the standardized test is not a reliable predictor of college success. This is a step in the right direction – for both applicants and the university.

As the recent admissions scandal so starkly demonstrates, high-stakes testing sets the stage for high-stakes cheating. When a single score is viewed to make or break a student’s future, it inspires all kinds of bad behavior.

The gaming of college entrance exams has been going on for years. The SAT, once thought to be the great equalizer, is now little more than a barometer of socioeconomic status.

Ten years ago, my home institution opted out of standardized testing. We did so in large part due to concerns about socioeconomic inequities. As the saying goes, we value what we measure. We wanted to make it clear to students that we value work ethic over wealth. The other important factor – for Worcester Polytechnic Institute and hundreds of other institutions that have adopted test-optional admissions policies – is the reality that standardized test scores do not predetermine academic success. Our analysis showed that entrance exam scores consistently underestimated the academic success of women and underrepresented students.

For higher education leaders, enrollment professionals, educators, elected officials and policy-makers, the admissions scam is a call to action. It challenges us to let go of outdated modes of measuring student success. As philosopher Matthew Stewart argues, “We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy.”

The New York Times has continued to follow the college admissions scandal dubbed Operation Varsity Blues by federal investigators. One recent Times article offered details of payments totaling $1.2 million by a Chinese family to gain admission for their daughter to Yale under false pretenses, centered on fraudulent soccer qualifications. A subsequent Times article covers an even larger scheme: $6.5 million paid by another Chinese family to get their daughter into Stanford University.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has written an article detailing discussions among admissions professionals at a recent AACRAO (the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers) conference regarding the impact of the college admissions scandal.


During the question period, a private counselor said parents have attempted to bribe her to assure success for their students, and that her colleagues have experienced the same. No one gasped.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said it was important to push back against some of the narratives being shared about the scandal.

Take as an example the phrase "the admissions system is rigged," he said.

First of all, he said there is no one system of admissions in higher education. Admissions processes vary widely -- by institution, state, sector and other factors. There isn't an "admissions system," he said.

Further, he said this amalgamation of systems is in fact doing a lot of things well. The admissions "ecosystem," he said, helps more than two million people a year move from secondary to postsecondary education. "We do facilitate a lot of transitions that go off without a hitch," he said.

At the same time, he said it was important to recognize the strong anger the scandal has tapped into. Much as people like himself can point to numbers to put the scandal in perspective, "this is not about figures and numbers," he said.

What it has done is focus attention on numerous practices -- many of them legal -- that are widely seen as unfair, Hawkins said. And colleges must now take seriously those criticisms, he said, and consider whether there are policies that need to be changed. "We're going to be made to answer questions," he said.

Hawkins also said it was important to distinguish between issues that can best be solved at the government level and at the institutional level. For example, NACAC and many other groups have pointed out that students who attend high schools in low-income areas have inadequate access to college counseling. That's something states need to address. Other issues -- legacy admissions or early decision were two examples he gave -- are best considered at the college level.

Two USC faculty members who have written an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed take a more skeptical view of the prospect of colleges acting on their own to reduce the use of "side doors" in college admissions, and suggest that government action is needed.


At virtually every four-year university that denies admission to some of its applicants there are “side doors” for admission for the children of donors. At less selective public flagship universities and at regional public and private colleges, there are applicants whose parents have made donations, albeit usually smaller amounts, parents who are influential at regional and local levels, parents who are friends with members of the Board of Trustees, and athletes who get admitted through side doors while first-generation and low- and/or moderate-income applicants with similar credentials are denied.

The authors go on to outline potential inequities due to tuition discounting aimed at attracting students from more affluent families, as well as the disadvantage low-income students find themselves in regarding early decision, and posit a potential response by the federal government:

Recently, both the Internal Revenue Service and federal financial aid have been advanced as having the tools to enforce more equitable policies. The IRS could determine that some or all the practices are not consistent with the definition of a charitable organization: "a nonprofit organization whose primary objectives are philanthropy and social well-being (e.g., charitable, educational, religious or other activities serving the public interest or common good)."

Regarding financial aid, as previously noted, none of the micro-inequities we have described promote democracy or ensure the equality of educational opportunity. Could this logic possibly be used to deny an institution’s right to participate in federal financial aid programs? Another approach could be establishing an incentive-based approach, such as a Pell Plus Grant program. Students awarded such funds might be limited in that these grants could only be taken to universities that close all “side doors” or to colleges that openly post information on early decision, donor, loan-funded scholarships for merit aid and so forth.

In recent years, perfect scores on the ACT have been soaring. Given that the ACT has not undergone a fundamental redesign such as the one given the SAT that resulted in a fundamentally altered exam that debuted in 2016, some are ascribing the dramatic increase in perfect ACT scores to increased test prep.


Walnut Hills High School announced last week that 17 of its students scored a perfect 36 on the ACT college admissions test.

Things got a little crazy after that. Jimmy Fallon joked about it on the Tonight Show. Social media blew up with congratulations and conspiracy theories. And test experts buzzed about what it all meant.

But was it really that unusual? Yes. But maybe not as unusual as everyone first thought.

Turns out, the number of perfect ACT scores nationwide has more than doubled since 2015 and is six times higher today than it was eight years ago.

In 2010, 1 of every 2,600 students nailed a perfect score. In 2018, it was 1 of every 500.

“There used to be a literal handful of students with a perfect score,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “Now, there are thousands.”

If the test is essentially the same, why are so many more students acing it?

The most likely answer is a booming test-preparation industry that’s built on the hopes and fears of students and parents who are willing to work – and pay – to get an edge.

They see the investment of a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars in a test prep program as worthwhile if it helps land their child at an Ivy League school or secures a big financial aid package.

“The stakes are absolutely real,” said Mark Treas, CEO and founder of TorchPrep in Newport, which charges $1,700 for its comprehensive, private test-prep package. That package includes, among others, 16 hours of tutoring, a two-hour strategy session and TorchPrep's "Code Crackers" to help navigate the test.

Treas cited an email he got last week from the parents of one of the 7,000 students who used his program this year. They told him the student’s recent 4-point improvement on the ACT could make her eligible for as much as $100,000 in financial aid.

Princeton Review has compiled a helpful table titled "Which States Require High School Students to Take the ACT or SAT?".