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Is The SAT Dead?

test optional
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Read the following story then select the best answer. 

The SAT is: 

A. Increasing less important

B. As relevant as ever

C. Already dead 

A. None of the above 

Wondering if the SAT is dead and suggesting it might not be important for college admissions would have been laughable a few years ago, however, policies around entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT are changing rapidly. 

The pandemic accelerated a trend among higher ed institutions to make the SAT and ACT options in the applications of prospective students. Currently, more than 1,800 universities (or close to 80 percent of the institutions in the nation) are test-optional or test-blind for 2022 admissions, and more than 1,400, or about 60 percent of these schools, have already said they will keep these policies in place at least for the class of 2023. Prior to the pandemic, only about 40 percent of colleges were test-optional or test-blind. 

Given these changes, it makes sense for students and the educators who guide them to wonder whether devoting time to the SAT  and ACT is worthwhile.

Is The SAT Dead?  

“The reality is that despite the growth in test-optional policies, the SAT/ACT is not dead or dying. It is more like on life-support,” says Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at Khan Lab High School and co-author of The Truth about College Admission. “Until we find another more equitable and effective means of assessment that can be standardized, our current testing options will likely remain.” 

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, does not believe the SAT will ever die/disappear completely, but does think its prominence could continue to diminish. For a long time, The College Board (which administers the SAT) offered a second tier of tests, the SAT Subject Tests (formally the Achievement Tests and SAT IIs), before dropping these last year

Schaeffer believes that eventually the SAT and ACT will occupy the space on college applications once occupied by Subject Tests. “A handful of schools required them and kids who wanted to add to their portfolios would take them, but they were not a fundamental part of the admissions process,” he says. 

Should Students Still Take the SAT? 

“I do still recommend that students take standardized tests because, like it or not, the ACT/SAT are still required by some schools and state systems,” Barnard says. 

However, the question is more complicated than it once was. “College counselors are all over the map on this and as with everything in college admission, it depends,” he says. “If you are a counselor in Florida or Georgia, or in a state where standardized testing is used for merit scholarships tied to testing, then your views are likely very different than if you work with students from California where the UCs are test-blind.” 

Neha Gupta, author and founder of College Shortcuts, an academic mentorship program, says students should only take the SAT or ACT if they have time to take the exams multiple times. “Studying for these exams to take them once is not the best use of any student's time,” she says, noting that students with good scores are often taking it at least two or three times. Instead, she advises students to focus on honing the non-test side of their applications. “I am proud that admissions officers are going to look at more of the human aspect of the application. When it comes to the essays, the resume, what are they passionate about? Why do they want to go there? What are their values,” Gupta says.

Despite the test's decrease in prominence, there are still other reasons to take it.

“Many scholarships still ask for standardized testing results as part of the criteria for completing scholarship applications,” says Dr. Aliber Lozano, vice president of regions support for AVID, a nonprofit that helps schools shift to a more equitable, student-centered approach. 

Lozano adds that taking the test has other benefits, including improving students’ test-taking abilities and helping prepare them for college. 

“The College Board and the SAT were founded to increase access to college and that remains our core mission," Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of College Readiness Assessments at the College Board, said in an emailed statement. "During the pandemic, colleges have introduced more flexibility and choice into the admissions process. Some students may decide their application is stronger without test scores, while others will benefit from sending them, including the many thousands of underrepresented students whose SAT scores strengthen their college applications. Evidence shows that when colleges consider SAT scores in the context of where students live and go to school, as with our free admissions tool Landscape, the SAT helps increase diversity. A recent report from the University of California shows this clearly. As we emerge from the pandemic, the SAT will remain one of the most accessible and affordable ways for students to distinguish themselves. Preserving a student’s choice to submit scores is important.”

Equity & Student Reactions 

Gupta says students she works with fall into two camps in their reaction to test-optional policies. 

“Students who are interested in more technical fields, or tend to be more academic, or booksmart, are not very happy that they're not able to showcase their test-taking skills and show a great score as a barometer of some of the things they're capable of. And now they're getting asked to write a vulnerable, heartfelt essay about their passions and interests and emotions, and they're realizing that that is going to determine their ability to get in,” she says.  “Then there's other students who aren't great test takers, or they hate studying for the SAT, and they know that they don't have to work so hard at it. And so they're very happy that now they can focus more on their essays.” 

Regardless of student reaction, test-optional policies do promote greater equity

“The evidence is better than we had predicted,” Schaeffer says of test-optional policies. “Schools found they got more applicants. They got better academically qualified applicants. And they got more diversity of all sorts. The college class that started a couple months ago was the most diverse in history.” 

One reason for this increased diversity is that students who got lower scores were reluctant to apply to selective schools in the past. “Kids would see that average score, and say, ‘Well I’m below average, so I shouldn't apply.’ While half the kids who were accepted in the past were below average, that's what average means, but the teenage brain didn't understand that,” Schaeffer says. 

“Regardless of where the test-optional movement goes, we need colleges and universities to be as transparent and articulate as possible with their policies,” Barnard says. “There tends to be a lot of anxiety, mistrust, and confusion about the role of testing in admission decisions. While standardized testing might be useful for some schools in assessment, we must continue to acknowledge how unlevel the playing field is and ask ourselves if what is best for young people is spending unspeakable amounts of time and energy preparing for a test that only serves one purpose.” 

Correction 11/22/21: The ACT is administered by the nonprofit ACT, Inc. not the College Board as this article originally stated. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a journalist, author and educator. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.