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College Planning

Do You Still Need Strong Standardized Test Scores for College?

How much do your standardized test scores matter? The short answer is “a lot.” But it’s complicated.

SAT and ACT scores continue to matter, at least for the foreseeable future. Their legacy is strong even though the tests have long been criticized—all the more since the outbreak of COVID-19—for their divisive design.

Read on for specifics and don’t worry—no test awaits at the end.

History of the SAT and ACT

With origins dating back to the 1920s, the SAT, short for Scholastic Aptitude Test, is the older of the two. It evolved out of a test to assess the intelligence of U.S. Army recruits during WWI into an experimental college admission exam in 1926. A decade later, it was adopted by Harvard to evaluate scholarship applicants. By the late 1940s, it featured prominently as the college entrance exam to Ivy League universities and other exclusive schools of the Northeast.

Concerned about the SAT’s exclusivity and focus on intelligence as aptitude, rather than academic achievement, a professor from the University of Iowa developed the ACT, American College Test, in 1959. He devised it as a tool to measure students’ readiness for college based on their comprehension and application of key subjects they had learned in schools, such as English, Mathematics, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences.

Both tests have evolved and expanded over the decades and are known today primarily by their acronyms. Nowadays, most, if not all, US colleges and universities require their applicants to take at least one and earn a minimum score as part of the admissions process.

But critics charge neither test ever settled this question: Is the score a predictor of future college success or merely an assessment of the student’s test-taking skill?

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the debate anew, with an increasing number of voices suggesting: Let’s get rid of the SAT and the ACT.

Standardized testing before COVID-19

To understand the controversy, it’s helpful to remember the norm of standardized test-taking.

From the students’ perspective—and sometimes, their parents’—doing well on the tests means validation of sorts. The higher the score, the better and the more accomplished they might feel about themselves, their skills, and their academic future.

But a great test score is not just a question of self-esteem; it’s also the possible ticket to a top university plus a highly coveted scholarship that will make attendance financially feasible.

With so much at stake, preparing for the SAT and or the ACT has become big business. A large test-preparation industry has emerged that seeks to coach students on how to increase their scores, study more effectively, learn various test-taking tips and best practices, and so forth. All for a substantial fee, of course, hindering many students and families.

Despite the inequities, colleges and universities value ACT and SAT scores as a way to compare students on a metric that is independent of the often wildly dissimilar high school curricula across the nation. They also use them as a cutoff point to manage the sheer number of applications, and finally, they’re likely to promote the high scores of their applicants as a testament to their own excellence.

Standardized testing in the age of COVID-19

Life, as we knew, has been upended by the ongoing pandemic, including how, when, and where to take the standardized tests. Consider the following.

  • Many test sites have had to shut down to avoid the spread of the virus.
  • Several paper-and-pencil exams have been postponed, postponed again, and ultimately, canceled.
  • The shift to virtual instructions and online exams has left students without reliable internet connections to take the tests.
  • Many students are despairing over the loss of what they perceive as the most important component of their college application.

All of which begs the question…

To test or not to test?

Currently, many students are simply without test scores. They have been unable to take the exams because of the widespread cancellations throughout 2020.

No clear directive has yet emerged from higher education institutions on how to address the problem.

Since March, many colleges and universities have waived SAT/ACT requirements at least for now, e.g., the University of California.

But others are sending mixed messages. On its website, Purdue University states that it will evaluate applications without test scores for 2021 applications. Purdue calls itself “test flexible.” But “[t]his means that if a student can take an SAT or ACT, we prefer they do so.”

The University of Michigan’s policy contains similar ambiguity. On the one hand, its website explains, “students who are unable to provide standardized test scores are encouraged to apply and will not be disadvantaged in the application process.” On the other hand, a statement on the same page alerts applicants that “test scores are encouraged (SAT I or ACT), if available.”

The University of Oregon and Cornell University are experimenting with test-optional policies yet will still consider test scores.

What’s a student to do?

What does this mean for you?

Uncertainty is most likely to prevail for the near future and no similar historic event exists to offer guidance. As you and your child decide your student’s future, keep these points in mind:

  • Take a close look at the admission guidelines of the schools your child wants to attend. What are their policies?
  • Research which scholarship opportunities, if any, depend on SAT/ACT scores. What other financial aid possibilities are there?
  • How could your child bolster their application without test scores? Consider letters of recommendation, good grades, honor society, volunteering, and after-school activities.
  • Remember the 30,000-foot-view: A single test score, a single college choice will not make or break your child’s future. Several schools will help them craft a full, enriching, productive life.

More Colleges opting to not use SAT or ACT

Assessing the weight of ACT/SAT scores is certainly challenging and ever-changing. The number of colleges who do not use the SAT or ACT exam is growing significantly each year. The colleges and universities claim that this levels the playing field for applicants and ultimately makes the admissions process more accessible and fair. This very well may be true. However, it is important to note that student’s who did not submit test scores likely scored lower than those who did. As a result, the college is able to report a higher average test score for admitted students. Also, colleges who are opting not to use the ACT or SAT , have seen an increase in the number of admissions applications. What does this really mean? Higher average test scores, along with increased number of applicants, lends itself to higher national rankings.

Test-Optional vs. Test-Blind vs. Test-Flexible

There are a few different methodologies colleges can use when it comes to SAT or ACT scores. It is recommended to check with each school individually on how they treat test scores in the admissions process.  Some schools will be ‘Test-Blind’, meaning that even if test scores are submitted they will not be considered. Others may be ‘Test-Optional’, meaning test scores are not required but will be evaluated with a student’s application if submitted. Lastly, there is ‘Test-Flexible’, which means the student can submit other exam scores such as AP or IB. 

What about Merit Scholarships

Test scores can still have a very large impact on merit scholarship eligibility. College who are ‘Test-Optional’ may not require test scores to make their admissions decision, but many of these schools will use test scores to determine the merit scholarships that will be offered. So if a student has strong test scores, as compared to the college, then we recommend submitting them. This not only bolsters the application, but can increase the chances of being offered a merit scholarship. If the student’s test are not a strength, that is completely fine. Just be aware that the college will be scrutinizing other parts of the application including: essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, academic rigor, GPA, and demonstrated interest in the school. 

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