A New Era for College Admissions: Decoding Shifting Norms in SAT/ACT Testing

12/03/202420 minute read
A New Era for College Admissions: Decoding Shifting Norms in SAT/ACT Testing

Decoding the new norms in SAT/ACT testing policies is a key challenge for students applying to top schools this year and next. Just as more schools than ever have made submitting test scores optional, a handful of prominent universities are changing course with surprising speed. Recently, the University of Texas at Austin and three IviesDartmouth, Brown, and Yaleannounced plans to reinstate mandatory testing for the Class of 2029 (Fall of 2025 applicants).

But is that the whole story? In this blog post we reach out to Crimson Education Strategist Tze Kwang Teo for insights and advice, looking behind the shifting views on standardized testing, explaining what’s different about test-mandatory policies this time around, and offering as much insight as possible to help students plot their next moves.

The Fast-Changing SAT/ACT Landscape

Historically SAT and ACT test scores have played a prominent role in university admissions.

Along with grade transcripts, cumulative GPA, and AP or IB exams, standardized test scores have for decades been a key component of academic evaluation for college admissions.

Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there have been striking and abrupt changes in the admissions landscape during the last five years.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of US colleges and universities are currently test-optional, or even test-blind, a remarkable evolution compared to just a handful of years ago.

The table below offers a snapshot of just how much things changed (based on reporting by The Hill news outlet, and FairTest, a national advocacy organization dedicated to promoting fair and open testing).

The Shifting Landscape of SAT/ACT Testing for Admissions
TimelineThe Standardized Testing Landscape
2019 — Before the pandemic55% of US institutions required test scores for admissions 78% of students reported SAT or ACT scores for college admissions
2022 — Immediately following the pandemicOnly 4% of schools still required test scores Fewer than 50% of students reported SAT or Act scores for college admissions
2024More than 80% of U.S. four-year colleges and universities do not require ACT/SAT scores, a total of at least 1,825 of the nation’s bachelor-degree granting institutions

Crimson Education strategists recently reported that MIT and Georgetown represent the only elite schools still requiring test scores, along with a small handful of other less prominent institutions. In addition, the University of Texas at Austin and three Ivies — Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown — recently announced plans to revert back to mandatory testing, for the Class of 2029.

In light of this shift away from mandatory testing by some high-profile schools, we might ask about the future of test-optional policies. In fact, back in December 2022, reporters at The Hill began asking the question now on everyone’s mind: Is test-optional the new normal, or will most US colleges and universities go back to requiring test scores as the pandemic fades?

For students and families trying to make important decisions for their admissions planning, the more immediate questions are no doubt: Do we need to take the SAT or ACT? and  Do we need to start preparing for them?

Is 'Test-optional' the New Normal?

Of course, for many students, decisions about whether to take the SAT or ACT may hinge on what they expect will be required, or not, in the future, when they apply to college.

To try to anticipate the future of standardized testing, it's crucial to understand past and recent trends impacting admissions policies around testing.

We’ve seen that the vast majority of schools still have test-optional policies in place, and advocates at FairTest report that the number is trending upward. Recently, the University of Michigan, as well as Cornell and Vanderbilt also announced plans to keep test-optional policies in place for the foreseeable future.

For many students aiming for leading institutions, however, the news that Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown are reinstating testing requirements next year makes for a murky picture at best when it comes to predicting what's next for standardized testing and admissions.

“Experts are divided on whether the Ivy League member’s decision could have a domino effect on other elite institutions — as well as if these scores are a good indicator for matriculating students.”

- "The Days of Optional SAT Scores May Be Coming to an End." The Hill, 12 February, 2024

Before we put too much emphasis on recent headlines, though, it’s worth recalling that back in the winter of 2022-23, reporters at The Hill  were referring to test-optional policies as 'the new normal' in college admissions.

Right now, based on analysis by The Hill , the advocacy group FairTest, and Inside Higher Ed, there are many good reasons to believe that ‘test-optional’ policies really are here to stay, as illustrated below.

Reasons to Believe 'Test-optional' Is Here to Stay
Decades of Evolving Social AttitudesThe test-optional movement began at Bowdoin College in Maine in 1970 and continued to attract more interest through the 2000s, especially because of concerns about cultural bias, and social equity.
Growing Evidence from Education ResearchSignificant research findings point to high school grades as a more reliable predictor of college grades, compared with test scores.
Important Bellwethers of a Lasting Shift Away from TestingSome highly respected institutions have found little valid evidence in support of testing requirements and have adopted test-blind policies . The UC system announced in 2021 it had no plan of going back to a test requirement. At the University of Chicago officials contend that their 'no-harm' test-optional policy has positively impacted efforts to foster inclusion and diversity.
Recent National Trends1,825 schools did not require ACT/SAT scores for fall 2022, growing to 1,904 schools for fall 2023. A recent study by Common App found many institutions reporting a growing number of students choosing not to submit test scores.
Flexibility for SchoolsSome experts argue schools often prefer to remain 'test-optional' in order to evaluate applicants based on more qualitative, holistic factors.
Legal RisksIn 2019 a group of students joined with a public interest group to sue the University of California, alleging that SAT/ACT requirements were racially discriminatory. UC settled in 2021 and eliminated all uses of SAT/ACT scores for both admissions and scholarships.

While the recent decisions by three high-profile institutions, all Ivies, to reinstate testing requirements have drawn lots of public attention, it's hardly clear that their actions foretell a broad shift away from test-optional admissions.

That said, just one year after predicting test-mandatory policies would continue to become less popular, reporters at The Hill declared that 'test-optional' may be coming to an end!

With so many schools having adopted test-optional policies in recent years, why are many voices now predicting or calling for a return to test-mandatory admissions?

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SAT/ACT Testing and Admissions: What’s Next?

While it's hard to imagine test-mandatory policies making a big comeback in light of the broad social, historical, research-based, and legal trends we've looked at, recent news commentaries and announcements from Dartmouth, Yale, Brown and UT Austin make it clear the SAT/ACT testing landscape is in flux again.

Perplexed by the back and forth as to the merits of testing, and wondering whether or not students should anticipate a big swing back to mandatory test taking, I reached out to Tze Kwang T., a leading Admissions Strategist with Crimson Education, to get more insights.

Tze Kwang told me he’s not surprised to see universities announcing a return to test-mandatory admissions policies. Why? Because many of the schools who adopted ‘test-optional’ polices during the pandemic described them as temporary. And, in announcing 'test-optional' policies, they reiterated their belief in the usefulness of test scores.

Tze Kwang used UNC Chapel Hill as an example. At Chapel Hill (test-optional as of this writing) officials suspended mandatory test reporting while asserting "we believe [the test scores] are helpful, both to us and to students, when they’re understood appropriately and viewed as part of a larger and much more interesting portrait…"

Tze Kwang told me it was clear "that the admissions office [at UNC] already laid groundwork for reversion in the previous application cycle."

When I asked Tze Kwang about past research validating high school grades as better indicators of college readiness in contrast with the "evidence" officials at Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown alluded to — finding reliable correlations between test scores and college ability, Tze Kwang said it's hard to test these new claims:

The unknown here is how the statistical model is set up…it is a black box to everyone except the statisticians and data analysts inside those Ivy Ivory towers… I am…sensitive to problems such as ‘p-hacking’ and the confusion between statistical and substantive significance [but] to be fair, I don’t know how the statistical model was constructed…

A Return to Testing, But With a Twist?

In order to try and explain the correlation between test score data and college success that officials were referring to, Tze Kwang supposed that it was simply more rare for correlations to arise between school success and other prominent ranking components (such as AP scores for example) for students from less-resourced schools, because those components would be less prominent in those students' applicant profiles.

Essentially, in an unequal high school landscape, Kwang presumes SAT and ACT testing is relatively more universally accessible than many other other high-value academic qualifications for students at under-resourced high schools.

In other words, for students who apply to elite schools but with less traditional academic backgrounds and less high school opportunities, test scores could be used in a new way — not as instruments for ranking and exclusion, but to demonstrate evidence of ability in the absence of other qualifications.

Thus, for a disproportionate number of less advantaged students, the submitted SAT or ACT scores popped up as correlating to college success largely in the absence of other indicators, but the scores might have also provided a tool evaluators could use to more confidently identify students primed to succeed despite an unconventional applicant profile.

Kwang's insights seemed to correspond closely to the rationales for reverting back to mandatory testing voiced by officials from Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown. In their announcements they expressed similar intentions about the practical value test scores had for helping them fill gaps that often made it harder to fairly evaluate students from under-resourced high schools.

In other words, crucial to making sense of the larger shifting admissions landscape is understanding that the return to mandatory testing is not necessarily a simple resumption of past practices, so to speak, but an evolution in how officials view the role of test scores in a holistic admissions process.

For years there's been growing concerns about the impact of test scores on admissions, with testing considered culturally biased and an impediment to inclusion and diversity. Now schools such as Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown are indicating that test scores can actually empower, rather than impede, less traditional applicants.

These claims have also been echoed in recent commentaries from major news outlets, such as a prominent commentary in the New York Times, and a staff editorial in the Washington Post — amplifying the call for a new view of testing requirements at competitive schools.

Lessons from Test-Optional Admissions

Ironically, educators' came to change their views of test scores because of what they discovered after adopting 'test-optional' policies for several years, because only when test requirements were waived did greater numbers of under-represented students begin applying to the more competitive schools, no longer deterred or discouraged by SAT/ACT requirements.

“The [pandemic] disruption, and the changes it prompted, produced a trove of new data to make that debate more evidence-based than ever. And it shows that eschewing much-criticized standardized tests doesn’t help colleges or disadvantaged students.”

- “Colleges are bringing back the SAT. It’s the right move.” Washington Post Editorial Board, 27 February, 2024

When these larger cohorts of underserved students applied to leading schools — some submitting test scores and others not — the challenge of evaluating these students, and the data collected about their success in college, most likely provided school officials with new windows into the admissions process and admissions policy.

Just as Tze Kwang surmised, these Ivy League officials apparently discovered that test scores could be useful for building inclusion — to identify which students from less resourced high schools, or with other individual challenges, were indeed still poised to succeed at at top institution.

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The New Face of TestingAs a Tool for Inclusion

The realization or claim that that test scores can actually help make admissions less biased and more inclusive, and not the other way around, could realistically have a big impact on on SAT/ACT testing policies.

Dean Quinlan, at Yale, summed up the new face of testing policy this way, with an emphasis on inclusion and access:

For students attending high schools with fewer resources, applications without scores can inadvertently leave admissions officers with scant evidence of their readiness for Yale. When students attending these high schools include a score with their application — even a score below Yale’s median range — they give the committee greater confidence that they are likely to achieve academic success in college.

Dartmouth and Brown echoed similar interests, reaffirming holistic admissions practices and identifying test scores as a tool for pursuing both excellence and diversity.

While it's still hard to predict if there will be a mass swing back to mandatory test score reporting, it's clear that the face of policy, and the tenor of the debate, may be shifting significantly...

Will the New Approach Really Work?

Since reverting back to mandatory SAT/ACT testing would likely discourage many applicants from less resourced high schools from applying to elite schools in the first place, it seems highly possible the new approach won't work as envisioned.

In fact, one of the outcomes of test-blind policies touted by high-profile institutions such as UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago is that the policy encourages many more (and more diverse) student applicants, making test waivers indispensable for improving inclusion and opportunity.

“All of the studies that have looked at the [test-optional] policy over the past 20 years show that it does increase the number of applications from disadvantaged, marginalized students.”

- Harry Feder, Executive Director of FairTest

So won't schools realize that reinstating SAT/ACT requirements is simply shrinking the applicant pool, discouraging students from underperforming high schools in particular?

Only time will really tell if the policy truly helps — or hinders — the efforts of Ivies like Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown to build more diverse student communities.

What we can note is that admissions officials from the three schools seemed to understand the risk we just alluded to.

For example, officials recommending the reinstatement of testing requirements also urged school leaders to be proactive in communicating to students and their families the holistic framework that made the score data helpful for increasing access and fostering inclusion.

In other words, at least some officials at Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown appear to see the need to get ahead of the change curve, communicating with the public to ensure test requirements are seen through the new inclusion-focused lens, not tainted by past public perceptions associating SAT/ACT requirements with elitism and exclusion.

Broadly speaking, officials from the three Ivies referred to the following key components of admissions policy:

  • The need to evaluate test scores within a holistic admissions framework
  • The importance of using test scores as an additional tool for building diverse campus communities
  • A critical need for proactive communication to potential applicants to explain how test scores would be used (and not used)

Taken together, along with the return to mandatory testing, the policy recommendations do seem aimed at ensuring the new test-policy-with-a-twist is properly understood so that the policy does not become self-defeating by discouraging promising students from applying altogether.

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Tips for Next Steps

Given what we've seen about the shifting SAT/ACT testing landscape for college admissions, it probably doesn't make much sense for students and parents to try to formulate strategies for standardized testing and admissions based on speculation into future policies.

For the foreseeable future, schools are likely to either retain test-optional policies in line with strong trends in that direction, or reinstate testing, but making a departure from past approaches in favor of a more nuanced, holistic model in which test scores are used to open more doors to students with diverse high school experiences and opportunities.

With all of this in mind, I wondered what advice Crimson Strategist Tze Kwang might have for students and parents weighing whether or not to take the SAT or ACT.

Should students and parents try to predict what comes next in terms of testing requirements?

Is it best to prepare for and take the SAT or ACT even if most schools have test-optional policies?

As a caution to those of us prone to overthink matters, Kwang knew right away what he would advise — seeing the obvious amidst the noise:

As a strategist, I never thought that ‘test-optional’ really means optional. It’s like reading job postings. If a particular qualification is recommended or highly desired, and some other applicant possesses those qualifications, is it really optional anymore?

With this advice in mind, I suggest students put aside the crystal ball and focus less on the uncertainty around testing these days and think of the tests as an opportunity to deepen their knowledge, hone their academic skills, and demonstrate initiative-taking and commitment.

Final Thoughts

Despite the shifting SAT/ACT landscape, most students will have more to gain and little to lose by throwing their hat in the ring and accepting the challenges that come with efforts to submit a strong SAT or ACT score.

For more personalized decisions about whether or not to report test scores, and so forth, that may depend on the nuances of your application profile and those of your target schools' admissions policies and ranking criteria.

Feel free to connect with a Crimson Advisor for help exploring question like these and other important decisions for charting your college journey. Your initial discovery call is free and a chance to see what it might be like to have a network of experienced counselors and mentors lighting your path!

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