Looking for answers on the ACT and SAT

Will eliminating college entrance exams open elite campuses to wider range of students?
Despite the fact many colleges are not requiring SAT or ACT scores for admission next year, some students are still planning to take the college admissions exams. Is that a good idea?  (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

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Despite the fact many colleges are not requiring SAT or ACT scores for admission next year, some students are still planning to take the college admissions exams. Is that a good idea? (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

A scheduling mix-up at a Forsyth County high school this weekend led to the last-minute cancellation of the SAT test, leaving many parents upset and some readers puzzled.

Why, several asked, are high school students even bothering with the SAT or ACT since so many colleges made college admission tests optional for admissions this year and next?

It’s a good question with a complicated answer, but one that parents and rising high school seniors need to understand, especially as 1,410 accredited, bachelor-degree granting colleges and universities, including Emory, Mercer and Duke, have already announced they will be ACT/SAT optional (or test-blind) for fall 2022 admission.

Typically, high school students in Georgia begin taking the ACT and SAT in the spring of their junior year and throughout the summer and fall, but hundreds of test dates last year were canceled when the pandemic shuttered schools and campuses.

For example, 79 sites in Georgia were initially scheduled to offer the ACT in July last year, but 55 did not, representing 70% of all testing sites in the state. Because of the challenges, the University System of Georgia allowed students to apply for fall 2021 admission without submitting ACT or SAT scores. There have been no USG updates on whether it will waive scores for 2022.

But students who had SAT/ACT scores could submit them. If they did, did it help their chances?

“Many colleges did not use test scores as a metric for admissions this year. But what I found in talking to admission deans over the last couple weeks at highly selective colleges was that, for the most part, their acceptance rates for students with scores were higher than those without scores. So, it was test optional with an asterisk,” said Jeff Selingo, author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.”

At the University of Georgia, 60% of those admitted this year submitted an ACT or SAT score. About half of the students chose to have UGA use a test score, while half decided to be test optional and not send scores. David Graves, UGA Admissions associate director for operations, cautioned against assuming a SAT or ACT score gave applicants an edge.

“It gets a little more complicated than just yes/no on applicants with test scores and admits with test scores,” said Graves, citing a surge in applications this year after UGA began accepting the Common Application. The Common App is a single undergraduate college admission application that nearly 900 colleges and universities accept, including most in Georgia. Rather than having to complete lengthy applications for each college, students fill out one and just check the campuses to which they want it sent.

“This had a large increase in our applicant pool, with a large increase in applicants who were not academically strong in the classroom, but most likely just added UGA as one more application on the Common App without reviewing our admitted student data on grades and rigor. A larger majority of these students were test optional, thus bringing down the acceptance rate for test optional applicants due to not being academically competitive,” said Graves.

Since a lot of the students working with independent college counselor Allison Grandits hope to earn a state-funded Zell Miller Scholarship, she is advising them to test as Zell requires a qualifying SAT or ACT score. “I would love for USG to be test-optional next year -- Alabama and Tennessee made recent announcements -- but I don’t see it happening. I’ve heard from some colleagues that we probably won’t hear anything until the new chancellor starts this summer,” said Grandits.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, expects more campuses to suspend ACT/SAT submissions for at least another year before the next application cycle opens in late summer, which will mean that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all four-year schools will not require standardized exam scores from current high school juniors. “The big unknowns are campuses in large public systems such as the University of Georgia and State University of New York,” said Robert Schaeffer, FairTest public education director.

The reliance on college admissions exams has been widely criticized in the past decade with critics maintaining that SAT and ACT scores remain a better measure of family income than college readiness. Wealthier parents pay thousands for intensive test prep that has been shown to raise scores.

Without test scores, admissions officers relied on high school curriculum, grade-point averages and a review of whether high school students took such gateway courses as calculus. The problem with that approach, said Selingo, is that half the high schools in the United States do not offer calculus. Those high schools are often the most under-resourced serving the disadvantaged students. “Every time we take out one thing in college admissions, we replace it or use an alternative that may be just as problematic,” said Selingo, speaking at a virtual seminar this week at the Education Writers Association National Seminar.

Also speaking at the EWA national seminar was Georgetown University professor Anthony Carnevale, co-author of “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America.” He said eliminating test scores is unlikely to mute the advantages of the rich, privileged and connected in elite college admissions.

“I think the whole test optional business is a very marginal change. If anything, it gives colleges more power in determining who they admit,” said Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The one thing I would say is that there are no indications that this is going to get any better. All the indications are — apart from the rhetoric — that this is going to get worse. That the crop of two BA-degree-parent families with checking accounts to match is growing rapidly, and they’re not going to loosen their grip on elite schools.”

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