Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Dec 29, 2020

US News offers an article looking at the impact of the pandemic on testing and admissions policy from the perspective of students and colleges, with quotes from officials from the College Board and ACT, inc., as well as from Bob Schaeffer of FairTest.


Since the pandemic hit, the number of colleges requiring the ACT and SAT has dramatically decreased, notes Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, which has long fought to reduce the role of standardized testing in college admissions.

"Pre-pandemic there were 1,070 schools that were test-optional – one of whom was test-blind. Now there are 1,686, including 68 that are test-blind for fall 2021," Schaeffer says.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, provided a statement to U.S. News that acknowledged the changing nature of testing policies.

"Colleges are rightfully emphasizing flexibility for the admissions process for this cycle; in the longer term as the admissions process is able to stabilize post-Covid-19, we will support our higher ed members as they implement permanent policies," part of the statement reads.

It adds: "The College Board's mission isn't to ensure all colleges require the SAT, it's to expand access to college for more students and help them succeed when they get there. Whether required for admission or not, SAT scores help colleges create data-driven programs to ensure admitted students get the supports they need to graduate."

But a question that looms large is: Does test-optional really mean test-optional? Or will colleges still pressure students to submit ACT or SAT scores as part of their application? The answer may depend on the college.

"Some colleges have been asking students who are not submitting test scores why they are not submitting, and that is not a genuinely test-optional program," [Ginger] Fay [director of independent educational consultant engagement at Applerouth Tutoring Services] says. "Because you're holding it against a student if they have scores that they're holding back, versus a student who genuinely was not able to test."

To assure students that test-optional policies really are in place, more than 500 colleges signed a statement in August from the National Association for College Admission Counseling to confirm their commitment to these policies. Signatories to the statement can be found on the NACAC website.

Even as the test-optional movement surges, testing critics acknowledge that it may make sense for applicants to take the ACT and SAT. "They could opt out if they want. There are plenty of colleges now that are test-optional and you don't need to play the game," Schaeffer says.

But, he adds, that decision can become more complicated depending on how many schools a student applies to, given the likely variance in testing policies.

"The odds are that one of the schools on that list will probably still require a test."

USA Today examines the continual impression among many college-bound students that taking SAT/ACT exams (and doing so multiple times if necessary to obtain the highest scores possible) remains a crucial part of their college applications, despite the widespread adoption of test optional policies due to the pandemic.


Many higher education administrators insist students don’t need an ACT or SAT score to be admitted to college this year. So why the skepticism?

Much of the college application process has long seemed veiled and uncertain to families. A high test score may seem like a concrete indicator of a student’s ability to get into a college with acceptance rates in the single digits. And some families and students have questioned why colleges have simply said the exams are optional. Why not say they won’t consider test scores at all?

In the Facebook group Paying for College 101, parents have been asking how “optional” the tests actually are.

“I do think parents believe test-optional colleges when they communicate that students without test scores will be competitive applicants,” said Debbie Schwartz, founder and operator of the Facebook group. “But there’s still skepticism whether students with a test score will have an advantage over a student without a test score.”

Colleges say they know students likely won’t have easy access to the exams, and the admissions officers interviewed by USA TODAY said they would never encourage students to put their safety at risk to take a test.

At the same time, they said they don’t want to penalize students who may have already taken a test and who believe it may benefit them. And they insist “optional” does, in fact, mean optional.

“We put out statements, and a bunch of people signed letters,” said Rick Clark, the director of admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s obviously not resonating.”

That's true for millions of students nationally based on testing numbers from the ACT and College Board.

Since April, more than 1 million people have taken the ACT, said John Wannemacher, the ACT's chief marketing officer. And 1 million students have taken the SAT since August, the College Board said this month.

"While a number of schools have gone test-optional, it hasn't been very clear to parents and students what that actually means," Wannemacher said. Plus, he said, some students rely on high test scores to help round out their applications, especially those who might have weaker grades in high school.

When coronavirus restrictions are lifted, some colleges are likely to reinstate their testing requirements. Plenty of others will keep the tests optional, permanently — giving students and families lots of options if they decide their patience for exams has been tested enough.

Deirdre Fernandes of The Boston Globe has written an article examining the continued perception among college-bound students that despite the widespread suspension of SAT/ACT requirements by US colleges and universities due to the pandemic, their chances of admission still hinge on taking these tests. The article also details the advantages students from more affluent homes have in traveling in order to assure that they can take the tests at a time when many test centers are closed.


More than 1,650 colleges across the country have announced they would not require SAT or ACT scores for this year’s high school seniors, up from 1,050 test-optional schools before the pandemic, but students and families remain deeply skeptical. Many still believe taking the tests will give them an edge not just for admissions, but for merit aid and scholarships.

“They don’t believe optional is optional,” said Bob Bardwell, director of school counseling at Monson High School and executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. “They don’t trust the process.”

And the limited number of testing sites — due to school closings and capacity limitations meant to curb the spread of the virus — has further fueled anxiety about the already stressful tests. Some families have driven hundreds of miles and crossed state lines for a coveted testing spot. Savvy test prep tutors and school guidance counselors have been able to score students open seats or pass along tips about “pop-up” sites, such as hotels, where the ACT is being administered.

Students who can afford to travel and those in suburban districts that have more staff to help administer a test with new safety requirements are more likely to have access, Bardwell said.

For Beatriz Holzbach, a 17-year-old senior from Winthrop [in Massachusetts], a chance to improve her ACT scores before applying to college was worth the trip to Bath, Maine, in September. She, her younger sister, and her father made the 140-mile drive after taking tests for COVID-19 and abiding by Maine’s out-of-state travel rules.

The experience was far from ideal: Holzbach wore a mask and sat at a table 6 feet from the next student in a cold high-school gymnasium.

Still, Holzbach is home-schooled and having a standardized test score is a chance to show her academic aptitude and stand out among other applicants with more traditional grades and experiences.

Several weeks ago, Holzbach was offered a full tuition scholarship that significantly weighed standardized test scores. “So yeah, it’s worth a drive,” said her father, Robert Holzbach.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed continues to report on the inability of students to actually take SAT exams, despite being registered to do so:


About 383,000 students registered to take the SAT or SAT Subject Tests on Saturday. But because local test centers decided to close or reduce capacity due to COVID-19-related health and safety measures, 124,000 December-registered students are unable to test as of Nov. 30, with the remaining 259,000 able to test. Of test centers initially scheduled to administer the tests, 67 percent are currently open for December, though some have reduced capacity, 11 percent of open centers are at capacity and 33 percent of centers announced they are closed.

Despite the statements by many selective colleges and universities regarding their "holistic" approach to admissions, top schools still admit and enroll students near the top of the SAT/ACT testing percentiles, as shown in this list of the top 25 US colleges by SAT score just compiled by US News. All 25 of the schools on the list have average SAT scores at the 96th percentile or higher among all students who took at least one SAT.

Inside Higher Ed has published an article by Bill Conley and Bob Massa of the consulting firm Enrollment Intelligence Now regarding the impact that the mass adoption of test optional policies will likely have on the admissions process going forward.


We foresee a long-term structural change in the role of standardized testing in college admissions. One of our university colleagues likened College Board and ACT as the big cruise ships of the enrollment management business. The recruitment, selection and ranking of colleges have long depended on standardized testing to keep the system afloat. Perhaps Carnival Cruise Lines may sail at full capacity sometime in the future, but we anticipate that the pandemic-related impacts on standardized testing will fundamentally change their role in college admissions for decades to come.

For decades, the purchasing of student test-taker names has been fueling college recruitment’s time-honored funnel. Able to select on multiple criteria from test score to academic interest to ethnicity and more, colleges populated the top of the funnel with tens of thousands of “pre-qualified” prospects. By one estimate, the College Board sold nearly 2.5 million names to over 1,600 colleges and scholarship in 2019; at 47 cents per name, that is a decent income stream. Meanwhile, colleges built continually more sophisticated communication campaigns to move these prospects down the funnel into applicants, admits and enrollees.

It is likely that the demand for testing will decrease significantly in the aftermath of a pandemic-driven move away from requiring standardized testing for admission. College Board and ACT income will suffer, and colleges will need to look elsewhere for prospects.

For over 40 years in college admission, we relied on the tried and true admission equation: high school rigor + grades + test scores + personal qualities = student excellence. But truth be told, at the highly selective institutions we were privileged to serve, test scores took on a disproportionate role in the final decisions. Blessed with strong, self-selecting applicant pools, test results often became the differentiators.