Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Apr 23, 2021

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has written an article regarding a recently-released study that examined the impact of the adoption of test optional policies over a decade.


This year, just about every competitive college -- and plenty of not-so-competitive ones -- went test optional (or test blind) in admissions. The push was the result of the pandemic, of course, and many of the newly test-optional colleges are leaving open the possibility that they will stay test optional. They will just need research, they say, on the impact of their decisions.

As it happens, last week a paper on the topic was published in the American Educational Research Journal. The paper, by Christopher T. Bennett, examined the impact of test-optional admissions on nearly 100 private colleges that adopted their policies between 2005-06 and 2015-16.

The findings associated test-optional policies with:

A 3-4 percent increase in Pell Grant recipients enrolled.
A 10-12 percent increase in first-time students from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds.
A 6-8 percent increase in first-time enrollment of women

Past studies have revealed similar findings (although the finding on women is new), but the study's release comes at a time when many colleges are anxious for such research. Bennett, who is finishing his doctoral degree at Vanderbilt University, did not receive any outside funding for the work.

Bennett said in an interview that he saw one difference between the colleges he studied and the colleges that have just admitted their first class of test-optional students: the time they prepared for the change.

Most colleges in the past that have switched to test optional have devoted years to the process, and they have planned carefully. That can't be said about all the colleges that switched in the last year.

Test optional "is a step in the right direction," he said. But if diversity is the goal, "they need a broader plan."

"People usually focus on what's no longer there -- the test scores," he said. But colleges need to look at everything involved in admissions and ask what serves a real purpose and what doesn't.

He also pointed to the impact of going test optional on women's enrollment.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute went test optional and experienced a surge -- 99 percent in applications and enrollments increased by 81 percent -- in women. Bennett said his study included some STEM-oriented colleges like WPI but many that were not STEM oriented, and they still had more women applying, being admitted and enrolling.

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes standardized testing, said via email that Bennett's study provides "statistical evidence that adopting ACT/SAT optional policies typically results in more applicants, better qualified applicants, and more diverse applicants of all sorts."

He added, "No one has ever claimed that test-optional policies are a 'magic bullet' that will instantaneously resolve all the problems of college admissions. But, particularly when combined with other initiatives to remove barriers to access, dropping ACT/SAT requirements is a proven way to enhance equity in undergraduate admissions."

ACT released a statement on the study. "Eliminating standardized testing does not address the systemic issues at the root of educational inequities in our education system. This research right-sizes expectations about test optional. Modest gains might occur, though major gains are unlikely," the statement said.

Anemona Hartocollis of The New York Times covers the impact that recent events have had on the demographics of the 2021 freshman class at elite universities:


Whether college admissions have changed for the long haul remains unclear. But early data suggests that many elite universities have admitted a higher proportion of traditionally underrepresented students this year — Black, Hispanic and those who were from lower-income communities or were the first generation in their families to go to college, or some combination — than ever before.

The growth in minority admissions at top schools, both private universities and state flagships, has been driven in part by an overall explosion in applications there. Although the total number of students applying to college this year increased only slightly (though slightly more for Black, Hispanic and Asian students than white ones), the number of applications to top schools increased drastically across the board — by 43 percent to Harvard and 66 percent to M.I.T., for example.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, freshman applications rose by 28 percent, and even more for racial minorities — by 48 percent for African-Americans, by 33 percent for Hispanic students and by 16 percent for American Indian students.

The easing of the reliance on standardized tests, which critics say often work to the advantage of more educated and affluent families who can afford tutors and test prep, was most likely the most important factor in encouraging minority applicants.

Schools had been dropping the testing requirement for years, but during the pandemic a wave of 650 schools joined in. In most cases, a student with good scores could still submit them and have them considered; a student who had good grades and recommendations but fell short on test scores could leave them out.

Gabriella Codrington, 17, a Black student at Bard, a selective public high school in New York City, submitted her SAT score only to her “safety” schools, like the University of Delaware and Temple University, where she thought it would help her application. She withheld it from more selective schools like Harvard, Michigan, Stanford and N.Y.U., emphasizing her grades and resilience in the face of cancer, now in remission. “It definitely gave me a bit more relief,” she said of the test-optional policy.

Neither her father, a doorman, nor her mother, a sales associate, went to college. She has been admitted to N.Y.U.

At N.Y.U., this year’s admitted class is about 29 percent Black or Hispanic students, up from 27 percent last year, and 20 percent first-generation students, up from 15 percent.

At Harvard, the proportion of admitted students who are Black jumped to 18 percent from 14.8 percent last year. If all of them enrolled, there would be about 63 more Black students in this year’s freshman class than if they were admitted at last year’s rate. Asian-Americans saw the second biggest increase, to 27.2 percent from 24.5 percent, which could be meaningful if a lawsuit accusing Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans is taken up by the Supreme Court.

The percentage of Black students offered a spot at the University of Southern California rose to 8.5 percent from 6 percent, and Latino students to 18 percent from 15 percent.

Nick Anderson of The Washington Post offers another look at the impact of the recent adoption of test optional policies at elite colleges and universities:


The chase for the Ivy League and other prestige colleges, a perennial object of global fascination, grew a few degrees more frenzied during the coronavirus pandemic as applications soared and acceptance rates plummeted to, in some cases, crazy-low single digits.

At 7 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, the eight private universities identified with the brand of the climbing vine released admission decisions for the entering fall class. New test-optional policies, in effect because the coronavirus clobbered ACT and SAT testing plans, had fueled a surge in applications as students worldwide said, in effect, “Why not me?”

Everyone figured the acceptance shares would get even more microscopic. And they did.

The numbers come with all kinds of caveats.

First, schools aren’t done making offers. They could (and some probably will) pull often from wait lists in this highly unpredictable year. Second, many students applied to several highly selective colleges, so there was significant overlap among applicants and admitted students.

Third, and perhaps most important, these and other ultracompetitive schools represent only a tiny sliver of higher education in the United States. Many colleges, public and private, offer excellent value with a lot less admission angst.

But it is the angst that fuels the fascination. Cornell’s admissions chief recognized that last year when he announced that the university in Ithaca, N.Y., would not immediately release acceptance rates.

“We’re doing this because we’d like to reduce the ‘metric mania,’ ” Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell, told the Cornell Daily Sun in March 2020. “Cornell being highly selective is not news, and the specific data for any given year doesn’t change or matter that much.”

Eventually, the rates come out through government data collection. Federal data show that for the fall 2019 entering class, the admit rate for Cornell was 11 percent. The rate has almost certainly fallen since then. Cornell’s application totals rose about a third this year.

How much the pandemic influences selective college admissions over the long term remains to be seen. The test-optional movement, which predates the pandemic, is gaining steam nationwide. Some schools are even going test-blind, meaning they don’t consider SAT or ACT scores at all.

For at least the next cycle, many will remain test-optional because this year’s high school juniors have continued to face significant educational disruptions, including uneven access to the SAT and the ACT. Without the hurdle of a test score requirement, that means application volume is likely to remain relatively steady.

Columbia’s applications were up a stunning 51 percent this year, and Harvard’s were up 42 percent. There were also double-digit increases at Brown (27 percent), Dartmouth (33 percent), Princeton (15 percent), the University of Pennsylvania (33 percent) and Yale (33 percent).

Another Scott Jaschik article titled "A Great Admissions Year, for Some" looks at the early returns regarding the admissions rates and the composition of the freshman class at some selective colleges and universities:


Not all of the most selective colleges have given out their acceptance letters yet -- the Ivy League will announce Tuesday evening -- but the trends are already clear. The pandemic has not hurt the colleges in admissions; it's helped them. It has sent them new applicants, new minority and first-generation applicants, and new attention. The results are starting to come in -- and they suggest that the most selective private and public institutions are going to have a very good year. What that means for all the other colleges remains to be seen.

Colby College admitted only 8 percent of the (record) 15,857 students who applied, down from 10 percent last year and 13 percent the year before. Despite the popularity of test-optional admissions (which Colby had as a policy before the pandemic), Colby received students with great test scores: the median ACT score is 34, and the median SAT score is 1520. Thirty-five percent of American students are people of color, and 11 percent are international students.

"Obviously, this had been the most challenging admissions year we have ever had, but we had a really strong strategy," said Matt Proto, vice president for enrollment and communications.

Colby is not alone. Williams College also admitted 8 percent of students this year, out of 12,500 applicants. The admit rate is down from 12 percent two years ago, the last class admitted before the pandemic.

Swarthmore College also had an 8 percent admit rate this year, down from 9 percent last year.

And if 8 percent seems impressive, consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which admitted just 4 percent of the 33,240 students who applied. That is a 66 percent increase in applicants in one year. The admit rate fell from 7 percent.

Larger universities tend to have slightly higher admit rates, but they are going down.

The University of Notre Dame admitted 1,771 students last week and earlier admitted 1,673 through a restrictive early program. The admit rate fell to a new record of 15 percent.

Emory University's admit rate (for Emory College) fell from 19 percent to 13 percent.

Among public flagship universities, there is also more competition to get in. The University of Virginia saw applications increase from 41,000 to 48,000 -- and offered admission to 21 percent.

At the University of Georgia, 39 percent of applicants were admitted this year, down from 46 percent last year.

Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore, said his college received 12 percent more applications this year than last.

He noted that despite the way the national press denigrates a liberal arts education, top liberal arts colleges continue to attract students.

At Emory, John F. Latting, associate vice provost and dean of admission, said there are fears that getting too selective could scare off applicants. "In most of America, it raises the intimidation factor," he said. "And that's not what we want."

Still, he said, Emory is planning for the next few years 5 percent increase each year in applications, with no increase in enrollment.

Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, said via email that the numbers are indeed good for the more selective colleges and universities. But he said, "We need to remember that although there was an 11 percent increase in applications submitted through the Common App, there was a less than 2 percent increase in the number of students applying. For the institutions with brand recognition, that meant record numbers of applications in the wake of COVID-related test optional policies. Yields will be lower and waitlist activity will likely be high, with -- pardon the expression -- a 'trickle down' impact on many less selective colleges and universities. I would guess that waitlists at institutions with admit rates in the single digits will hit record levels."

He added that "this does not portend well for lesser selective schools admitting, for example, 40 percent of their applicants vs 4 percent, not to mention those admitting 80 percent. Most of these schools did not receive record numbers of applicants, are admitting a higher percentage in order to enroll the class, have small or no waitlists, and will be subject to waitlist decisions of schools further up on the prestige scale. It is not a pretty picture."

In "A Test for the Test-Makers", Education Next offers a detailed look at the business strategies that the College Board and ACT, Inc. are implementing to remain relevant amidst the many challenges facing standardized testing. These include expansion into Asia, continued focus on testing elementary and junior high school students, and the creation of new products in response to objections to SAT/ACT.


Test-optional and test-blind admissions policies accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic would appear to imperil College Board’s SAT college-entrance exam, the rival ACT, and their respective parent organizations. This state of affairs follows years of complaints that the exams favor the affluent. And, in fact, both of the notoriously secretive testing companies face significant problems, including some not widely understood.

Reports of their demise, however, may be premature. Just because many colleges have stopped requiring the tests doesn’t mean students have stopped taking them. Even if the number of test takers does drop permanently, both the College Board and ACT have been quietly preparing for that possibility by finding new markets, introducing more products, and doubling down on the most successful of their existing services.

The College Board, based in Lower Manhattan near New York’s World Trade Center, is advancing into south and central Asia, where it’s building an alliance of universities that have agreed to accept the SAT in admissions and where it’s pushing its other tests, including the PSAT and Advanced Placement, or AP, exams. It’s been expanding the AP and moving versions of it and the PSAT into earlier grades. And it’s been locking in contracts with states and districts that have agreed to buy the SAT and administer it free to students on school days, a strategy pioneered by ACT that the College Board has stealthily co-opted.

The smaller Iowa City–based ACT, originally American College Testing, has been trying to diversify, buying up education companies and hiring international specialists to break into the trendy fields of personalized and adaptive learning. ACT’s goal is to deploy its longtime specialty of testing to assess how well primary- and secondary-school students are mastering a subject, and then provide lesson plans and homework assignments tailored to each student’s skill and knowledge level. ACT is also trying to get ahead of the potential decline of standardized testing. It has been gauging interest in such ideas as collecting student “superscores” for overworked admissions offices by combining grades, results on tests of “soft skills,” and a dashboard of student, neighborhood, and high-school characteristics.

The educational implications are as significant as they have been little noticed. Any new means of sorting applicants to colleges, on which both companies appear to be working, are likely to invite new kinds of scrutiny of their fairness. Both ACT and the College Board are finding ways to use assessments in earlier grades, most unrelated to college admission. ACT is also developing ways to help teachers identify their students’ strengths and weaknesses, harnessing technology to create true forms of long-sought personalized and adaptive learning. Workforce development offers other potential markets. And while the pandemic has taken a toll on both the ACT and SAT exams, the crisis has also demonstrated that consumers and policymakers aren’t ready to abandon the tests completely.

In the meantime, ACT and the College Board, both tax-exempt nonprofits, continue to maneuver in sophisticated ways usually more typical of private companies. Their balance sheets also resemble those of for-profit enterprises. In the years preceding the pandemic, the College Board and ACT had annual revenues of a combined $1.5 billion. Both seem determined to preserve their bottom lines.

Of the two companies, ACT is more vulnerable to the pushback against the tests, heavily dependent as it is on its principal product, the ACT, for most of its $400 million in revenues. It saw a steady decline in the number of test takers, to fewer than 1.8 million in 2019 from a peak of more than two million in 2016. And that was before the pandemic prompted a record nearly 1,700 colleges and universities to stop requiring the tests, at least temporarily, and forced ACT to close some of its testing centers and reduce capacity in others.

The number of students taking the SAT, by contrast, was rising in the years before the pandemic, to a record 2.2 million in the class of 2019—4 percent more than in the class of 2018—and even held steady among the members of the class of 2020, before crashing up against Covid restrictions. Even the pandemic didn’t stop more than a million students from taking the SAT in the summer and fall of 2020. Some families have been traveling to whatever open testing centers they can find, and tutoring and test-prep companies are reporting all-time-record business. In spite of new test-optional policies and all the challenges to finding and taking the tests, 46 percent of students who had applied by mid-March to enter college through the Common Application submitted standardized-test scores.

ACT, Inc, has agreed to pay $16 million to settle a class action lawsuit that alleged that the company had illegally disclosed the disability status of applicants to colleges.


George H. Wu, a federal judge of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, has approved the settlement of a class action against ACT. The testing company did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay $16 million to members of the class who live in California. The suit charged that ACT, in violation of the law, let colleges know about the disability status of some students.

Under the settlement, ACT cannot:

Provide any information on score reports for the ACT test "which discloses that the examinee received disability-related testing accommodations or that the examinee has a disability (including examinees self-identifying as having a disability)."

Include "any examinee’s answer to any question regarding disabilities on any score report for the ACT Test sent to any covered program, for any test taken in a college-reportable manner."

The pandemic has not only interrupted "national" SAT/ACT weekend test dates, but also the administration of the exams on a statewide and school district basis. Here are some news items regarding testing developments regarding SAT School Day and ACT state testing during 2021:

---Idaho (which pays for all students to take the SAT) plans to hold SAT School Day on schedule this year, after having moved it from spring to fall last year:


On April 13, 22,459 students will take the SAT — at state expense and during their normal day in high school. Another 600 students have signed up for an SAT makeup day.

Add it all up, and that means 97 percent of the state’s high school juniors will take advantage of Idaho’s “SAT Day.” But there’s no guarantee that these students will actually need the SAT under their belt — either to graduate from high school, or to get into the college of their choice.

At a taxpayer cost of about $1 million a year, SAT Day is part of a multimillion-dollar effort to improve the state’s stubbornly low college go-on rates.

SAT Day went by the wayside last spring, as Idaho high schools closed buildings at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. The state rescheduled SAT Day for the fall, and some 22,000 high school seniors took the state up on the offer.

Beyond April 13, however, SAT Day faces an uncertain future.

First off, it’s unclear whether the state will continue to require high school students to take a college-entrance exam. For thousands of Idaho high school students — even students who weren’t planning on college — SAT Day served one practical function: It provided a convenient and free way to take a placement exam and check off a graduation requirement.

During the pandemic, the State Board of Education has waived this requirement for the past two years, and the waiver covers the Class of 2021.

---The status of testing in Michigan (which, like Idaho, has a contract with the College Board to annually administer the SAT to all high school juniors) is unsettled, as some school districts have administered the SAT as scheduled, while others are delaying the test for several weeks.


The first day of SAT testing was set for Tuesday. However, the call for a voluntary 2-week pause has led to confusion among Michigan students, parents and schools.

Some districts are moving forward with testing, while some are waiting.

After districts were asked to pause following spring break last week, they were given last minute direction about what to do about the ACT, SAT and Pre-SAT testing that was set to start this week.

According to a press release from the state Department of Education, schools are allowed to use make-up testing days, which are April 27 and May 13. But testing coordinators -- the people who will give the test -- have been asked to fill out a survey sent Monday, April 12, and have it returned by Wednesday with how many new materials they think they’ll need. Education experts said not to worry as the college board that runs the SAT said they have it covered.

---In Ohio (where State law requires districts and community schools to administer the state-funded ACT or SAT to all grade 11 students), the Ohio Department of Education is offering an additional state-funded SAT administration date of May 18 for schools that cannot administer tests as scheduled in March and April as originally planned.

---Colorado (another SAT-contracted state) went forward with SAT testing on April 13, but due to attendance issues caused by the pandemic, another administration of the exam is planned for the fall of 2021: "In response to the suspension of in-person learning due to COVID-19, CDE and the College Board will support an optional, cost-free SAT administration for 12th grade students and PSAT/NMSQT administration for 11th grade students enrolled in Colorado schools this fall."

The Colorado state House recently voted to remove the requirement for the State's public colleges and universities to mandate the submission of SAT/ACT scores by applicants.

In Texas, The Senate of College Councils has voted to recommend making the University of Austin test optional.


The Senate of College Councils passed a resolution on Thursday urging the Office of Admissions to make standardized test scores permanently optional, making admissions more equitable.

Senate diversity coordinator Suseth Muñoz said standardized testing was created to keep certain populations out of higher education institutions.

“The history of standardized testing is very much racialized,” said Muñoz, an English, government, and youth and community studies junior.

Miguel Wasielewski, executive director of admissions, said admissions officers review applications holistically, including standardized test scores, high school rank and transcripts but no one aspect of the application is worth more than another.

“A holistic review is truly looking at everything and how it interacts together and produces a picture of what the student has accomplished and what they may be able to contribute to and benefit from here at UT-Austin,” Wasielewski said.

Wasielewski said UT will decide whether a test-optional admissions process will continue in the future if it is beneficial for the students.

“When a school relies on just that score and throws out all the other things, then you’re really limiting incorrectly yourself from having the right information to make that decision about whether or not the student can handle the work at your institution,” Wasielewski said.