COVID-19 is prompting colleges to temporarily suspend requirements for the SAT and ACT, but these changes could become permanent.

The Future of College Entrance Exams

  • Colleges are cutting standardized testing requirements in the wake of COVID-19.
  • The University of California plans to phase out the use of SAT/ACT scores by 2025.
  • Many schools argue that standardized tests disadvantage underserved applicants.

Last week, the University of California (UC) system announced plans to eliminate the SAT and ACT — the two most widely used standardized college-entrance exams in the U.S. — from its application requirements.

Like many colleges nationwide, the UC system, which includes UCLA and UC Berkeley, decided to drop the testing requirement for fall 2020 to accommodate applicants whose exams were canceled due to COVID-19. Now, in response to long-standing criticism of standardized testing, the UC system is making the change permanent.

The 300,000 students who attend UC colleges … represent the biggest pool of college entrance exam takers.

Last year, a school district in Compton, California, sued the UC regents for relying on the SAT and ACT, calling the practice "demonstrably discriminatory against the State's least privileged students."

While the makers of the SAT and ACT assure that the tests are objective, critics argue that all standardized testing discriminates against low-income test takers. Between tutoring, test prep, and bribery, rich kids have the resources to help them get high scores.

Although SAT and ACT testing is slated to resume later this summer, the two tests will likely see significantly fewer students. The 300,000 students who attend UC colleges — which make up the largest university system in the U.S. — represent the biggest pool of college entrance exam takers.

UC's decision to weigh SAT and ACT scores less heavily for now, and not at all starting in 2025, could inspire other schools to follow suit.

A teenage girl wearing a scarf sits in a classroom with other students and takes a standardized test.

University of California's SAT/ACT Phase-Out Timeline

On May 22, the University of California Board of Regents unanimously approved a plan to suspend the college system's SAT/ACT application requirement until 2024. In 2025, the system will either introduce a new college-entrance exam for in-state applicants or eliminate the testing requirement for all California students.

Fall 2020 to Fall 2022

Test Optional:
Scores are considered if provided.

Fall 2023 to Fall 2024

Test Blind:
Scores are only considered for purposes other than admission selection, such as course placement, scholarships, and eligibility for the statewide admission guarantee.

Starting Fall 2025

UC-Based Test or No Standardized Testing:
Any use of the SAT/ACT is eliminated for California students. Either a new, UC-based exam is required or the UC system eliminates its standardized testing requirement altogether.

Source: University of California

Standardized Testing Hurts Underprivileged Students

UC's decision could accelerate the decline of standardized testing, which critics claim puts poor, black, and Latino/a students at an even greater disadvantage.

According to data from the College Board — the organization that administers the SAT — SAT scores are highest for white and Asian students and test takers whose families make over $200,000 per year. Scores are lowest for black, Native American, and Latino/a students, as well as test takers whose families make less than $20,000.

Socioeconomic status contributes to this discrepancy in test scores, meaning the SAT and ACT often act as barriers to social mobility.

Last year, in an effort to solve this ongoing issue, the College Board announced it would add an adversity score to test takers' SAT score reports. This score, which was to use a scale of 1-100 and for which a higher number would indicate greater adversity, was to take the form of another piece of data for admissions officers to consider.

In theory, the SAT and ACT provide an objective way to compare students from different high schools, but data shows that race and income are highly correlated with test performance.

Ultimately, the College Board scrapped the idea after receiving harsh criticism.

Some feel that the College Board's adversity score didn't respond to the real issue. Expensive test prep is a big factor in earning high scores, but so is feeling comfortable in exam settings. Existing college-entrance exams disadvantage applicants of color, applicants from low-income families, and applicants with disabilities.

Research also suggests that standardized tests are not reliable indicators of future success. In many ways, knowing how to take a test is a skill in itself; thus, standardized tests simply reflect test takers' abilities to do well on an exam — not to think critically or independently.

Colleges' decisions to leave behind standardized testing requirements for fall 2020 arose out of necessity. Since March, canceled SAT and ACT test sessions have affected thousands of exam registrants.

If more schools follow UC's lead and ditch standardized testing for good, students will no longer need to worry about when they can take the SAT or ACT, but rather whether they'll need to take it at all.

A trio of teenagers sit in a row at desks in a brightly lit, modern classroom, pencils in hand, taking a test.

Without SAT/ACT Scores, How Will Colleges Choose?

Although UC decision-makers point to the unfairness of the SAT and ACT for poor, black, and Latino/a students, it's unclear whether future applicants will benefit from not reporting SAT/ACT scores.

Instead, applicants might just have more tests to take. At present, the UC system plans to replace one standardized test with another and will use the next few years to explore creating an original admissions test.

School-specific testing could create an even greater barrier for applicants by requiring them to put more effort into their applications.

The College Board argues that school-specific testing would create an even greater barrier for applicants by requiring more labor per application, leading them to apply to fewer schools.

It's also unclear whether standardized testing hurts the acceptance chances of underserved students. A UC-commissioned task force discovered that tests provide another metric of merit, helping low-income and minority applicants who may be unable to get in on grades alone.

Based on these findings, the UC system's faculty senate originally recommended keeping the SAT/ACT testing requirement. But this May, a judge ruled that the UC system can be sued for allegedly discriminating against low-income, minority, and disabled applicants by requiring SAT/ACT scores.

Unless the SAT and ACT can discover better ways to measure students' merit — and account for adversity without trying to quantify students' experiences — more colleges could soon feel the pressure to abandon standardized tests as the pandemic continues to fuel criticism of their utility.