Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Oct 02, 2020

Journalist and author Jeffrey Selingo has written an article for The Atlantic that asserts "The SAT and the ACT Will Probably Survive the Pandemic—Thanks to Students.”


Over the summer, more than 400 colleges decided to stop requiring the SAT or the ACT for admissions, because the pandemic had made taking the tests (or even finding a location to take them) so difficult. Some institutions, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, said their test-optional policy applied only to the high-school graduating class of 2021. Others, including Tufts University and the College of William & Mary, announced a three-year pause. A few jettisoned the tests permanently.

Whether standardized admissions tests will become yet another casualty of the pandemic is unclear. But even if the tests survive, the crisis is transforming their role for millions of anxious teenagers. Some elite colleges went test-optional begrudgingly and expect to return to their pre-pandemic requirements; for other top-ranked schools, there is no going back.

Being test-optional, though, is far different from not taking the scores into consideration at all. In making this move, colleges have created a muddled middle ground that confuses applicants and makes some distrustful of the whole process.

Indeed, even as the test-optional announcements were rolling out from universities this summer, something strange happened: Teenagers continued to sign up for the exams. One of them was Julia Peldunas. The Connecticut high-school senior’s first attempt at the SAT was canceled in mid-March, when she was a junior. Then another one was scrapped in late March, and so was a third try in June. The College Board, which oversees the SAT, said the cancellations in the spring displaced nearly a million juniors who, like Peldunas, planned to take the exam for the first time.

As the summer went on, every college on Peldunas’s list, including the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and the University of Virginia, dropped its testing requirement. Even so, Peldunas registered to take the SAT on August 29. But in mid-August, the school where Peldunas was meant to take the three-hour exam closed and canceled the test. Hundreds of other testing sites across the U.S. did the same, or reduced capacity. Half of the 400,000 students nationwide who were supposed to take the SAT in August couldn’t.

None of this has discouraged Peldunas, however. She’s scheduled to take the SAT in late September. I asked Peldunas why she is so determined to take a test. “The SAT is a rite of passage that’s been ripped away,” she told me. “I’ve been preparing for years.”

The herculean effort students and their families are making to take a test right now—driving to a testing center a state or two away, or even getting on a plane—illustrates the allure the exams have in our winner-take-all admissions culture. Even before the coronavirus, more than 1,000 schools made the SAT and the ACT optional for admission, a list that grew by the year. At the same time, the combined number of students taking the tests also continued to climb. In the high-school class of 2015, for instance, nearly 1.9 million students took the ACT and 1.7 million took the SAT. In the class of 2019, 1.8 million took the ACT, and among last year’s seniors, 2.2 million took the SAT.

Now, in a year when most seniors can’t take the test, some students believe that a score will tip the scales for them. “Optional means nothing to privileged kids,” Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder and principal of Compass Education Group, an academic-advising and test-prep firm, told me. “They interpret it as required. It doesn’t matter what the policy of a college is. It’s what’s happening in my local sphere. Are kids in my school, in my town, still trying to take a test? If so, I’m going to do everything I can to get a score.”

Test scores are just one of many factors schools consider in “holistic admissions.” But applicants have always placed far more weight on the tests than admissions have—something I observed while embedded in three different colleges for my book Who Gets In and Why. Holistic admissions, which attempt to measure qualities that aren’t quantifiable and are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations, are nearly ubiquitous among selective schools. The more selective the institution, the murkier its process can be. To students (and their parents) who find holistic admissions confusing and opaque, a test score is the one thing that is quantifiable. “For years we told families that testing isn’t the sole piece of data we make our decision on,” James Nondorf, the dean of college admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago, told me. “Then what’s the first question they ask after we say that: ‘What’s your average test score?’”

One factor about test scores that often goes unnoticed is the signaling power that published average scores have for the entire college-search industry. Although I saw a student with a 1570 get denied at Emory and one with an 1120 get in, what most people see is that Emory’s average admitted students have a score from 1390 to 1510. That range creates the entire context for counselors, students, and families. Is Emory a reach or a safety school? Should I even bother to apply?

As long as colleges offer an option that applicants think gives them a leg up, some teenagers will continue to look for every edge. But when the only students submitting scores are those well above the average, any meaning that published scores have is diminished. And that might be the moment when standardized tests die.

Forbes has published a comprehensive article titled "How the SAT Failed America", which considers the recent controversies surrounding the College Board and the SAT.


What has emerged from interviews with more than 75 sources, including 13 former highly placed College Board executives, all of whom asked not to be identified because they still work in education or related businesses in which the College Board wields considerable influence, is a picture of an organization under serious strain, run by an elitist, tone-deaf chief executive. After becoming CEO in 2012, Coleman turned the organization into a seemingly invincible cash machine. But 2020 has been its undoing. Some are now questioning the SAT’s long-term survival. Forbes estimates that thwarted spring and fall test dates have kept more than 1.5 million students from taking the SAT, resulting in as much as $200 million in lost revenue for the College Board.

The growing criticism of admissions tests is part of a larger debate about access to higher education in America. “College has become the capstone in an inequality machine that raises and perpetuates class and race hierarchies and sinks the lower classes,” writes Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in his 2020 book, The Merit Myth, which lays out the ways that America’s most selective colleges foster and perpetuate wealth disparity. Carnevale, an economist who served on commissions for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, says the College Board deserves some of the blame.

“It’s the evil empire,” he says. “The SAT is basically a dodge. . . . It provides a shiny scientific cover for a system of inequality that guarantees that rich kids go to the most selective college. It makes all that sound like science when it’s not.”

College Board’s student database, housed within its College and Career Opportunities & Enrollment division, is a profit gusher. In 2018 the unit produced more than $100 million in revenue with gross margins of 41%.

When nervous young test takers sit down for their exams, proctors are instructed to read from a script that informs them that if they provide personal details, they’ll receive valuable information about scholarships and colleges. Most sign up, and for 47 cents per test taker, the College Board “leases” student data, including ethnicity, religion, gender and their parents’ educational backgrounds, to colleges and other third parties. The practice initiates an onslaught of promotional mailings and brochures that students’ families must endure in the years leading up to admission. (Late last year, a class action suit was filed in federal court in Illinois, claiming the College Board is violating the state’s child privacy laws and using deceptive practices to enrich itself. The College Board points out that a similar suit was dismissed several years ago.)

The PSAT and SAT exams are loss leaders, in a sense, steering students to other opportunities on which the College Board can cash in.

Many think [The University of] California’s recent actions mark the beginning of the end of the iconic SAT. “UC’s decision was huge,” says Angel B. Pérez, new head of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization with 14,000 members. “It’s only a matter of time before other public systems follow suit.” Pérez’s previous job was head of enrollment at Trinity College, a private liberal arts school in Hartford, Connecticut, that stopped requiring tests in 2015. His prediction about schools that have switched to test-optional policies during the pandemic: “They’re going to learn how to do admissions without the tests.”

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed examines the recent cancellations of SAT and ACT test administrations that have been compromising college application plans and greatly increasing stress levels.


Of the 334,000 students registered to take the SAT on Sept. 26, 183,000 will not be able to take the test. And of the 363,000 registered to take the SAT or the SAT Subject Tests on Oct. 3, 154,000 will be unable to do so.

The students were told that they couldn't take the test because testing centers -- most of them in high schools -- were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic or had imposed new limits on students. The College Board, which run the exams, released information about the center closures and limited space Tuesday. Most students had already been notified but would not have known how many students were turned away.

Of test centers initially scheduled to administer the tests, 61 percent are open for September and 65 percent are currently open for October, though some have reduced capacity.

The closures and limited space issues follow similar problems that occurred during the August SAT, when 402,000 students were registered to take the exam or SAT Subject Tests, but 178,600 were unable to do so because so many testing centers had closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While it is true that most colleges are abandoning -- at least for this year -- SAT/ACT requirements for students, demand to take the tests is still high. Many students assume (despite what many colleges say) that their chances for admission will be reduced if they don't take the exams.

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a long-standing critic of standardized testing, said via email, "Plaudits to the College Board for, at least, an attempt at transparency in providing interim data on the number of tests cancelled -- ACT should follow suit so admissions offices and other stakeholders clearly understand the difficulties prospective applicants face."


Susan Adams of Forbes has written an article regarding the abrupt cancellation of SAT/ACT testing dates and the resulting stress experienced by students and parents:


Eight months into the pandemic, the College Board, the Manhattan-based nonprofit that owns the SAT, is still struggling to give the college entrance exam and to keep would-be test takers informed. ACT, its Iowa City, Iowa-based competitor, has also canceled multiple test dates, frustrating and angering students and families.

One teenager flew from Tokyo to Boston to take the test in March only to learn that it had been canceled. Another reported having her SAT canceled five times. She contacted her October 3 test center directly and was told capacity would be limited. But as of this Thursday, College Board hadn’t told her whether she would have a seat this coming Saturday.

After her son’s March SAT was canceled, a California parent says she spent nine hours on hold trying to register him for another location. In an email yesterday she said that her son’s September 26 SAT was canceled on September 25, “and we have no faith that October will happen.” Her son has decided to give up trying to take the test. “There is really no other choice,” she wrote.

The College Board has said that at least 1.5 million students have missed the test because of cancellations but the total is likely much higher. Its latest press release includes the following statement: “Colleges understand that testing opportunities are limited this year, and most are not requiring a test score for the upcoming admissions cycle.”

In an offshoot to the Operation Varsity Blues colleges admissions scandal that broke in March of 2019, Forbes reports that a recently-released audit conducted by the state of California has revealed that the University of California system “unfairly” admitted at least 64 applicants based on “personal or family connections to donors and university staff” during between 2013 and 2019.


A California state audit released Tuesday found that the University of California system “unfairly” admitted at least 64 applicants based on “personal or family connections to donors and university staff” during the past six years, concluding a probe started in response to the 2019 national college admissions scandal at prestigious universities, including two UC schools.

The auditors reviewed UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara applications from 2013 to 2019 and found that by admitting 64 “noncompetitive applicants” the university “undermined the fairness and integrity of its admissions process and deprived more qualified students of the opportunity for admission.”

Campuses accepted 22 of the students through their student-athlete admissions processes even though the students “did not have the athletic qualifications to compete at the university.”

UC Berkeley admitted the remaining 42 students, most of whom were referred to the admissions office because of their “families’ histories as donors or because they were related or connected to university staff, even though their records did not demonstrate competitive qualifications for admission.”

The 2020 SAT national testing report has been released by The College Board. According to the report, a total of 2,198,460 high school graduates from the class of 2020 took the current SAT during high school. This figure represents a decline of about 1% from the previous year.

[Excerpts from the press release]:

Nearly 1.1 million students in the class of 2020 took the SAT on a school day, up from almost 1 million in the class of 2019, and 49% of the class of 2020 took the SAT on a school day, compared to 43% of the class of 2019.

The average SAT score is down slightly for the class of 2020—1051 compared to 1059 for the class of 2019. Holding steady from last year, 45% of SAT takers in the class of 2020 met or exceeded both the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) and Math college readiness benchmarks, indicating a high likelihood for success in credit-bearing college coursework.

New York Times writer Emma Goldberg decided to subject herself to the ordeal of taking an SAT during the pandemic.


The efforts required to administer the SAT in a pandemic are extensive. We wore our masks the whole time, applied hand sanitizer feverishly and did our best to keep six feet away from one another in the hallways. Above a row of red lockers, I caught sight of a sign that read: “Determine that the thing shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” The quote was attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but it certainly applied to the College Board, as well as the students.

The stakes are also lower for most this year, because many colleges are not requiring SAT scores. I wondered why thousands of students were voluntarily undertaking the stress of the test. Some told me their parents insisted they sign up; others suspected a score might still help their admissions prospects.

Experts I spoke with also pointed out that taking the SAT has become a rite of passage, as essential to the high school experience as prom. Nobody likes it, but everyone endures it. It’s like a nationwide team bonding exercise — and in spite of themselves, teenagers don’t want to miss out.

After the test, we poured out of classrooms and into the parking lot. I turned to a fellow test-taker to ask how he felt. “There’s this concept in psychology called learned helplessness,” said Nikola Kasarskis, 17, from nearby Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “Unless we are trained for a particular crisis, we roll over and let it hit us. When I woke up this morning, that’s how I felt.”