Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Aug 13, 2021

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post examines recent claims that jettisoning the SAT-ACT in college admissions will do more harm than good, and offers column space to a response to test defenders by David Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley.


There has been some heated discussion recently about the effect of the University of California’s decision to stop using SAT or ACT scores to admit students or to award scholarships. Some critics have argued that it would have a negative impact on diversity and overall student achievement — but this post takes a decidedly different view.

...the University of California system announced last month that for fall 2021, without using SAT or ACT scores in admissions, “students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise 43 percent of admitted California freshmen, the highest proportion of an incoming undergraduate class and the greatest number in UC history at 36,462.”

Below, David Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, looks at the recent arguments against the university system’s decision and details the positive outcome he sees emerging.

By David Kirp

Critics foresee Armageddon if the SAT is eliminated. Writing recently in Inside Higher Ed, Larry Su, English professor at the City Colleges of Chicago, predicted that the change will “leave American students unprepared for college, hinder minority students’ finishing of education, send a wrong message about what American institutions of learning value, destroy America’s fundamental beliefs in hard work and personal accountability, and further put America’s national and international interest at risk.”

Writing in the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan makes a different argument — UC’s decision will harm minority students. The SAT, she asserts, “was a Hail Mary pass for many smart kids who, for whatever reason, didn’t do well in high school.”

“In 2018, about 22,000 students ‘tested in’ to the UC,” she wrote. “Almost half of those students were low-income, and more than a quarter were Black, Latino, or Native American. The UC has now taken this lifeline away.”

“Flanagan severely misunderstands how UC admissions works,” Yale economist Zachary Bleemer, who has spent years parsing the data, told me.

“In fact, fewer than 100 students got into UC just because of their SAT score, and the best available evidence suggests that eliminating the SAT has a negligible (and perhaps slightly positive) effect on the admission of disadvantaged students,” he said.

Graduation rates in the UC system may drop slightly because of the university’s decision. But students who otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut, because of their low test scores, will benefit greatly. As Bleemer’s research shows, they are far more likely to graduate than students with a similar record who enrolled at one of the less selective California state campuses. Six to eight years later, they are earning $15,000 more.

For these students, the engine of mobility is up and running. Meanwhile, Harvard-Westlake will make sure that its students will end up at top-notch schools.

Smithsonian Magazine asks "Has the Pandemic Put an End to the SAT and ACT?"


Many students never made it through the test-center door; the pandemic left much of the high school class of 2021 without an SAT or ACT score to submit. Facing test access challenges and changing application requirements, about half did not submit scores with their applications, according to Robert Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Boston. This didn’t bar them from applying to the nation’s most selective colleges as it would have in any other year: Starting in spring 2020, in a trickle that became a deluge, the nation’s most selective colleges and universities responded to the situation by dropping the standardized test score requirement for applicants.

Liberal arts colleges, technical institutes, historically black institutions, Ivies — more than 600 schools switched to test-optional for the 2020-21 application season, and dozens refused to consider test scores at all.

“That is a tectonic change for many schools,” says Rob Franek, editor in chief of the Princeton Review, a test-prep company based in New York City.

The landscape will be forever shifted by the events of the pandemic, says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. “The toothpaste is not going back in the tube.” One big factor, he says, is the fact that the University of California won’t look at test scores anymore. That means many California students won’t bother to take a standardized test, Jump says, making it hard for schools hoping to recruit Californians to require them.

There will, of course, be holdouts, he adds: The most elite, selective schools may be immune to that pressure. And universities that receive lots of applications might go back to a test-score cutoff to bring the pile of applications down to a manageable number, saving on the time and effort that holistic admissions entail.

The ultimate solution to the dilemma may lie in flexibility. “I think it should be optional from now on,” says Clara Chaplin [a junior at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, New York] who was fully satisfied with her SAT score after she finally managed to take the test, and is headed for highly ranked Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. This would allow strong test-takers to shine but also let applicants showcase other strengths.

Students at the Association of Washington Student Leaders agree, James Layman [the director] says — they don’t think test scores truly reflect who they are.

“There are other ways,” they tell him, “for colleges to get to know us, and us them.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Melissa Korn looks at three possible replacements for the SAT/ACT in College admissions:


Relying more heavily on high school grades, designing a better standardized test or holding an admissions lottery: These are three ideas for replacing the SAT and ACT in college admissions.

A steady drumbeat of opposition to the tests escalated last year to a deafening call from school counselors—and some admissions officers—for the elimination of SAT and ACT scores from applications.

It has all left admissions officers pondering whether there’s a better way of judging applicants. And what exactly does a school want to assess anyway—aptitude? Potential? Something else?

“The tenuous grasp we hold on many of our habits and policies has been further loosened [by the pandemic], and we must adapt if we are to continue to fulfill our duty to the public good,” the National Association for College Admission Counseling, made up of admissions officers and high school counselors, wrote in a recent report on testing.

Here are three paths schools could take in the future if they turn away from the SAT and ACT for good.


Most selective colleges use a holistic approach to admissions, looking at grades, extracurricular involvement, recommendations, essays, scores and more. If tests are taken out of the equation, one approach would be to weigh the other things more heavily.

If an admissions office is trying to determine who could succeed academically in a college setting, then focusing on how students fared in high school is the most obvious approach, say proponents, including some college administrators and high school counselors.

“Why are we reaching so hard for other things to try to predict classroom performance, beyond classroom performance?” asks Akil Bello, a longtime test-prep tutor and senior director of advocacy and advancement for FairTest, a nonprofit that urges more limited use of standardized tests.

Scores were redundant at best, he says, and at their worst were misleading and perpetuated inequities—those who could afford private tutoring were able to game the exam and get into top schools, and those who didn’t have access to such support lost out.


Several academics and state officials are working to replace the SAT and ACT with tests that attempt to be more equitable or measure different attributes that are important for college success.

A University of California Academic Senate committee is assessing whether it could adapt the Smarter Balanced exam—now given to all California public school 11th graders and students in a range of grades in seven other states—either by modifying the test or the scoring, or using it for admissions as is. The committee is expected to submit its final recommendation this fall. University regents voted last year to scrap the SAT and ACT from consideration in admissions in upcoming application cycles, and a legal settlement in May extended the period during which those tests can’t be used.

James Skoufis, a state senator in New York, proposed a bill this spring that would force public universities to stop using the SAT or ACT in admissions decisions and require the State University of New York and City University of New York to create another test instead. Neither the bill nor Mr. Skoufis provided specifics on what a new test would involve.

Mr. Skoufis says an applicant’s high school grades alone “won’t clearly illustrate their capacity for collaboration or critical thinking” or reflect their extracurricular engagement or personal stories.


Some college counselors and admissions officers pushing to increase equity in education access argue it is time for a far more radical rethink of admissions.

“What’s the endgame here? We’re raising that question,” says Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California, Riverside, who co-chaired the University of California task force on standardized testing. He is skeptical that a new test will do any better at providing equitable access to higher education, and points to the spike in applications to the University of California this year, when scores were optional, as evidence of tests being a barrier.

Recently, the perennial idea of a lottery has gotten more attention, says Mr. Bello. This would involve choosing applicants randomly from a pool of qualified students, either based on a minimum GPA or GPA and other criteria.

In an article in The New York Review, Anastasia Edel contrasts the often opaque and illogical college admissions system in the US with that of her home nation, Russia (also attached as a WORD document):


Many of us who grew up in the USSR, as my husband and I did, were inevitably shaped by the worship of knowledge among the Soviet intelligentsia. It was a value that—if any could in that society—transcended politics and official ideology. But in a more practical way, education was also the only ticket to upward mobility in the USSR outside of a Communist Party career. As post-Soviet émigrés, we both carried that inheritance to America, land of freedom and opportunity, as a redoubled assumption that here, if we worked hard, our children, if they worked hard, would have a chance to study at its best universities.

And so we laid the groundwork for our children’s bright future by stretching our finances to buy a small house in a town known for its great schools, entrusting ourselves to the US public education system. Then, like many aspiring middle-class American parents, we saw to it that our children studied diligently, developed themselves through extracurricular activities, and did their share for the community, as we, too, did—all in the belief and expectation that they would be able to choose where they could study.

It was a nice story, bolstered by the “everybody’s a winner” philosophy beamed at us at parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights. Reality intruded, though, during our elder daughter’s junior year, when a highly recommended college counselor agreed to “calibrate” her eligibility. Inside a living room that offered stunning views of the San Francisco Bay, we learned that the colleges our daughter was dreaming about were out of reach, given her GPA, which was just under 4.0. The rest of her credentials were deemed equally ordinary. Tennis team captain? Could have helped if she were nationally ranked. Poetry writing? Sure, if she were a laureate somewhere. First generation? Yes, but it had to be first generation to college, not to America. Class president? Good, but not good enough.
“There is a college out there for you,” the counselor concluded, as the timer on the desk indicated the cost of our session, $300 and rising, “but you’d have to lower your expectations.”

The episode left us confounded and confused. Most of the colleges on our daughter’s list, which we had gamely researched together, offered no formal admission criteria. There was no published information on cutoffs for GPA, or for any other parameters. All schools touted their “holistic approach,” which considered academic achievement, leadership qualities, and personal character, singling out values such as “honesty,” “intellectual potential,” “initiative,” and “open-mindedness.” Of course. But somehow vague, generic, inscrutable. How could this be a meritocracy, when you couldn’t see how it worked?

I sought enlightenment from friends whose children have been through the process. “College admission is a black box,” said one. “A crapshoot,” said another. When we went to see a second counselor and she used the same terms to describe college admissions, we were even more rattled. We wanted to help our daughter all we could, but we held no keys to the black box.

America’s top colleges cannot stand back and watch access to good education slipping out of the reach of the country’s middle class. They should pitch in to the efforts of the federal government that has been backing broader access to higher education for decades, from the GI Bill to Pell Grants, by making their coveted degrees available to everyone with the aptitude and the qualifications. To do so, they could either offer hybrid degrees, or increase admission numbers, or both. And these centers of learning could surely devise other solutions besides.

Standardizing college admission criteria and making them more transparent would be another crucial step toward making the admission process less of a black box. The year of college admissions shouldn’t be a year of anxiety and stress for students, nor should one’s parents have to spend inordinate sums on “packaging” their children. The focus ought to be on helping them understand who they want to be and on equipping them for the challenges of tomorrow’s world. Our children should have knowledge as their compass—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reports that the University of California admitted a more diverse student class along with the adoption of a test optional policy.


Students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise 43 percent of admitted California freshmen at University of California campuses this year, the highest proportion of an incoming undergraduate class and the greatest number in UC history.

The number of underrepresented minority students increased from 33,225 to 36,462, up from 42 percent last year, but the campuses admitted many more Californians than in the past. Last year, it admitted 79,953 Californians; this year, it admitted 84,223 students from the state.

Black enrollment among freshmen stayed at 5 percent of the total, but the number increased from 3,987 to 4,608. The number of Latinx students grew from 36 percent to 37 percent, from 28,662 to 31,220.

WGN9 in Chicago reports that 760 students will have to retake the SAT due to the use of incorrect test booklets from a prior exam date.


Some students at Lincoln Park High School were told Monday that the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) they took this past spring is no longer valid.

Three months after taking the exam, the stress of standardized testing was an afterthought for many. But, now, because of an error beyond their control, many students will once again have to hit the books for the standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States.

“She’s in utter disbelief,” Billy Cales said. “She can’t believe it.”

Cales’ daughter, Nicole, is a rising senior at Lincoln Park High School. She learned the unfortunate news Monday. Cales says his daughter is not alone.

“I know one girl…she got, well she thought she had a 1450 on the SAT, which is a great score. Now, it’s a zero for all practical purposes,” Cales said.

School officials said the test was administered using an incorrect test booklet from a prior exam date. As a result of the mishap, an email was sent to affected students, informing them of the error. Officials added that students could retake the test at a later date free of charge. According to the letter sent to parents, students will have two more opportunities to retake the exam: Wednesday, Oct. 13 and Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021.

About 760 students at four schools were impacted by the test issues.