Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Oct 15, 2019

ACT, Inc. has announced the initiation of a policy starting in September of 2020 that will allow students to retake individual sections of the ACT exam. This move may have been partially inspired by the recent success of the College Board in winning statewide SAT testing contracts in states that formerly administered the ACT.

The New York Times covers the story:


Officials at ACT, which makes the exam, said on Tuesday that starting next September, students who want to improve their scores would be able to retake single sections of the five-part test, which lasts about three hours, instead of sitting for all of them again. The change would allow students to avoid getting worse marks on sections they had taken earlier.

The new policy comes as educators, students and parents debate the role of standardized testing in college admissions and whether it is an appropriate measure of student ability or worsens persistent social inequities. A growing number of colleges and universities have made test scores an optional part of applications. But many students continue to feel compelled to score highly on the ACT and SAT exams, committing to time-consuming and often costly prep sessions to gain any edge they can.

After the change was announced on Tuesday, some parents, students and tutors wondered if the option to focus their improvement efforts would fan the frenzy over test scores, further disadvantaging students who do not have access to coaching.

The five subsections on the ACT — reading, math, science, English and writing, which is optional — are graded on a scale of 1 to 36. Currently, scores on the four required sections are averaged into a composite score. But students’ highest composite scores may not necessarily reflect their highest subscores because they may have done worse on an individual section.

Starting in September, students will get a new “superscore” that combines their highest scores on the subsections from each time they took the test. Currently, if students who have taken the test more than once want colleges to see their best subscores, they have to send in multiple test results.

It is not yet clear whether colleges would evaluate applicants with a superscore over multiple exams differently from those with a composite score from one exam.

Test experts said the changes would help many students improve their lots. Testing coaches now generally work with students on the entire test. Under the new rules, they would be able to work on one subject at a time, trying to raise a score in math, for example, before moving on to English or science.

But the ability to customize test results in this way could make test prep even more important than it is now, disadvantaging those who cannot afford it or are not advised to seek it out, said Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor at College Confidential, an online admissions forum.

“These ‘improvements’ don’t move the admissions process any closer to the destination that I recommend, which is not eliminating tests entirely, but downgrading their importance and allowing only one — or maybe two — test sessions per student,” Ms. Rubenstone said.

“I worry that most of the high-achieving kids in my orbit will retest and retest until they can bump subsections of 33 and 34 up to 35 and 36. So standardized testing will become even more of an extracurricular activity than it already is.”

Akil Bello, a college consultant who specializes in working with underprivileged students, said that while the changes sounded positive, “in the world we live in, it advantages the rich, who have coaches, who have advisers, who are strategically crafting their plan to take them to college.”

Students will also be given the option to take the ACT online, rather than with paper and pencil, on days when it is administered nationwide. The test is now given online only at international test centers and in school districts that administer the test during the school day.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has also weighed in on the ACT announcement.


The key advantage to the ACT superscoring -- as opposed to that of the College Board with the SAT -- is that someone doesn't need to retake the entire test. Students could just take the portion of the ACT they wanted.
Generally, testing experts saw the ACT changes as making the ACT more competitive against the SAT, but they were divided on whether it would help low-income students.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said that "clear winners" include ACT and the test-prep industry, "which will attract even more revenue from upper-income families seeking to maximize the scores reported to admissions offices."

"The losers," he said, would be "kids from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, whose scores will fall further behind their more advantaged peers because they do not have the resources or knowledge to game the new system."

Still, he called the change a "shrewd revision will almost certainly boost ACT's admissions testing market share versus the SAT."

More coverage of the ACT announcement is offered by Nick Anderson of the Washington Post.

A Federal judge has ruled that Harvard University's admissions policies do not discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed covers the story:


The ruling by Judge Allison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts came in a much-watched case brought by a long-standing critic of affirmative action on behalf of a group of Asian American plaintiffs.

Her decision upholding the Ivy League university's policies confounded the predictions of many commentators, who had seen Harvard's approach as vulnerable.

While she said Harvard's admissions approach was "not perfect," "the court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better."

"For purposes of this case, at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions," Burroughs wrote in her conclusion. "Harvard’s admission program passes constitutional muster in that it satisfies the dictates of strict scrutiny. The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents. They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences.

"It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet. Until we are, race conscious admissions programs that survive strict scrutiny will have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning, improves scholarship, and encourages mutual respect and understanding."

Taken as a whole, "Harvard does not have any racial quotas," Burroughs wrote. "Harvard evaluates that likely racial composition of its class and provides tips to applicants to help it achieve a diverse class. Those tips as necessary to achieve a diverse class given the relative paucity of minority applicants that would be admitted without such a tip." (Here the reference to minority applicants is not to Asian Americans.)

Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard, said, “Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies. We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants.”

Blum added, "SFFA will appeal this decision to the First Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court."

The judge's decision in pdf form can be found here.

Two recent articles cover the ongoing analysis at the University of California as to the proper place of standardized tests in UC's admissions policies.

Options being considered by UC are:

1- retaining the current testing structure
2- continuing to use SAT/ACT but controlling for the socioeconomic effects on scores (including an alteration in the relative weighting of high school GPA and test scores)
3- using the Smarter Balanced tests in lieu of the SAT/ACT
4- suggesting changes to the material tested on the SAT and ACT
5- making the UC system test optional

Coverage by the LA Times is excerpted below:


Half a century ago, the University of California helped catapult the SAT to a place of national prominence in the college admissions process when it began requiring all applicants to take the test and report their score.

Now the UC system, by its sheer size and influence as the nation’s premier public research university, is again poised to play an outsize role in the future of standardized testing in America as its leaders consider whether to drop both the SAT and ACT as an admissions requirement.

The looming question is how UC officials will move to address the clearly documented flaws of the test. If they choose to throw out the SAT and the ACT, another popular test, will they find a better replacement?

“Whatever we do will be a national precedent,” UC President Janet Napolitano said at a recent Board of Regents meeting. “And so … we want to get it right.”

The decision will be a “monster deal” because UC’s status is likely to heavily influence other universities and the testing industry itself, said Jay Rosner, an admissions test expert with the Princeton Review Foundation. Rosner said four-fifths of UC applicants take the SAT, the largest single university source of customers for the College Board, which owns the test. The six universities that receive the most applications in the nation are UC campuses in Los Angeles, San Diego, Irvine, Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Davis.

UC regents are not expected to make a decision until next year. But an extraordinary and unscripted exchange about 2 hours and 25 minutes into a recent meeting revealed the enormous stakes, deep passions and growing impatience surrounding the issue.

UC Academic Senate members, to whom the regents long ago delegated authority to set admissions criteria, launched a study this year on whether to continue requiring standardized testing. Applicants could still take the test and choose to self-report scores, but the UC system would join about 1,000 other universities nationwide as test-optional.

Board of Regents Chairman John A. Pérez startled meeting participants when he asked the UC general counsel whether regents were required to wait for the senate to finish its review before deciding the issue. Vice Chairwoman Cecilia Estolano followed his question by declaring that tests use a “clearly flawed methodology that has a discriminatory impact” and suggested a possible time limit on the faculty study.

“We don’t need any more studies,” she said.

Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley said the issue was urgent, as “millions” of students would take the test and spend substantial sums on test preparation while regents delayed action. Pérez noted that even though nonprofits such as Khan Academy offer free online test preparation, only 3% of students at some underserved schools have regular access to the internet.

On the other side, Regent George Kieffer said he was concerned that if UC eliminated the SAT, the university system could be pressed in a few years to use another test to gauge student performance.

Napolitano cautioned the board to let the faculty finish its work without an “arbitrary timeline.” And Academic Senate Chairwoman Kum-Kum Bhavnani said any decision needed to be well-grounded in research to stand up to the reaction it will unleash.

Bhavnani said an 18-member faculty task force is expected to produce preliminary results by February.

EdSource also covers the UC admissions testing issue:


“This is a deeply important issue we are wrestling with. And we want to make sure we get it right,” said task force co-chairman Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at UC Riverside. The committee’s final report should be objective and “aligned with our values in improving access, diversity and creating the most equitable model possible.”

Despite some UC regents expressing impatience with the study’s deliberate pace, faculty officials say they will stick to their schedule of publicly releasing the task force report in February or March. Then, in what promises to trigger passionate argument no matter what the study says, UC regents will have to decide whether to adopt, reject or change its recommendations.

The decision will be enormously influential just by the sheer number of freshman applicants to UC’s nine undergraduate campuses: more than 176,500 students applied last year with most trying to get into several UC schools. Applicants must present scores from either the SAT or ACT exams.

The “Standardized Testing Task Force” was established ten months ago and began meeting in February. Its members — 17 UC professors, in such varied fields as education, neuroscience, engineering and economics, plus one student representative — all want to ensure both UC’s high academic quality and equitable access to it, said co-chair Henry Sanchez, who is a pathology professor at UC San Francisco.

The goal, Sanchez told EdSource in a recent interview, is to engage in “genuine, mindful and thoughtful analysis and discussions and then provide recommendations that are going to benefit the university and its obligation to the state of California.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom has (as did his predecessor Governor Jerry Brown) vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have allowed school districts to replace the currently mandated Smarter Balanced exam with either the SAT or ACT. EdSource coverage is excerpted below:


Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation on Sunday that would have let school districts substitute the SAT or ACT college entrance exams for the state’s standardized 11th grade math and reading/writing tests to meet state and federal testing requirements.

In a four-paragraph message, Newsom said that instead of encouraging access to college, the bill could have “the opposite effect.” Using the SAT and ACT “exacerbates the inequalities for underrepresented students,” he wrote, since performance “is highly correlated with race and parental income and is not the best predictor for college success.”

Newsom also indicated passage would be premature, since the state’s public universities are discussing the possibility of using the state’s 11th grade tests, called Smarter Balanced, for admissions or eligibility purposes. “This would be a better approach to improving access to college for underrepresented students and reducing ‘test fatigue,’” Newsom wrote. Former Gov. Jerry Brown cited a similar reason in vetoing a nearly identical bill last year.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, the author of both bills, said Sunday, vetoing the bill “harms our efforts to ensure that all California students have a chance to attend college. AB 751 would have built college entrance exams into the school culture and school day.”

The PBS NewsHour has published a detailed article examining the growth of the test optional movement amidst recent controversies regarding the SAT and ACT:

Record number of colleges stop requiring the SAT and ACT amid questions of fairness


Julia Tomasulo took the ACT three times hoping to get to get the best possible score when applying for colleges.

Even though she had good grades and was a two-sport athlete, “of the whole college process, the testing was the hardest,” Tomasulo said. She took practice tests daily. Her parents spent about $3,500 on tutoring.

“I would hope more colleges would go to test-optional,” she said. Students “should be judged on their merit. I think the ACT or SAT just show how they regurgitate information.”

With frustration like the Tomasulos’ compounded by reports of test-takers gaming the system or out-and-out cheating, more and more people seem to agree — including some colleges themselves, and a few elected politicians.

This means the SAT and ACT are facing what could be the greatest challenge in their histories, which stretch back to the early 20th century.

“There are a number of things merging that pose a significant threat to standardized admissions tests,” said Michael Nietzel, president emeritus of Missouri State University, who writes frequently on higher education.

One in four institutions no longer requires these tests for admission, for example, Nietzel said. Combined with tutoring that wealthy families can afford, extra time their kids are more likely to get than lower-income classmates and downright cheating, he said, “they’ve lost their luster as a common yardstick.”

Every 10 days, on average, another university makes these tests optional for admission. Forty-one schools have jettisoned this requirement in the last year, the largest number ever.

Although a long shot, it would be “the grand prize” if California’s public universities went test-optional, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit organization focused on the misuse and overuse of standardized testing.

The University of Rochester took the middle ground and became “test-flexible” in 2011. That means students could submit Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate scores in lieu of the ACT or SAT.

In hundreds of cases, said Jonathan Burdick, the university’s vice provost for enrollment initiatives and dean of admissions and financial aid, after students were accepted based on other factors, their ACT or SAT score would show up and be put in their record.

“There wasn’t a basis to say that those tests scores would have made us make better or even different decisions,” Burdick said.

Students who were admitted on the basis of, say, their IB scores and later had low SAT scores submitted “have graduated in equivalent numbers to anybody else, in four years and in many cases with honors,” Burdick said. “Had we had the SAT it might have made us less likely to make the good decision.”

The university will go fully test-optional in the fall of 2020.

What really bothers Burdick is the “the distortion of two years of your life during high school,” studying for the ACT or SAT. “You could be spending that 60 hours or more doing test prep doing other, more meaningful things that actually are more productive for your life in the long run.”

More participants in the college admissions scandal that broke in March of 2019 have received sentences for their illegal conduct.

---A winemaker has been sentenced to 5 months in prison and fined $100,000

---A prominent attorney has been sentenced to 1 month in prison

---A couple who paid $125,000 to boost their daughter's SAT/ACT scores has been sentenced to 1 month in prison.