The end of the SAT and ACT?

For decades, it almost seemed like a rite of passage. Yet could the world-renowned US college admission tests be on a road of decline?

Many prospective applicants would have been aware that many colleges have temporarily hit the pause button on the SAT and ACT requirements for the 2021/22 academic years. The way this worked for the large majority of colleges was through a ‘test optional’ system that meant that prospective candidates could still take the test, but it won’t be a determining factor and they aren’t expecting a large number to do so. In such cases they will look at school assessments, exams, cognitive ability, GPAs and other potential factors to determine admission. 

Yet, there are bigger ripples disrupting higher education university placement entrance assessments, known as ‘test blind’. Unlike ‘test optional,’ ‘test blind’ means that schools will not be factoring traditional admission tests such as the SATs when admitting prospective candidates, even if they may have taken it. These are usually replaced by holistic assessments, looking at student’s cognitive ability, a wider spectra of school assessments and in the case of some colleges, their own tailor-made tests and assessment criteria. 

‘Test blind’ institutions have started to rack up in tally. In the last month, MIT has come out and said it will no longer be considering SAT subject tests starting from the cohort due to be enrolled in the 2020-21 academic year. However, the biggest news has come out of the University of California, a behemoth of world-renowned colleges across the state that also attract large numbers of international students, which has announced plans to go ‘test-optional’ for the next two academic years through to the 2022 cohort, and transitioning to a ‘test-blind’ institution from the 2023 and 2024 intakes.

In an announcement of the changes, Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California, said that the institution is working on its own a “better and fairer” standardized admissions test for those intakes. Yet, she did begrudgingly add that they will revert to SATs and ACTs if they fail in that venture. Ms. Napolitano’s move hasn’t been universally popular, with many Admissions Officers within her very own institution argued that they did help determine placements much easier. Although, after a vote of the Board of Governors this week, Ms. Napolitano got her way and will be implementing this giant experiment.

The US traditionally has two tests the SAT and the ACT. The ACT, developed in 1959, tests the academic abilities of prospective college students and provided an alternative to the SAT. Students are allowed to take it more than once with universities counting their highest score. However, students who do the test in a ‘test optional’ system will still get their scored counted and if they got a good grade, then this becomes an advantage over other applicants. This system isn’t novel or reactively implemented because of the coronavirus. In fact, it’s been in wide use by a number of US universities in various phases over the last few years.

The SAT, in effect in some form since the 1900s and its introduction by Ivy League schools with the creation of the College Entrance Examinations Board (now known as the College Board). The ultimate aim of the SAT was to act as a standardized entrance exam for the College Board that required students to write out answers and compose essays. Whilst the test did have a number of revisions over the years, its general gist remained the same. The SAT of today includes two separate divisions of the exam: the SAT I, which is a general test of verbal and math ability, and the SAT II, which tests knowledge in specialized subjects chosen by students.

Today, college admissions organizations have become multimillion-dollar businesses that have a whole network of published materials, tutors and money to be made, essentially dominating the college admissions process over many decades. 

Yet, it is this very aspect of having to pay significant sums that poses a problem for some critics of the admissions tests. The argument goes that it is richer and more well-off students who tend to do better as they can afford to pay for tutors and similar support to try and increase test scores. Although a large number of states may sponsor poorer students to take it, they are still left with the disadvantage as they cannot afford to pay for the extra help that goes a long way to getting better grades and thus making the playing field uneven. 

A survey conducted by the College Board, the folks who come up with the SAT exams, showed a disconnect between richer students, who may have gotten SAT techniques and thorough preparation, but lower GPAs at school (indicating less effort put into school work) did better and therefore had a higher chance of getting admitted into University than those who worked harder, got higher GPAs through their school work but lower SAT/ACT scores due to their lack of access to tutors and other support that significantly helps in nailing down exam technique and approach to these admission entrance exams. 

Whilst the coronavirus spurred a lot of these institutions to temporarily postpone testing requirements, many have viewed the opportunity as a last straw and unique opening to try go for optional testing, with some saying the scrutiny and transparency of these tests are not up to standard. This is particularly true during the coronavirus pandemic that has shut, or severely limited most schools both in the US and globally – forcing the College Board to go digital with these years’ admissions tests. However, this has caused a greater fear of lack of equitability, as students who have tutors will be able to get a gamified strategy in scoring top marks. Admission Officers who still require these tests for the 2020-21 cohort, are wary as there would be varying versions of the exam at different times, ultimately meaning students won’t get the same test at the same time. However, those who have scrapped the compulsory testing requirements are seen to rarely go back to that form of mandatory assessment, which could mean bigger tectonic shifts into how students across the world get their US university placements. This could very well streamline the process to look more like that is in other countries such as the UK and Australia.

The script is very much still being written, stay tuned to Causeway Education for further updates. Our tutors provide the latest news and information that will help guide you in your journey to get that dream US university placement.

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