Why are Many Colleges Turning Away from SAT and ACT Scores?

Once upon a time, taking the SAT was a right of passage. It was also incontrovertible given that if you wanted to go to college you had to take the SAT. The Scholastic Aptitude Test was considered a great leveler.

High school juniors and seniors were sitting in classrooms, auditoriums, or gymnasiums all over the country, taking the same test at the same time. In years to come, it would be seen that while college admissions officers may have considered the test scores an objective bottom line for making their decisions, the penciled-in circles didn’t tell them which hopefuls had attended top-notch suburban schools and which had endured through the distractions of chaotic inner-city schools.

Neither did it give an inkling of which were test-takers, which were test-phobics, nor which struggled with a learning disability. A change would come but it would take years.

The Evolution of the SAT?

Not many people know the history of the SAT as a veteran of the army. During World War I, Robert Yerkes, a firm believer in the budding IQ test movement persuaded the army that it needed to test the intelligence of all their recruits. And so, the Alpha Army, the first mass-administered IQ test was born. One of Yerkes assistants, Carl Brigham, a young instructor at Princeton, would go on to make the test a bit more difficult and adapt it for a new use – as a college admissions test.

Renamed the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) it was administered experimentally to a few thousand college applicants in 1926. It would eventually find its way to Harvard in 1933 where incoming president James Bryant Conant was looking for a college scholarship test for gifted boys who had not come from the usual elite boarding schools that fed his institution.

He chose the SAT because it measured applicants’ pure intelligence without regard to their perceived abilities. Although this attribute is one of the main reasons the SAT is falling out of favor. But meanwhile the test became the property of a New York company known as the College Board and started its trip to widespread adoption. Significant mile markers along the way included

  • 1938: the College Board tweaks it a bit and uses it as a uniform scholarship exam.
  • 1942: the College Board incorporates a new pool of questions and uses it as a college admissions test
  • 1948: the Educational Testing Service (ETS) is chartered and makes its major mission, seeing to it that the SAT becomes the accepted basic college admissions test.
  • 1960: the burgeoning University of California (UC) system specifies it as a requirement, effectively giving it an official imprimatur for decades to come.

The Origin of the ACT

In 1959, just a year before UC would anoint the SAT out on the coast, a competitor arose from out of the heartland. A university professor by the name of Everett Franklin Lindquist developed a test based on the Iowa Test of Educational Development.

The new test was meant to provide an alternative to the SAT in that it would test information learned in class, rather than the cognitive reasoning strengths the SAT targeted. Its name ACT originally stood for American College Test and Lindquist intended for it to function as a guide for placement.

However it wouldn’t take long for colleges and public universities in the Midwest and Central states to adopt it as their own admissions test, instead of the SAT which they saw as a tool of the selective institutions on the East Coast.


There aren’t really aren’t too many major differences between the ACT and SAT. They both test math, writing, and reading skills, and offer an optional essay, The time span for the test is basically the same, with the SAT allowing three hours and the ACT, two hours 55 minutes.

When it comes to the essay portion, both allow less than an hour – the SAT, 50 minute to the ACT’s 40.. Where the main differences lie is that the ACT has a section covering science whereas SAT doesn’t;. Also, the SAT essay tests students’ comprehension of a source test while the ACT essay tests their ability to comprehend and analyze complex issues.

Myths and Realities

According to a December 2018 article appearing in Education Week, 2012 was the tipping point for ACT overtaking SAT in terms of student choice. In 2016, the last year for which they had figures, 2.09 million students took ACT while 1.56 million chose SAT. One mistaken notion might be that colleges prefer ACT. But the truth is all colleges that require test score submission accept both ACT and SAT scores, and according to College Raptor, an organization that advises parents and students, college admissions officers have admitted openly that they have no preference for one over the other.

In reality, it is geography that dictates which test students are more likely to take with the New York-based SAT predominating along both east and west coasts and the IOWA-City based Iowa Testing Company’s ACT favored in the middle of the country.

One reason for this is that although both tests were designed to gauge the likelihood of success in college, the ACT is seen as more aligned with high school curriculums, many schools districts in the country’s midsection require students to take it as an assessment test to prove they are in compliance with state and Common Core standards.

A Rising Resistance to Testing

Despite their longevity as an instrument to determine “college worthiness”, or perhaps because of this, more and more people are realizing they really don’t know what the tests are meant to measure.

  • Aptitude?
  • Academic achievement?
  • Probability of doing well in freshman year?
  • the overall ability to do well in tests?

One thing no one disputes is this last. Both tests favor those who test well, presenting only one side of the student. This is seen as a false indication since the test scores fail to indicate which low scorers are actually excellent students and top achievers who are test phobes, freezing up when faced with a timed test.

As a result, many of those who do well on tests often find themselves struggling in class, ill-prepared for the everyday demands of college. And vice versa, perfectly capable students find themselves locked out of their college choices.

That ACT and SAT fail to give a full-dimension portrait of test takers has long been used as an argument to oppose them as a criterion for testing college readiness. But over the past decade or so, other arguments are gaining voice. One of the loudest is that both tests have morphed into ends in themselves, sources of stress, anxiety, and expense.

The Stress

Everyone agrees – college-bound students, their parents, and high school guidance counselors – the tests have become monstrous entities that hover over students, throughout a good portion of their high school years, injecting anxiety into schoolwork, distracting them from extra-curricular activities and other aspects of their lives.

As for the high schools themselves, because test scores have become indicators of quality of instruction, teachers are pressured into spending valuable class time teaching to the test instead of focusing on academic studies.

Some high schools, especially in underserved areas where students cannot afford to take expensive test preparatory classes, offer them for free. However this forces students to choose between attending them or participating in the enrichment activities and team sports, that would gain them favor when included on college applications. But this is not the only problem inner city students face.

The Cost Involved and the Resulting Financial Inequality

A whole test preparatory industry has arisen, playing to the pressure even high achievers feel. These do not come cheap. And while children from middle and upper income families attend them as a matter of course, those from low-income backgrounds cannot afford them. And this is not the only financial inequality inflicted on poorer students.

Both the Iowa Testing Company and the College Board charge a fee for taking their tests. Wealthier students have the luxury of retaking it should they not do well, however poorer students can barely afford to take the test once, never mind retaking it.

They Fail to Measure Instructional Inequality

Students from underserved area face challenges that middle and upper income students do not. They often attend overcrowded schools. The atmosphere can be chaotic and in some cases disruptive.

This lowers the quality of their instruction because teachers are forced to focus on maintaining order, leaving them little time or energy to provide encouragement or challenge to students with aspirations of college.

Aside from this, the neighborhood school may not offer the types of courses college bound students need, forcing them to transfer to another school, requiring time spent traveling that could be better spent studying or participating in afterschool enrichment. These students may also have after school jobs that leave them too exhausted to apply themselves to academics.

Criticism from the Top

But perhaps the strongest criticism comes from the president of the College Board himself. The New York Times quotes David Coleman as admitting that highs schools grades are a better prediction of high school success. Not only did he admit that many students are “filled with unproductive anxiety” but he went on to say that only 20% of high school teachers see the test results as a fair reflection of what their students have learned. More tellingly, he went on to admit that

“It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country, It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.”

An Alternative Pathway Opens Up

The good news is that colleges are taking these criticisms to heart. More and more schools are altering their admission policies, leaving it up to the individual student to decide whether or not to submit his/her SAT or ACT scores with their application.

Test optional schools, for the most part, require applicants to submit high school transcripts, teacher evaluations, guidance counselor recommendations, and essays, but individual schools differ in their preferences for additional proofs of readiness. for example

  • Some require test scores but use them for placement guidance, rather than admission purposes.
  • Others want an essay to be included with the application, but use it only as a raw writing sample to gauge how much polishing was provided by parents or guidance counselors. Most want some combination of AP test marks, SAT subject tests, or when appropriate an international baccalaureate.

The Pioneer of Test Optional

Bowdoin College was ahead of its time by many years, declaring itself a test optional back in 1969. Feeling that dropping the test requirement would increase applications from underserved populations who might not apply otherwise, the private college has continued in that vein until the present.

Today’s applicants are asked to supply two essays, a school transcript, and a recommendation from a college counselor. According to a recent article in US News and World Report, their student body of today is 64% white, 11% Hispanic, and 2% black. Of these, 2/3 chose to 3/4 chose to submit test scores while 1/4 to 2/3 chose not to.

Who’s Who on the Test Scores Optional Roster of Today

The same previously referenced World and News Report puts today’s number of test score optional schools at 1,000. The last five years has seen a growing number of public universities like Temple and Virginia Commonwealth, as well as several campuses of large multi-location systems like the University of Massachusetts and the State University of New York, jumping on board. Private schools are well-represented too, as a glance at the list of colleges compiled by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing will show.

Ivy League colleges are there too. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia have all attempted to open their doors a bit wider to students who lack the opportunities their typical applicants enjoy by right of their wealth:

  • In 2014, Harvard allowed students to forgo two tests if it causes financial hardship.
  • In 2016, Columbia dropped subject matter tests and essays as requirements.
  • In 2018, Yale dropped the essay.

And although it is not Ivy League, the University of Chicago, ranked number three after Harvard and Yale on the US News and world Report list of top universities stirred a lot of attention when it added its name to the list in the spring of 2018. This is considered a big coup for the Test Scores Optional camp since the school prides itself on having one of the country’s lowest acceptance rates.

Awaiting California

Despite the fact that California is usually the forefront of innovation, the University of California is proving to be an exception, taking its time to come to a decision regarding going test optional. Many in higher education feel that no matter what the verdict is, yay or nay, their decision will have a say on the future of both the SAT and the ACT. After all, it was the giant UC system’s 1960 decision that had the greatest impact on their wide-spread adoption in the first place.

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