Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Mar 31, 2021

Melissa Korn and Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal assess the recent dramatic changes in the college admissions process in their article, "College Admission Season Is Crazier Than Ever. That Could Change Who Gets In."


Ivy League schools and a host of other highly selective institutions waived SAT and ACT requirements for the class of 2025, resulting in an unprecedented flood of applications and what may prove the most chaotic selection experiment in American higher education since the end of World War II.

The question hanging over higher education this month is whether this influx will permanently change how colleges select students and, ultimately, the makeup of the student population.

Interviews with college-admissions officials and public and private high-school counselors point to an epic effort behind the scenes to make tough judgment calls at the highest speed. Colleges send out the bulk of their decision notices in March and early April, but it won’t be widely known how the incoming freshman classes will look until late summer or early fall. Added to the uncertainty will be whether students who deferred enrollment during the last admissions cycle will decide to enter school this year.

With less focus on standardized tests scores, which numerous studies have shown are correlated with family wealth, that could mean accepting more low-income students from under-resourced high schools. Colleges say that without SAT or ACT results they’ll give greater weight to teacher recommendations and signs of intellectual curiosity, and judge candidates in the context of their environments.

The pandemic “is calling on us to walk the talk,” when it comes to thinking more broadly about assessing applicants, said Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth saw a 33% rise in applications after it waived standardized test scores this year.

Mr. Coffin says he is conflicted about going test-optional. Before the pandemic Dartmouth considered standardized test scores to be among the most important information alongside grade point average, essays and class rank. Seeing strong scores helps his team feel more confident that admitted students could cut it at the Ivy League institution. “It becomes a moral question,” he said. “I don’t want to admit someone who is going to struggle.”

Some veterans in the field are skeptical that waiving standardized tests alone will have a big impact. Sam Bigelow, director of college counseling at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., said some underrepresented students may get a boost without borderline test scores holding them back.
“But I don’t think it’s tipping the scale on access and equity,” he said. “More than anything else it’s just making these applicant pools disturbingly big. It’s by and large just making more kids for them to reject.”
Students who don’t submit test scores could be considered riskier if they are applying from a high school that doesn’t have a history of sending students to a particular college, Mr. Bigelow said, noting that it isn’t obvious whether straight-A’s in a middling high school translate into an ability to handle work at rigorous colleges.

State legislators and educators in Colorado are moving towards changing current state rules that require colleges and universities to consider SAT/ACT scores for applicants:


Pressure on students to ace their SATs and ACTs would ease under legislation aimed at giving Colorado colleges and universities the choice — rather than a mandate — to consider scores on the national standardized tests in their admissions processes.

All of the state’s public, four-year higher-education institutions are backing House Bill 21-1067, which would revise the state statute requiring public Colorado colleges and universities to consider first-time freshmen’s SAT or ACT scores during admissions.

Instead, students could choose whether to submit those scores or not.

The bill cleared its first hurdle this week, passing out of the House Education Committee on a 7-2 vote Thursday, with Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, and Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, dissenting. During hours of testimony from students, local university admissions employees and education experts, nobody spoke in opposition to the bill.

College administrators support doing away with the requirement, arguing that not only are there better measures of a student’s future collegiate success, but that reliance on the test scores is an equity issue, favoring students with the means to pay for tutoring, preparation and multiple test opportunities and placing a barrier in front of marginalized students’ college careers.

“To the traditionally underserved students that reside in Colorado — from Pell-eligible to rural to maybe a low performer on tests — test scores present an artificial barrier,” said Clark Brigger, executive director of admissions at the University of Colorado Boulder. “By allowing higher education to go test-optional, it’s still a student’s prerogative to use a test score or not. It only advantages students.”

The Hechinger Report offers a look at the continued advantage that legacy students have in college admissions, even amid a dramatic increase in applications to selective colleges driven by the widespread adoption of test optional policies:


Few elite colleges in the midst of choosing their freshman classes like to admit how often they give preference to legacy applicants, a practice that largely benefits higher-income students and by some estimates can double or even quadruple an applicant’s chances of getting in.
That’s why I should not have been surprised that most colleges I asked about this wouldn’t talk about it or release their data. They have reasons: giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni who can most afford to pay clearly benefits colleges, and is not something they want to broadcast when the pandemic is complicating budgets and enrollment predictions.

Hard as I tried, I could not find out how many legacy applicants were accepted early decision this year at some of the most sought-after colleges in the country, even though decisions were made by December. Most claimed they did not have this information available, including Yale University, Harvard University, Duke University, Stanford University, Hamilton College, Amherst College and Cornell University, among others.

“Colleges are kind of in a bind about this,” Richard Kahlenberg, author of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences for College Admissions, and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told me. “I’m not surprised that they don’t want to talk about it.”

Neither is Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University and the author of The Diversity Bargain. “I really don’t understand why it hasn’t ended already, because it is so absurd,” Warikoo told me. “It kind of destroys the legitimacy of admissions. We say it’s a meritocracy and fair, but clearly it is not.”

There are arguments on the other side, too. While legacy admission policies overwhelmingly benefit white, wealthy students whose parents can afford full tuition or can give donations, the practice can also build the kind of loyalty and enduring connections that help colleges over the long run.

And admitting legacy students also helps fund scholarships, said Angel Pérez, chief executive officer of NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which just formed a commission on redesigning admission and financial aid through a racial equity lens.

“If I am sitting in the [admissions] chair, I would not be doing away with legacy, because all of my goals to admit more low-income kids would be in jeopardy,” said Pérez, who previously oversaw admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut and Pitzer College in California. Legacy admissions foster lifelong loyalties and are a direct result of the way colleges are financed, with so much dependence on tuition revenue, he added.

So, while there are many good reasons to talk about eliminating legacy admissions, Pérez of NACAC admits that colleges really have little incentive to do so. After all, who wants to face the wrath of generous alumni and watch their dollars go elsewhere?

“It’s extremely complicated,’’ Pérez said. “There is a secret handshake between institutions and alums: you be faithful to us and we will be faithful to you.”

As reported by Market Watch, early admissions statistics for the spring of 2021 among selective colleges show widely varying degrees of test score submission by admitted students:


Highly selective private colleges and top state universities have seen applications skyrocket.

Almost everyone agrees on the reason: Colleges and universities went test-optional this year because of the obstacles COVID19 put on high-school students’ ability to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Testing (ACT) standardized tests. (The College Board, which administers the SAT, also eliminated SAT subject tests for good.)

When those tests were no longer required, kids whose low scores used to prevent them from getting into schools like Yale or Vanderbilt now gave it a shot, applications boomed, and overwhelmed admissions departments pushed back decision day by a week or two. (Less-prestigious private colleges and some state universities like the 23 California State University campuses actually saw applications decline, however.)

Did it work? For some it surely did, but taking the tests and submitting the scores often was the better choice for kids to get into the top schools. The University of Pennsylvania reported that three out of every four students who were accepted through early admissions submitted test scores. At Georgetown University, that number was 93%.

On the other hand, more than half of those admitted early to Tufts and 71% of those who got early acceptances at Boston University did not submit test scores.

Several college counselors I’ve spoken with told me the more selective institutions still expect kids in private schools and competitive urban and suburban high schools to take the tests.

“Between two students with the exact same profiles, if one submits the SAT or ACT scores and the other does not, I believe that the school will always favor the student who submits the scores,” said [CEO and co-founder of H&C Education, a Boston-based educational consulting firm [Pierre] Huguet.

That’s true for now, but with so much up for grabs, it may not be in the future.

CNN offers a look at how the pandemic and the mass adoption of test optional policies have impacted students from lower economic backgrounds:


Applying to college is stressful in normal times, but this year, students felt the extra stress of having to deal with pandemic-related restrictions that made many of the usual steps, like working with high school counselors, visiting campuses, and in-person interviews, nearly impossible, college admissions officers say.

Many students today "aren't getting access to ... counselors to support them through the college application process and the financial aid application process," says Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "We have had such deep inequities within our higher education system over the years and the pandemic has brought them into stark relief," she continued.

Recognizing the added burden on students, many colleges have made standardized testing, like the SAT, optional. But this move, while making things easier for students, resulted in a massive surge in applications at some selective colleges.

"You might find more students applying to an Ivy League or a school like NYU because they feel like they have a chance (now that test scores are optional)," says MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for Enrollment Management at New York University. NYU saw a 20% spike in applications this year. Harvard had a 42% increase and Colgate University received more than double (102%) the applications this year than last.

But Voight says these eye-popping numbers are the exception, not the norm. "The vast majority of students are enrolled at more ... broader access larger public colleges across the country," she says. "And for those institutions, they're not seeing the same types of spikes in applications that the really selective schools are seeing."

In fact, many colleges are seeing the opposite. Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, with a student body that is 40% first-generation college students, saw a 10% enrollment drop last fall, and a further 18% drop this spring.

Application data shows a similar trend throughout the country. "One of the measures for how many students are applying for college next year is ... financial aid applications," says Voight. "Those data are showing that the number of new students is down by almost 10% for next year. And the largest declines are in schools with high proportions of low-income students or students of color, again, deepening the inequities in college access that existed before the pandemic."

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post considers the current state of college admissions testing and admission in an article titled, "The futility of standardized testing in a crazy pandemic year", which provides the text of an op-ed by Wayne Au, a professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington at Bothell.


Schooling during the pandemic has been anything but standardized or objective. While the trauma of the pandemic has been hard on most everyone, economic and health disparities associated with covid-19 have hit poor people and communities of color the hardest.

This means that working-class students and students of color are experiencing pandemic hardships disproportionately: They are more likely to have gotten sick from covid-19, more likely to have lost a relative to covid-19, more likely to have experienced hunger or homelessness due to covid-19, and more likely to be juggling child care and other family responsibilities due to covid-19.

Similarly, we also know that access to technology and reliable Internet service, among other crucial pieces of educational infrastructure during the pandemic, have been inequitable for students of color and poor students.

Individual students taking standardized tests in completely non-standardized environments would produce incomparable and totally subjective scores.

Even if all students and teachers are forced by federal or state decree to return to some amount of face-to-face instruction this spring, there is still no standardized test that will render any valid or objective data for comparison, because the inequitable conditions of our students’ lives and learning have been anything but standard.

This school year has been a year like no other. Given the vast disparities of resources, participation and conditions of education during the pandemic, the results of any high-stakes standardized testing would be invalid — and the act of administering them would be an exercise in futility.

Netflix has debuted a film (a mix of documentary film segments and re-enactments) covering the massive college admissions scandal Operation Varsity Blues.