Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Mar 08, 2021

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed provides statistics regarding the impact that the pandemic and the widespread adoption of test optional policies has had on the submission of SAT/ACT scores among students using the Common Application versus last year's figures.


Only 44 percent of those who applied to college through the Common Application through Feb. 15 submitted SAT or ACT scores. That represents a substantial decline from last year (comparing only colleges that used the Common App both years), when the total through Feb. 15, 2020, was 77 percent.

A memo to Common App members from Jenny Rickard, CEO of the Common App, said that "not surprisingly, given the difficulties students faced in accessing testing sites during the pandemic and members’ flexible policies around test score submission, the share of applications submitted with test scores fell significantly from the prior year."

The Common App processes applications from more than one million students a year.

Most colleges that went test optional before the pandemic have said that between a quarter and a third of applicants don't submit scores. So if the numbers hold, they will represent a major change in the way students apply to college and the way colleges evaluate applicants, at least temporarily.

These reductions in the number of applicants submitting scores are larger than testing companies have wanted to see or have speculated would take place.

ACT last week admitted a decline, but Janet Godwin, ACT's CEO, blogged that the colleges that still do look at test scores said they were using them in admissions decisions "despite the 20 to 30 percent decrease in students sending test scores."

ACT, in response to the new data, issued a statement. "These figures are disappointing, particularly for our students from underserved backgrounds who already face barriers to postsecondary success. Test scores are an important piece of the admissions puzzle. They convey a wealth of information beyond a number from 1-36 that helps colleges and institutions understand a student’s needs to better support them through each step of the college journey, academically and socially and emotionally," the statement said.

[Robert Schaeffer of FairTest] said that "some observers expected a diffusion-of-innovation delay in students applying without ACT-SAT scores until they (and their counselors, parents, etc.) were more confident that test-optional policies were legit. The Common App report shows their concerns were not justified."

Added Schaeffer, "The bottom line is that going ACT/SAT optional is a win-win for both institutions and applicants. That is why so many schools that temporarily suspended testing requirements for fall 2021 have already extended that policy to fall 2022 and, frequently, beyond."

A follow-up article by Scott Jaschik titled "ACT Admits That Test-Optional Admissions Isn't Going Away" focuses on recent comments made by the CEO of ACT, Inc. Janet Godwin.


Janet Godwin, ACT's CEO, published a blog post Thursday that admitted that test-optional admissions policies are likely here to stay.

"It is somewhat unlikely that institutions who adopted temporary or pilot test use policies in response to COVID will return to test-required in the near term," she wrote.

Those words are not a surprise to the hundreds of colleges that have gone test optional in the last year, as the pandemic made it much more difficult to take the ACT (or the SAT). But the acknowledgment is a stark concession by the testing company that the current trend lines will not be reversing any time soon.

Godwin said the analysis was based on a report that ACT commissioned from EY-Parthenon, which conducts a lot of work in higher education. Godwin said it "wanted to learn from our colleagues in higher education about how they are using ACT test data for admissions, what they value as they seek to evaluate applicants, and how ACT can better work alongside them to ensure a fair and equitable testing and admissions process."

She said the growth in test-optional policies was steady prior to March 2020, but "the global pandemic resulted in an abrupt and significant spike in test optional policy adoption."

These "temporary COVID-driven policy changes were most often made abruptly and in response to the immediate pressures presented by the pandemic," she said. "These adoptions were much less deliberate than test optional policy adoptions seen before March of 2020."

The report said that test-blind admissions (in which colleges will not look at test scores prior to admission or consider them to determine acceptance of applicants) is unlikely to spread, although some colleges -- most notably those that are part of the University of California system -- have embraced it.

"The research suggests that rapid test blind expansion is quite unlikely. Schools regard test score data as too useful to abandon altogether, and they report that they feel students should be allowed to submit test scores if they wish to do so," Godwin wrote.

In the full report, which ACT released to Inside Higher Ed, ACT estimated that half of four-year colleges were test optional before the pandemic, and that another 30 percent transitioned to test optional during the pandemic.

"Test-optional institutions are unlikely to return to test-required, although COVID-driven institutions note uncertainty in determining future policies," the report says. The key will be the first class being admitted now without required tests, it says.

"We, along with our faculty, are watching our results for this year closely," an unnamed public college admissions official says in the report. "We feel good, but we may balk at the results and go right back to requiring tests."

And the report notes that "many institutions have implemented test-optional policies without encountering significant pain points, particularly those that became test-optional prior to COVID-19."

Eric Hoover of The Chronicle of Higher Education offers an analysis of the ACT-commissioned study mentioned above.


Most colleges that temporarily suspended their ACT and SAT requirements during the pandemic do not plan to reinstate them. But a mass movement to adopt test-blind policies — in which colleges remove scores from evaluations of all applicants — is unlikely in the near future.

Those are two key takeaways from a new report commissioned by ACT Inc., which owns the ACT exam. The findings — based on survey responses from 207 enrollment officials at a mix of public and private institutions — provide a snapshot of how Covid-19 turned the testing realm upside down, forcing colleges to adapt their policies and practices for the 2020-21 admissions cycle. Yet, as the report makes clear, many colleges rely on ACT and SAT scores for many purposes that go well beyond evaluations of applicants. That complicates predictions about the role of testing in higher education a few years down the road.

More than two-thirds of officials at colleges with Covid-driven test-optional policies said “scores are too useful to abandon altogether.”

Though a long-term move to test-optional policies was well underway before last March, school shutdowns and testing cancellations forced many institutions to adopt test-optional policies for at least a year out of necessity. About 60 percent of respondents had no plans to drop ACT and SAT requirements before the pandemic; the rest either planned to do or were seriously considering it. A majority of colleges that moved to test-optional appear unlikely to reinstate their requirements, the report says, though “data from the next few years will be critical to understanding whether test-optional policies are tenable.”

Colleges rely on test scores throughout the enrollment process. More than 60 percent of respondents said their college uses the ACT and SAT to a moderate or considerable degree in the “sourcing and recruitment” of students. Just under 60 percent said they use test scores to a moderate or considerable degree in determining merit scholarships.

The New York Times examines another result of the pandemic and the mass adoption of test optional policies: "Interest Surges in Top Colleges, While Struggling Ones Scrape for Applicants."


Prestigious universities like Cornell never have a hard time attracting students. But this year, the admissions office in Ithaca, N.Y., is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, driven mostly by the school’s decision not to require standardized test scores during the coronavirus pandemic.

But while selective universities like Cornell and its fellow Ivy League schools have seen unprecedented interest after waiving test scores, smaller and less recognizable schools are dealing with the opposite issue: empty mailboxes.

The nation’s most-selective four-year institutions, both public and private, saw a record-breaking 17 percent increase in applications this year, according to the Common App. Small liberal arts schools felt a boon, with applications to Haverford and Swarthmore increasing by 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively. So did large state schools like the University of California, Los Angeles, where freshman applications increased 28 percent.

Applications to the primary campus at Penn State, a Big Ten School, increased by 11 percent. Harvard saw a whopping 42 percent spike, while Colgate University in upstate New York received 103 percent more applications.

But smaller or less recognizable institutions, both public and private, saw precipitous declines.

Applications fell by 14 percent at the State University of New York, the largest public college system in the country. At Portland State in Oregon, freshman applications were down 12 percent and transfers down 28 percent. Loyola University Maryland, a private liberal arts school in Baltimore, has seen a 12 percent drop in total applications, even after extending its deadline by two weeks.

The declines come at a time when colleges and universities have been battered financially by the coronavirus, with estimated losses of more than $120 billion from plunging enrollment and dried-up revenue streams like food services and athletic events.

While Cornell and its peers enjoy their bounty, the state systems and less-selective private schools that educate the majority of U.S. college graduates are bracing for long-term distress if the drop in applications leads to depressed enrollment and lower tuition revenue.

For those seeking information on which colleges and universities are test optional, FairTest maintains comprehensive lists.