College Admissions Testing: Navigating a Changing Landscape

Posted by Marianne Stephens on 11/22/2020

Declining Importance

For many years, the SAT or ACT was a required elements of the college admissions process. However, even before the pandemic, testing was slipping in its importance due to growing evidence that scores are not the best predictor of college performance. Scores correlate most closely to family wealth, and the data show that scores suppress opportunity more than they enable opportunity. (References:  Final Thoughts on the SAT and ACT by Jon Boeckenstedt; Fact Sheets  


Cancellations and Testing Roulette

As Shorewood families know, we were unable to offer the PSAT in October 2020 and have not hosted the SAT or ACT since March 2020. The December 2020 SAT and ACT are cancelled, and we exams scheduled in Spring 2021 may or may not occur. As long as the Shorewood building is closed to in-person instruction, we will not host tests. It is uncertain whether exams will be hosted if/ when we go to hybrid instruction. The annual all-junior School Day SAT, usually held in March, is uncertain. 

Trying to find another testing location has become a sort of testing roulette:  you can choose a location that you think will hold the exam, but there is no guarantee that it will actually host the exam when the times comes, and you cannot change a registration short-term. This guessing game is made more difficult by the College Board’s delay in listing closed sites. 


Colleges Going Test Optional

Virtually all colleges have gone test optional or test blind for the current seniors, the Class of 2021, and most of those colleges have made it a multi-year policy. We expect colleges to continue to be flexible; they need students. 

Uniformly, college admissions officials at the approximately 100 colleges we deal with the most have said that they do not want families to take risks and they tell students that their time & energy is better spent on coursework and activities. They are well aware of the stressors on families now and of the inevitable stress of college admissions, so they are trying to alleviate that stress slightly by removing testing requirements since that is one of the many barriers to college admissions. 

It is extremely difficult to forecast what colleges will do longer term. We expect the vast majority of colleges to continue the test optional policies. However, some colleges and the military academies may re-institute the requirement when circumstances change. We would project that the vast majority will remain test optional.

Many families have wondered if test optional really means test optional, and hundreds of colleges have affirmed that yes, Test Optional Means Test Optional (NACAC) and/ or they have published extensive information about their policies and how test scores will be used (SAT / ACT Scores, UW Seattle). 


National Merit Scholarship Program

The Annual National Merit Scholarship Program, usually based on scores earned by student who take the PSAT in the fall of their Junior year, has announced an alternate qualification for this class of 2022. However, it is based on students taking an SAT in the spring. The uncertainly of that will complicate this possibility for students nationwide. 

It remains to be seen whether the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will further revise the announcement they made earlier this fall. Please understand that this program benefits only a few students and recent National Merit Semifinalists at Shorewood have largely not received large scholarships. Read more detail here:  National Merit Qualification for the Class of 2022. 


Other Forces

Despite most colleges’ policies, some families continue to pursue the tests. For an examination of this choice, see The SAT and the ACT Will Probably Survive the Pandemic an excerpt from Jeffrey Selingo’s new book published in The Atlantic. Basically, families are having a hard time letting go of the belief that taking the tests will give them an advantage. Selingo discusses many forces at work, including the college search industry, which has become a multibillion dollar enterprise.  



As families are making decisions about testing, we encourage them to prioritize safety and student well-being. No one factor will make or break a student’s chances at college. If you decide to pursue testing, be sure that the time and effort you put into it will actually be worth it. 

We have heard of families spending 30 or 40 hours only on the attempts to test, not counting hours on test prep. Those hours may be spent researching testing sites (remember that the College Board’s SAT Test Center Closings page is not well kept up), attempting to communicate with the College Board or ACT; canceling and re-registering; or planning travel to sites that say they are open. 

Please also consider whether the time and effort will be worth it is a student does not meet score targets. 

The emphasis on scores has been declining for years, and colleges really do mean that students will not be penalized if they do not have scores. If we are able to hold a School Day SAT in the spring, the Class of 2022 will have at least one set of scores that they can then choose to use or not. 

Students who may be on track for National Merit Scholarship consideration and students aiming for military academies may choose to pursue testing. Of course it is up to students and their families. 

If you wish to leave the possibiity open, you could register for exams late in the school year (May and/or June 2021) with the understanding that we cannot know what availability will look like then. 

For most families, the effort required for chasing tests may not be worth it. 


Sources/ Further Information

The Role of Standardized Testing in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond:  Guidance for Colleges and Universities  National Association of College Admission Counselors Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing, 2020. NACAC includes both high school and college counselors. While this report targets colleges, interested families will learn what the colleges are hearing and what their priorities should be. 

The SAT and the ACT Will Probably Survive the Pandemic an excerpt from Jeffrey Selingo’s new book Who Gets in and Why:  A Year Inside College Admissions. Excerpt published in The Atlantic

Toppling Testing? COVID-10, Test-Optional College Admissions and Implications for Equity by Kelly Rosinger, Penn State. A look at how colleges can accomplish goals of equal access. Despite the press that equity efforts receive, underrepresented populations are still disproportinoately underrepresented at most colleges. 

Jon Boeckenstedt’s Admissions Weblog with several posts on standardized testing and his Recommendation on Admissions and Testing at OSU detailing the rationale behind the recommendation that Oregon State go test-optional.  Boeckenstedt, the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, has studied testing for years, with a focus on the data. searchable database of schools with test-optional, test-blind, or test-flexible policies. See the footnotes and detail for each college. Fact Sheets on various aspects of the issue.