Standardized Testing: The Future of the SAT and ACT

While we are all mourning the loss of our favorite in-person events during the prolonged COVID-19 crisis (summer music festivals, beach days, etc.), there’s one in-person event that very few are sad to see go: standardized testing. As COVID-19 spread around the globe in early 2020, students around the world watched as their academic lives took a dramatic turn from temporary school cancellations to full shutdowns and distance learning. The SAT and ACT went away too—collateral damage of closed classrooms and testing centers. While students may not have been too broken up to miss a whole day of stressful test-taking, these cancellations will have a domino effect for high school students getting ready to apply to colleges in late 2020.

Testing and School Responses 

Testing sheet

The first SAT tests were administered way back in 1926, and the test soon became widely used as a standardized indication of college readiness. Since the late 20th century, both the SAT and ACT have formed a crucial piece of college applications. But never before have they faced a challenge like COVID-19.

With the onset of the pandemic, test dates from March through the summer were canceled. This put many anxious high school students in the unique position of not having any official test scores to submit. In response, many schools have made testing optional for the (high school) class of 2021. Among the most notable universities to change their policy on testing were Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, the University of North Carolina system, and the entire 10-school UC system. A full list can be found here. It is likely the stream of policy changes—most of them applying only to the class of 2021 for now—is not over, and we’ll continue to see the list of schools going test-optional for 2021 grow.

The Case Against Testing

Going test-optional is not unprecedented—some colleges and universities had made this move even before the coronavirus forced their hands, and there is a long-standing argument over-testing. 

The Argument Against

The argument against using standardized testing as a component of college admissions goes that as the SAT and ACT became a major aspect of college applications, those who can afford it have purchased expensive test prep and tutoring, giving affluent students a leg up over less privileged students in this realm of college applications. Critics argue that scores are influenced by race, income level and parental education levels, making them yet another barrier to low-income, minority students or first-generation college applicants. They also point to research that shows test scores tend to be a poor predictor of student performance or likelihood of graduation. The logic: A student’s GPA, which requires consistent effort over time, showing up to class, submitting assignments on time, and generally demonstrating dedication and successful study habits should be a better predictor than a one-off test score.

Beyond that, students who take the SAT a second time improve their test scores on average more than 100 points—a significant improvement, and one that would influence their application’s standing. The anti-testing camp points to this as evidence of the unreliability of the test in indicating how the student would fare in college, and further proof that standardized testing results are contaminated by students’ ability to “learn the test.”

The Argument For

On the flip side, advocates for maintaining standardized testing point to vast differences in how GPAs are calculated and how grades are earned at schools across the country. This was the founding logic behind making standardized test scores a part of college admissions, and the problem still exists today: how do you measure one school’s 3.5 GPA against another’s? Class rank isn’t necessarily a solution either, given the widely varying quality of schools in the United States.

Furthermore, proponents of testing point to the SAT and ACT as a relatively low-cost way for disadvantaged students to prove they have the skills to succeed in a college curriculum, where their grades or the reputation of their school may fail them. Standardized test scores also provide a potentially essential check against grade inflation—without them, high schools could be incentivized to inflate their students’ grades to try and push an increasing number of graduates into elite schools.

A Middle Ground?

Some universities, including the UC system, have policies in place to correct carefully weigh standardized test scores as a part of applications, either with a fixed weighting of test scores or by ensuring that they consider an applicants profile holistically, placing less weight on a test score if the applicant comes from an underprivileged background with less access to test prep or tutoring. Essentially every college admissions committee touts the “holistic review” as a part of their process—they are not admitting students on the basis solely of any one factor, including test scores, but taking these scores into consideration along with the rest of a student’s application—GPA, academic transcript, essays, recommendations, and more. However, many education access equity advocates still point to testing as a problematically over-emphasized metric on college applications, including the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Moves to Make Standardized Testing Optional Before Corona

Throughout this developing debate, the trend for colleges and universities to go test-optional has been growing. Between September 2018 and September 2019, a record number of schools changed their policies on testing, going test-optional or test-flexible, with 47 schools announcing new test-optional policies. This brought the total number of schools with test-optional policies up to just over 1000, with more than half of the schools on U.S. News’ Top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges now endorsing test-optional policies. 

Just a few years earlier, this change of testing policy was unimaginable. The movement to de-emphasize testing has rapidly gained momentum, especially as college admission scandals (i.e. wealthy parents buying and cheating their children’s ways into elite colleges and universities) have focused greater public attention on the inequity of access to higher education. Another key factor: admissions departments’ increasing deployment of big data tools that can parse and compare school quality in new ways. The test score data point becomes less necessary if a computer can standardize performance based on the transcript and school data.

The Corona Effect

If the testing-optional movement was gaining momentum in the fall of 2019, the effect of COVID-19 was to supercharge it. Since shutdowns began in March in the U.S. (and earlier in other parts of the world), and the testing cancellations came into effect, hundreds of schools have announced changes to their testing policy for the class of 2021. This includes everyone from the small liberal arts schools to large state institutions, to Ivys. The shut-downs, cancellations, and the havoc wreaked by COVID-19 make this year exceptional.

Some schools are looking beyond this year, though, and using the exceptional circumstances surrounding 2021’s applications as a pilot program for a permanent change to how the approach testing as a part of the application. The UC system, which consists of 10 schools across California and is the nation’s largest public post-secondary school system, was locked in a fierce debate about test-optional policies before the onset of COVID-19, and announced in May that they would not only be going test-optional for 2021, but would continue the policy through 2024, using the next four years of applicants as a pilot program for this policy before making a final decision. 

Where UC leads, it’s possible others may follow, eventually, given the heft and influence of the UC system—it is the single largest source of customers for College Board, which runs the SAT and AP tests, among others. The California Institute of Technology (better known as CalTech) has also announced that they will be running a 2-year test-blind pilot, Middlebury College is running a 3-year pilot, and many other schools have noted they will review their testing policies after 2021, including Rice University, the University of Notre Dame, University of Virginia, Williams College, and Boston University. 

A Future Without Testing?

So, is this the beginning of the end of standardized testing for college applications? Probably not, at least in the near future. The move away from testing will likely be slower than it appears to be now, and when we return to “normal” post-COVID-19, it is likely that we will move quickly back to a state of affairs closer to the former status quo than many are currently predicting. 

The UC system is a good example. UC has stated that they plan to use the four-year piloting period to develop their own assessment, which they hope to have ready by fall 2025. If they lead in this direction, it will be interesting to see who follows, and whether the future of testing for college applications will involve high school juniors sitting for a series of smaller, school-specific tests, rather than one or two standardized tests as has long been the case. 

And if you’re worried about the College Board’s bottom line in such a scenario… don’t worry! The UC system has suggested that they will use the College Board to develop their test.

What does this mean for you?

As mentioned, the pace of change beyond COVID-19 is likely to slow—colleges will not rush headlong into a sweeping change without further research, pilot programs, and many heated debates in the academic and educational policy spheres. If you are reading this now and you are not a member of the high school class of 2021, you will, in all likelihood, have to sit for the SATs, ACTs, or both. However, if you have a sibling a 5+ years younger than you, they may not. Before you get to envious, keep in mind they may have to take half a dozen school-specific exams instead!

In reality, testing is only one piece of the college application. While it carries weight—more for some schools or applicants than others—it is not by any means a deciding factor. Your high school GPA and transcripts, your involvements beyond academics, your recommendations, and, crucially, the story you tell, are all equally or more important pieces of the application. The latter—the story you tell—is perhaps the most often overlooked and critical component of an application, and the aspect with which admissions consulting and college admissions consultants can be most helpful. 

The pace of change in higher education is slow, but testing is one of a few factors that we may see change in the relatively near future, thanks in part to the crisis brought on by COVID-19.