Will SAT and ACT scores be required for college admissions in the future?
Jed Applerouth, PhD
April 11, 2022
Colleges across the country are looking to establish post-pandemic positions on standardized testing. The overwhelming majority of colleges are maintaining test-optional admissions for now, but some colleges now require testing, while others are moving toward test-blind admissions.
Where do applicants have to submit standardized test scores? A summary of recent changes.
Prestigious colleges such as MIT and Georgetown have now officially reinstated testing requirements, while the University of California System and California State University have adopted test-blind admissions policies. In the south, state systems have been vacillating between test-required and test-optional admissions. The State University System of Florida never dropped its testing requirement, and state schools in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas are each grappling with the question of if, how, and when to reinstate testing requirements.
In September 2021, the University of Texas at Austin publicly announced: “Fall 2023 freshman applicants and beyond will be required to submit a standardized test score (either an ACT and/or SAT score) as part of the undergraduate admission application.” Within days, UT reversed that decision and decided instead to uphold its test-optional policy for the class of 2024.
What drove MIT to require SAT and ACT scores as part of its application process? Simply, empirical data. It’s no surprise that MIT uses rigorous analysis of admissions data to determine which criteria are most helpful to predict academic performance and success at MIT.
Announcing the change to the admissions policy, Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services, cited the strength of the SAT and ACT math sections to predict student performance at MIT. According to Schmill:
"Our research has shown that, in most cases, we cannot reliably predict students will do well at MIT unless we consider standardized test results alongside grades, coursework, and other factors. These findings are statistically robust and stable over time, and hold when you control for socioeconomic factors and look across demographic groups.” [Moreover, these tests are most important in predicting success for] “low-income students, underrepresented students of color, and other disadvantaged populations. . . . . [T]he shortest path for many students to demonstrate sufficient preparation — particularly for students with less access to educational capital — is through the SAT/ACT.”
What makes the MIT announcement so striking is the rationale for reinstating testing: to ensure the academic success for a diverse range of students. Test scores are helpful to ensure that underrepresented students are set up for success at MIT, that capable students from underprivileged backgrounds will stand out in the admissions process.
This finding mirrors the research that came out of the Standardized Testing Task Force at the University of California System, in its comprehensive study of standardized testing. The team of UC researchers similarly found that the SAT and ACT were highly predictive of GPA and graduation, and were especially predictive for economically disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities.
After announcing in May 2021 that it would require students to submit standardized test scores, the University System of Georgia recently issued a temporary and partial reversal of its policy, allowing a test-submission waiver for 23 of the 26 schools in the state university system.
The USG explained that more students were submitting incomplete applications, and by waiving the test-requirement, more students might apply. The more selective flagship schools, UGA, and GA Tech are receiving a record number of applicants, in spite of reinstating testing requirements. It’s likely that less selective colleges in the USG may be struggling to hit enrollment targets. Loosening the test-requirement may encourage more applicants to apply.
The UNC Board of Governors also backed away from a recent decision to again require SAT and ACT scores in its admissions process. The state university system decided to extend its testing waiver through the fall of 2024, citing pandemic-driven learning loss as a factor in its decision. According to the chief academic officer of the UNC System, Kimberly Van Noort, “There is a real danger that some of our students have not been exposed to some of the material on the standardized test.” In light of the pandemic-driven learning challenges, students will not have to submit standardized tests for 2 more years. However, test scores may continue to factor into scholarship decisions and entry into honors colleges and special programs.
Texas offered no explanation for its brief return to testing, and its reversal three days later.
A trend towards testing in the southern states?
In addition to Georgia and Florida, other southern state systems may return to test-required admissions for some portion of their member institutions. At an annual conference of higher education consultants, Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech, advised, “Don’t count on the south,” to sustain test-optional admissions. Will flagships from South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, or Mississippi be next? The University of Virginia is also a contender to reinstate testing requirements. UVA is one of the few colleges in the nation to publicize admissions data for test-submitters and non-submitters. In 2021, UVA offered admission to 25.7% of test-submitters and only 13.6% of non-submitters, a net advantage of 89% for submitters.
The slow return to test-required for highly selective institutions
Highly selective schools, following MITs lead, may return to testing. Early on in the pandemic, Stanford announced its intention to eventually return to a test-required position. The Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, Jeremiah Quinlan, has spoken candidly about how SAT and ACT scores are a better predictor of undergraduate performance, measured by first- and four-year undergraduate GPA, than high school GPA. Echoing similar findings to MIT, Yale has found test scores can help boost the candidacy of underrepresented students and help them stand out in the admissions process when they are lacking “other strong and compelling elements in their file.”
While state university systems and highly selective colleges and universities may return to requiring students to submit SAT and ACT scores as part of their application, there are forces restraining the return to test-required admissions.
Highly selective institutions who adopted test-optional policies saw major increases in applications, making them appear more selective to prospective applicants, and increasing their rankings; many selective institutions will be loath to revert to pre-pandemic acceptance rates. Similarly, many selective schools saw their incoming average SAT and ACT scores increase substantially when non-submitters kept their lower test scores out of the averages. Having higher average scores can be compelling for many institutions, enhance the profile of the incoming class and similarly impact rankings.
Thus, even if the admissions data speaks to a predictive value of SAT and ACT scores, the desire to generate more applications and publish higher average scores may serve as an impediment to colleges returning to required testing. Test-optional admissions policies give colleges and universities more latitude to build a class without worrying about how the scores will affect their averages. More colleges will return over time to test-required admissions, but test-optional is here to stay as the dominant model for college admissions in the country.