The Scoop on SATs, ACTs, and Test-Optional

The Scoop on SATs, ACTs, and Test-Optional

The SATs and ACTs have been around for longer than you might think, and began for reasons you may not have known.

Now, more and more schools are becoming test-optional, as their value and fairness are re-assessed, and the ability to take them is challenged during the pandemic. It’s created some confusion about what it all means for the high school classes of 2021 and 2022. 

Below, we’ve addressed your most pressing questions:  

 

What Are the SATs and ACTs? 

Both are standardized tests taken by high school students and used by colleges and universities to help make admissions decisions. The SAT measures knowledge and skills in three areas: writing, math, and critical reading. The ACT measures knowledge and skill in four areas: English, math, reading, and science reasoning. It also offers an optional direct writing test. 

 

How Long Have Standardized Tests Been Around?

The idea of standardized testing began around 1900 with The College Board Entrance Exam.

It included questions that most American students at the time, those without elite high school educations, could answer—which ostensibly made admissions more egalitarian.

Harvard adopted the test in 1905, and other schools followed suit. But there were unforeseen consequences. 

“By 1908, the [Harvard] freshman class was seven per cent Jewish, nine per cent Catholic, and forty-five per cent from public schools, an astonishing transformation for a school that historically had been the preserve of the New England boarding-school complex known in the admissions world as St. Grottlesex,”  according to a 2005 Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker.

 In a 2015 Washington Post article, Sarah Kaplan explained what happened next: “Alarmed at the increasing enrollment of Jews and other ‘undesirables,’ schools quickly added other requirements intended to weed out these applicants: letters of reference, assessments of ‘manliness,’ personal essays, evidence of extracurriculars.” (At the time, almost all college students were men.) 

Kaplan continued, “That was the status quo when James Conant became Harvard’s president in 1933.

Colleges were willing to be more inclusive, but only of certain groups and only to a degree.

“But Conant had a different vision. According to Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, Conant was frustrated by the white, wealthy, Protestant establishment’s tight grip on power in the U.S., and he had a plan to ‘unseat them.’”

He hoped that the College Board’s SAT, which eventually evolved from an Army IQ test, would help. The idea of the SAT wasn’t to test what you knew, which would be influenced by the opportunities you’d had, but what you were capable of learning–your aptitude. Harvard began using an early version of the test in 1934. By 1961, the SAT was given to over 800,000 students each year. 

The ACT was created in 1959 as competition for the SAT, and in 1989 began offering science and reading sections.

 

What’s the Controversy Over the Current Tests?

Some experts today believe that students who benefit most from the tests continue to be those from privileged backgrounds. According to the Washington Post article, “study after study has found that poor and minority students are consistently out-performed on the exam by their white, wealthier peers.” There has also been evidence of cheating by families with money.

To help admission offices compensate for socioeconomic and racial disparities, the College Board introduced what it called an environmental context dashboard, which was later revised and renamed Landscape. From the Hechinger Report: “After piloting the dashboard for three years, the College Board decided to drop the idea of offering colleges a score to represent a student’s socioeconomic background. The score–which had been dubbed an adversity score–had been calculated using school and neighborhood information.

“Criticism of reducing such information to a single score, and concern about how that score would be used, caused the College Board to revise and rename the tool. Information offered to admissions officers by Landscape will include the number of children eligible at the student’s school for free or reduced-price lunches; average number of seniors taking AP courses; and average AP score at that school. Landscape will also evaluate neighborhood factors such as median family income; number of single-parent households; vacancy rates; and typical educational attainment.”

Also in question is the focus of standardized tests, and the amount of preparation required to take them.

In the Hechinger Report article, parent Alisson Tomasula says there’s too much emphasis on the tests: “I would hope more colleges would go to test-optional,” she said. Students “should be judged on their merit. I think the ACT or SAT just show how they regurgitate information.” 

 

What Is the Test-Optional Movement?

The debate over standardized testing started long before COVID-19, but the virus has accelerated changes in the college application process.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), reports that for Fall 2021, 1,250-plus institutions are now test-optionalwhich means that a student decides whether they can and/or want to take and send their test results to schools.

FairTest maintains a master list of test-optional colleges and universities.

In the Washington Post article by Ms. Kaplan, she discusses how the SAT-optional movement began “in the second half of the 20th century with Bowdoin and Bates colleges in Maine—back then, the policy change was seen as the kind of zany approach only a tiny liberal arts college could get away with.

But when Bates released a study in 2005 showing that its graduation rates were unaffected by whether or not students had taken the test, several other schools followed suit.

By the following year, more than a quarter of the country’s top liberal arts colleges had done away with their own requirements.”

 

If There Are No SATs/ACTs, How Will My Student Be Evaluated for College Readiness?

According to The National Association for College Admission Counseling, test scores carry weight, but the most important factor that colleges consider is grades.

The tests (if you’ve taken them), along with grades, high school GPA, extracurricular activities, high school classes taken, letters of recommendation from teachers or mentors, admissions interviews, and personal essays are all evaluated when considering a student for admission to college.

The importance of the tests varies by school.

Many experts argue that a new test needs to be created that focuses on skills that can be used in the workplace, rather than memorization of what Bello calls “easily searchable factoids, rules, and formulas.” 

 

What About PSATs and Merit Scholarships?

Princeton Review reports that more than 3.4 million high school students, mostly juniors and sophomores, take the PSAT nationwide every year.

The test is offered in October, and the results can trigger entry into the National Merit Scholarship Program, an academic competition.

Students and parents want to know if this too is affected by the test-optional change.

In a Facebook Live interview with Road2College, Akil Bello, Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest, said, “Some institutions are test-optional, but not for merit aid.”

Be careful, he cautions, if you’re going down the FairTest list of test-optional schools—pay close attention to their footnoted guidelines about Merit Scholarships. 

 

Note: There is a difference between National Merit Scholarships and scholarships that are awarded by schools based on merit (and usually rely on test scores and GPA).

 

What Does Test-Blind Mean?

In his Facebook Live interview with Road2College, Mr. Bello discussed what test-blind is and how it affects your child:

There are a couple of schools in the country that are actually test-blind.

Who essentially say, we won’t look at tests no matter what you do—you can tattoo them on your forehead and show up in our admissions office and we’re not going to look at them. . .

So it’s important for parents and families when they’re thinking about or hearing about test-optional, to investigate further and see what that policy looks like at the individual institution they’re interested in.”

As for the October 2020 PSAT test date, also pay close attention to the College Board site for any updates.

As of this writing, it’s still scheduled to take place.

 

Are Subject Tests Required?

According to ThoughtCo, no school in the country requires subject tests. There are some schools, however,  like Harvard and NYU that highly recommend a certain number of tests be taken, and there are many others who merely “recommend” students take them and state they will consider the scores if taken.

Bello says that if a student is thinking about subject tests, they should look at whether the institutions they’re considering are one of those.

If you send the scores, the schools may look at them, but if you don’t, they’re fine—it won’t count against you. 

That said, there are some schools where a specialized program such as STEM may require a subject test or two—engineering, for example–but not for general applicants.

So if you’re applying to any of those sorts of programs, make sure you double-check the policies. 

 

Will My Student Be Penalized at a Test-Optional School If They Don’t Take the Tests?

Right now, students will have to trust that schools will honor their statements about the absence of SAT and ACT scores on their decision-making.

Bello says,“I’ve heard of no institution that would claim to be test-optional and then make decisions on the basis of test scores.” 

 

Where Can I Find The Latest SAT/ACT Test Dates?

Visit the College Board and ACT sites for details. 

 

If your child has any questions about what a specific college is asking for in the way of standardized testing, they should absolutely reach out and ask, or visit its website. The information is generally included under its FAQs and/or Test-Optional pages. 

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Melissa T. Shultz

Melissa T. Shultz

Melissa T. Shultz is a writer, and the acquisitions editor for Jim Donovan Literary, an agency that represents book authors. She's written about health and parenting for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, AARP’s The Girlfriend, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Next Avenue, NBC’s Today.com and many other publications. Her memoir/self-help book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life was published by Sourcebooks in 2016.
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