Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Jun 25, 2021

Writer and consultant John Warner wonders on his blog at Inside Higher Ed, "Without the SAT, What Else Could We Do?"


I have been encouraged recently at the prospect that using the SAT/ACT as a basis for college admissions may go out with a whimper.

It was never going to go out with a bang, because the collective action problem around the structure of competition we’ve erected for institutions is too powerful, but as schools were forced into test-optional policies because of COVID-related test cancellations, many have discovered you can fill a first-year student cohort without those scores just fine.

The hold these tests and these scores have over the narrative around what’s meaningful in college admissions has been definitively broken. It seems unlikely to me that this mythos can now be resurrected, and the attempts of people who seem invested in maintaining the illusion around the utility of the SAT seem to be falling short. Matthew Yglesias published a piece in his Substack newsletter criticizing the “anti-SAT backlash” citing the work of UC Berkeley professor Jesse Rothstein in an attempt to defend the utility of the SAT, only to have Rothstein go to Twitter to illuminate the things that Yglesias gets wrong.

Pick a defense of using the SAT in admissions and Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University (which has also gone test optional), has likely already dismantled it.

Probably more than once.

As seen in Eric Hoover’s recent article about St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, when it comes to nonselective institutions (which is the vast majority of U.S. postsecondary schools), the SAT is not necessary for admission decisions, and in reality, may be a barrier to schools finding as many possible candidates for enrollment as possible.

There are few if any compelling reasons to keep these tests around for the vast majority of schools and students, while there are numerous ones to ditch them. As the past year has demonstrated, whatever predictive power the tests may have is not sufficient to justify their continued use, and there’s little doubt that far more students experience them as a barrier than a gateway to opportunity.

Another plus would be to diminish the power and influence of the College Board, a billion-dollar, pure rent-seeking entity that, in the words of Akil Bello, “operates as a nontransparent, unelected, unregulated, publicly funded federal regulator of K-12 curriculum and gatekeeper to higher education.”

Eliminating the use of these tests is also a blow to the U.S. News rankings. Everyone working inside the higher education ecosystem already knows that this particular emperor has no clothes when it comes to judging the actual quality of education received at an institution, but perhaps the utter nakedness will be more apparent when there is no common metric by which to compare schools.

One illuminating statement by Rothstein cited above is offered below:

“We have to get away from this idea that the goal of college is to admit students who are going to do great. The goal of college has to be to help students who wouldn’t do great without your help. That’s a very different thing, and it leads you to very different ideas.

An article in North has some incisive quotes from college admissions professionals regarding test optional colleges:


Colleges began adopting test-optional policies for a variety of reasons, one of which was that the tests did not accurately predict first-year college performance, as they claimed to do.

Independent enrollment management consultant Terry Cowdrey saw this as a major reason to establish a test-optional policy when she was the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at St. Lawrence University.

“We found when we accepted students who had rigor in their high school curriculum and had strong grades, they were succeeding in our classrooms regardless of the test scores they had presented,” Cowdrey said.

Cowdrey said that when she advocated for a test-optional admissions policy at St. Lawrence, “I didn’t know whether there were some students out there who were interested in us but were discouraged from applying when they saw our published profile,” which contained average test scores.

She mentioned that seven students in the first class enrolled with the test-optional policy were valedictorians of their high school classes, despite being non-submitters.

“That’s who test-optional is for,” she said.

Morristown-Beard senior Kim Magnotta echoed Cowdrey’s sentiment.

“I don’t consider myself to be much of a test-taker, and I think my day-to-day academic record is a better indication of who I am as a student,” Magnotta said.

She chose not to include test scores in her college applications and will attend a prestigious liberal arts university in the fall.

The pandemic further accelerated the test-optional trend. Months of cancelled tests forced even the most resistant admissions offices to temporarily suspend testing requirements. Some students had doubts that colleges would review their applications favorably without test scores; however, for many students, these fears were allayed once they received their decision letters.

“When a lot of schools announced they were test-optional, I was a little apprehensive because I wasn’t sure if they were actually test-optional," Magnotta explained. "After going through the college process, the results indicated that they certainly were test-optional and evaluated my profile fairly without scores.”

The high pressure placed on students has recently been an additional argument for test-optional policies.

“What has happened over the last decade is a desire for students to show as much proof and evidence as they can provide to colleges, and so for the past ten years or so we’ve seen students take every possible AP class they can take, take every possible AP exam they can take, and also take every single Subject Test they can take as well," [college admissions consultant Sarah] Harberson said. "The pressure on these students is frankly, I think, too much for a teenager to take on.”

Cowdrey explained how test scores can hurt a student’s chances for admission even at colleges that use a holistic review process. She said that colleges “are telling the truth that they’re using a holistic review process for admission. They don’t use a holistic review process for denial.”

“The challenging thing with test scores is that they’re a signal. As human beings, we can’t help but react to a signal,” Cowdrey said, indicating that a low test score could significantly diminish an otherwise-qualified student’s chance of admission even at a test-optional institution.

Test-optional policies will undoubtedly continue to grow, Harberson explained:

“For a college who experienced a huge increase in applications and huge strides in terms of diversity, why would they want to go back to requiring the SAT or ACT for admissions? That would mean that their application pools would decrease this coming year and their diversity numbers would also decrease. A dean of admissions is almost always measured, first and foremost, on the number of applications the admissions office gets, then how diverse the applicant pool is, and what the enrolled class looks like. Their goal is to attract more applications every single year.”

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Our Broke Public Universities", Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen examine the disparity in funding among the various universities that are part of the University of California system:


The University of California system offers an ideal case to study intra-system resource distribution. In most states, regional universities make the largest contributions to equity and diversity for state residents, while flagship research universities are mostly exempt from this responsibility. The rationale for the imbalance is often that flagships are “a different type of university,” with different research goals and different ways of benefiting the state. In the University of California system, however, all nine undergraduate campuses are classified as research universities, and system leadership asserts that they are equal in importance.

Furthermore, each UC campus currently receives the same amount of state funding per undergraduate student, with the important exception of Merced. Opened in 2005, the campus received more support than its sister institutions — but also took on enormous debt to build its physical campus in a huge public-private partnership. (All other UC campuses were built decades earlier, primarily with state funds.)

The issue is that, increasingly, funding disparities are not driven by the inequitable distribution of state funds for undergraduates. State contributions in California, and elsewhere, are now so low that they often make up only a small fraction of overall system revenue. Private funding has arrived in its stead, with devastating consequences for racial and social equity.

...there is no true equity in the UC system, nor in other state systems. As a high-level administrator in the UC system put it, newer and less prestigious branches are “running political cover” for the system at large. Merced and Riverside help produce favorable optics at the system level, allowing its leaders to demonstrate commitment to serving in-state, low-income, and racially marginalized students. In short, this is institutional diversity work — without sufficient financial backing. The fact that unsupported institutional diversity work is a problem even in the premier four-year public system in the relatively equity-minded state of California bodes ill for other public systems.

The ultimate form of resource concentration is the disbanding of a state system. In 2015, the Oregon University System ceased to exist. In recent years, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin have, to varying degrees, entertained conversations about fully privatizing state flagships. These proposals are often backed by the idea that universities outside of a public system will have greater success at drawing alumni and philanthropic contributions and may lobby more effectively around their own interests.

Tiny cracks in the UC system are emerging as well. Virtually all programs in UCLA’s Anderson School of Management became privately funded in 2014, when the MBA program converted from state-supported to self-supported. And because of the inequality in access to private funding, it is not an overstatement to say that any “unbundling” of the UC system would decimate Merced and Riverside. The existence of research universities that serve disadvantaged students depends, in part, on system support, protection, and resource redistribution.

The gradual state disinvestment in higher education concentrates resources at the most advantaged universities and thus among the most privileged students. Yet, public institutions should serve all of their public. More, not less, state and federal support is needed to give students from economically and racially marginalized families — and the universities that serve them — a fighting chance.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed continues to report on the difficulty that students are experiencing in taking SAT/ACT tests due to test center closures, even if they are registered for the exams:


Many high school students and counselors are complaining that the students in some areas were not able to take the SAT Saturday despite signing up for it.

For more than a year now, some testing centers have been closed on test days. Test takers are particularly complaining in Chicago and parts of the Midwest, New England and California. "Families usually understand why some centers canceled but are concerned with the very late notice, the College Board's inability or unwillingness to relocate or reschedule test takers, and the still-deteriorating level of College Board customer service," said Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Zach Goldberg, a spokesman for the College Board, said via email, "We’ve continued to see strong demand from students to take the SAT and submit scores. While COVID-19 still has an impact on students’ ability to take the SAT, we’re seeing the situation improve significantly since last fall. For the May 2021 weekend administration, almost 75 percent of the students who registered were able to test, compared with only 43 percent back in August when we began to administer the SAT during the pandemic.

In the wake of the extraordinary surge in the adoption of test optional policies by US colleges and universities, The New York Times offers an article by Arvind Ashok regarding the potential for so-called "soft factors" such as the college application essay to both reflect and divulge the socioeconomic class of the applicant:


In another sign of the persistent pull of social class, a recent working paper from authors affiliated with the Student Narrative Lab at Stanford shows that essay content, when quantified through a computer program, is more highly correlated with household income than SAT scores are.

Researchers did not analyze whether these signs of status affect an essay’s quality, or speculate on whether they would make any difference in an evaluation by an admissions officer. But the research suggests that much of the socioeconomic information critics accuse the SAT of reflecting can also be found in essays.

The paper used software to classify essays written by nearly 60,000 applicants to the University of California system in 2016. The essays were quantified partly through syntax choices. The number of commas, total punctuation and longer words were correlated with higher household income, for example, although that doesn’t necessarily equate to better writing.

The content was also quantified by word choice patterns, which are associated with particular topics. Admissions officials might not look more favorably upon essays written on certain themes, but it’s still notable that there are significant differences in the topics associated with higher and lower household incomes.

In contrast with much of the rest of the world, American admissions officers have a lot of discretion. Relying on elements like the essay gives them leeway to judge merit away from close scrutiny. The history of the so-called holistic approach — looking at the whole applicant and not just academic metrics — has not always been encouraging.

The City University of New York has announced that SAT/ACT scores won't be required for students applying through the spring of 2023.