What Does the Future Hold for the SAT?
Amid news that the SAT has reinvented itself, the growing test-optional movement may suggest numbered days for standardized testing.
- Almost 80% of baccalaureate-granting colleges don't require the SAT or ACT, largely because of pandemic concerns.
- The University of California system recently banned standardized testing requirements from its admissions process.
- The growing trend toward test-optional policies acknowledges racial biases and economic disadvantages.
- Time will tell if elite colleges reinstate the SAT/ACT requirement after the pandemic subsides.
In 2026, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, better known as the SAT, will celebrate its centennial anniversary — assuming it's still around.
Recently, the College Board announced updates to the SAT, including making it fully digital by 2024 and decreasing the time required to complete it. Yet the SAT and its sibling rival, the ACT (short for American College Testing), have fast fallen out of favor among universities nationwide, including some elite and influential schools. The COVID pandemic has proven colleges can get along just fine without these tests.
In that case, what does the future hold for standardized tests in college admissions? Will test-optional and test-blind admissions practices become the norm? Can we envision a world without standardized tests?
California Abolishes Standardized Tests in Admissions
In 2020, the University of California (UC) system plunged a dagger into the heart of standardized testing. The nation's largest and arguably most notable public higher education system suspended the use of standardized tests in admissions across its nine campuses until 2024.
At the time, Eleni Kounalakis, the state's lieutenant governor, told the Los Angeles Times the vote was "the beginning of the end" for the SAT.
"We really are the first body to tackle this head-on and say enough is enough," Kounalakis said.
That decision came amid controversy surrounding a 2019 lawsuit that claimed the tests discriminate against applicants based on race, among other factors. In 2021, to settle the case, the UC system took matters a step further by eliminating standardized test requirements from admissions all together.
In many respects, as California goes, so goes the nation. This is especially true when it comes to public higher education, so the UC's move could portend widespread change.
"Whatever UC does will have ripple effects across American higher education," Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, told The New York Times in 2020, "particularly at leading public universities."
Hartle's comment proved prophetic. Last May, Colorado removed the standardized test requirement at its public institutions. This January, the Iowa Board of Regents did the same for its three public universities. And now it appears the California State University System will soon follow UC's lead.
COVID Accelerates the Test-Optional Trend
Among private universities, Harvard College announced in late 2021 that it would suspend standardized testing requirements for undergraduate applicants. This policy extends as far out as the entering class of 2030.
Although Harvard reconfirmed its commitment to a holistic review of applications, this decision resulted from a more practical consideration — ongoing complications related to the pandemic.
Like its Ivy brethren, Harvard suspended the SAT/ACT requirement in 2020 when the pandemic caused testing sites to shut down. Cornell was first out of the gate, announcing its suspension in April. Fellow Ivies followed suit in June.
These universities are not alone. According to FairTest, a watchdog group that opposes standardized testing, 1,070 colleges were test-optional before the pandemic. Today, that number exceeds 1,815 — an all-time high.
Almost 80% of baccalaureate-granting institutions don't require tests. That list includes more than 90% of schools ranked among U.S. News & World Report's top 100 national universities and national liberal arts colleges.
Some 86 schools are fully test-blind, meaning they won't consider test scores even if submitted. The UC system falls under this umbrella.
Many students are taking advantage of this change. New data from Common App shows that for the fall 2021 admissions cycle, only 51% of applicants submitted test scores, compared to 78% two years ago. Only 40% of minority students and 37% of first-generation students submitted scores.
"We are ecstatic," FairTest executive director Bob Schaeffer told Higher ED Dive. "Test-optional is becoming the new norm."
Does Going Test-Optional Increase Access and Diversity?
Schaeffer claims colleges that went test-optional for fall 2021 had applicant pools that were not only larger but also more academically qualified and more diverse.
"With such positive results," he said in a release, "there's no rational reason to restore test-score requirements."
The move certainly resulted in more applications, especially at selective institutions, which realized a massive surge for the class entering in fall 2021. In turn, acceptance rates dropped precipitously, falling well below 10% for the most selective schools.
Are test-optional pools more diverse? Generally, yes.
In a 2021 American Educational Research Journal article, Christopher Bennett notes that the adoption of test-optional policies at selective private institutions from 2005-2016 resulted in a first-time enrollment increase of 3-4% for Pell Grant recipients and of 10-12% for Black, Latino/a, and Native students.
Bennett believes going test-optional is only part of the diversity solution.
"While these findings indicate that the relative changes were somewhat sizable," he tweeted, "due to the demographic makeup of the schools, they amounted to modest absolute changes as a share of the student body."
A 2018 study called "Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works" examined 28 public and private test-optional colleges. The authors found that almost all institutions saw an increase in under-represented minority applicants after going test-optional. Of all schools involved in the study, two-thirds saw a rise in enrollment among this group.
And a 2021 survey from Maguire Associates determined that going test-optional significantly increased applications and enrollments among historically underserved populations.
That was certainly the case at the University of California, which admitted its most diverse class last year.
Finally, does going test-optional result in a more academically qualified applicant pool, as Schaeffer suggests? The "Defining Access" study, for one, indicates otherwise.
High school GPAs among applicants who did not submit test scores were "modestly lower" than those among test submitters. College GPAs were lower, too. But both groups of applicants graduated at similar rates.
However, another study found that when Bates, Providence, and Mount Holyoke colleges went test-optional, they increased socioeconomic diversity without a reduction in academic quality or college performance among students who didn't submit scores.
So while colleges might not see more academically qualified student bodies after going test-optional, they may not see a drop in quality, either.
Are Standardized Tests Inherently Biased?
The test-optional movement isn't new, even among selective private institutions. Bowdoin College has been test-optional since 1970. Neighboring Bates College dropped its requirement in 1985. More recently, Bryn Mawr College adopted a test-optional policy in 2015, and the University of Chicago did so in 2018.
As we've seen, test-optional admissions policies result in more socioeconomically diverse applicant pools. That's not surprising, given the longstanding argument that standardized tests are inherently biased against low-income and racial minority applicants.
When the University of Chicago announced its test-optional decision, James Nondorf, the university's dean of admissions and vice president of enrollment and student advancement, said the move "levels the playing field."
A 2010 study published in the Harvard Educational Review affirmed the suspicion of racial bias against Black students.
"The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results," the study noted. "All admissions decisions based exclusively or predominantly on SAT performance…appear to be biased against the African American minority group."
The College Board, though, is quick to defend the SAT against inherent racism.
"Real inequities exist in American education, and they are reflected in every measure of academic achievement, including the SAT," said Zach Goldberg, the College Board's communications director. "The SAT itself is not a racist instrument. Every question is rigorously reviewed for evidence of bias and any question that could favor one group over another is discarded."
With regard to income differences, a 2015 College Board analysis determined students from families earning less than $20,000 scored lowest on the SAT. Learners from families earning more than $200,000 scored highest. Wealthier students often benefit from expensive test-prep services designed to boost scores, an advantage even the College Board acknowledges.
Will Test-Optional Policies Become Permanent?
Controversy has grown around testing bias and the democratizing effects of test-optional policies, especially since the widespread adoption during COVID. So will colleges forever abandon their reliance on the SAT and ACT?
Many think they should. At UCLA, one of the California schools that went test-optional, admissions officials say eliminating the SAT has had little impact on their ability to assess students. They instead focus more on high school grades and class rank.
"Those...factors are sufficient to make a decision," Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA's vice provost for enrollment management, told the Los Angeles Times. "I hope this is a new wave of the future for lots of institutions."
Others are not so sure. The University of Chicago, a test-optional college, believes standardized tests do add value in the admissions process. It tells applicants that because "one school can be very different from another, it is sometimes useful to see evidence of academic achievement that exists outside of the context of your school."
The University of Chicago encourages students who have taken the SAT or ACT to submit their scores if they think the results reflect their ability and potential.
The dependence on high school grades becomes particularly problematic in the context of grade inflation. A 2017 study documented the rise in grades and noted the increasing difficulty of comparing students based on this measure.
"If almost half of students have A averages," writes Ben Paris in Inside Higher Ed, "then high grades mean little, except as a requirement."
Some argue that the abolition of standardized tests might even hurt under-represented applicants.
Before the University of California system abandoned standardized testing, underperforming students could use a "loophole" when applying: a guarantee of admission based solely on high SATs. In 2018, about 22,000 students took advantage of this "Hail Mary option." Almost half of them were low-income, and more than a quarter were Black, Latino/a, or Native American.
Without standardized testing, UC applicants have lost this "lifeline."
Despite these objections, the test-optional movement continues to gain momentum. A New America survey revealed that two-thirds of Americans agree with colleges going test-optional or test-blind.
Most colleges, especially selective ones, appear to have more of an appetite for test-optional rather than test-blind policies, accommodating students who wish to submit scores. One practical consideration is that U.S. News penalizes test-blind colleges, assigning them average scores equal to the lowest score in their category.
Time will tell if the Ivies and other elite colleges emerge from the pandemic once again requiring standardized tests. At this point, it's difficult to predict whether we'll see complete abolition of the SAT and ACT on college campuses.
For now, it's safe to say many institutions will indeed remain test-optional, if not test-blind, and more will move in that direction.
"We've concluded that test-optional is here to stay," Janet Godwin, chief executive of the ACT, told the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, the University of California remains steadfast in its decision to eliminate standardized testing requirements entirely.
"UC will continue to practice test-free admissions, Provost Michael Brown told the Board of Regents, "now and into the future."