An internal battle raged in Gabby Smith’s mind over her college admissions process.
It wasn’t about which colleges you apply to or what major you choose. It had nothing to do with tuition or scholarships.
The Plum senior was fighting over a key decision that has been at the forefront of college admissions preparation since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic: whether to include an ACT test result in an application to colleges and universities.
“Standardized tests always trip me up,” says Smith, who wants to study biology. “I know I’m a strong student and the standardized tests are the opposite of what school and college can do for me.”
As of spring 2020, many colleges and universities across the country — including Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Princeton — suspended the requirement for a standardized test as part of a student’s application. Some have eliminated the requirement entirely, while others have left the decision as optional for students who feel their SAT or ACT score makes them a more attractive candidate.
Before the pandemic, about 40% of colleges and universities did not require applicants to submit standardized test scores, according to education nonprofit FairTest.
As of this month, more than 80% of higher education institutions do not require such grades for admission, according to FairTest. Every college and university in Southwest Pennsylvania currently lets most applicants choose whether to share standardized test scores. Those seeking admission to honors colleges or other specialty admissions could still be asked to submit scores.
This means that high school students must decide whether to take the SAT or the ACT test at all.
“It’s definitely something that everyone is still trying to come to terms with at this point,” said Penn-Trafford High School counselor Melissa Sutmire. “The kids aren’t sure, and when we’ve contacted admissions staff, sometimes they don’t have a clear answer for us either.”
How do universities weight the grades?
Traditionally, SAT and ACT scores have been viewed as indicators of a student’s understanding of educational concepts and their ability to succeed in a college setting. SAT scores might not have been the determining factor in a student’s admission, but they played a role.
Although some schools had moved away from standardized testing requirements before the pandemic, the Covid outbreak turned college admissions on its head.
Take the University of Pittsburgh. It became trial-optional in September 2020 and announced last month that it would extend the policy to at least 2025.
About half of Pitt’s current freshman class applied without standardized test scores, said Kellie Kane, Pitt’s director of admissions. Students who chose to withhold a test score were required to submit additional materials, such as essays and personal statements, as part of their application.
Kane said there was “no benefit” at Pitt in applying with or without a standardized test score.
“It’s really about what a student thinks is the best representation of who they are,” she said.
Many other test-faculty schools reflect similar sentiments.
Recent data, at least temporarily, reflects students moving away from tests.
According to College Board, the company that administers the SAT exam, about 30% fewer students nationwide took the SATs in 2021 (1.5 million students) than in 2020 (2.2 million). As of September, 1.7 million students had completed the SAT in 2022.
The number of students taking the ACT exam has also decreased compared to 2020. About 1.35 million students took the ACT this year, according to Inside Higher Ed, which tracks college and university issues and trends. That’s up from about 1.3 million students last year, but down from 1.67 million in 2020.
Test scores are also lower.
The ACT’s average score for the Class of 2022 was 19.8, the lowest in more than three decades, according to the ACT. The maximum score is 36.
The SAT values went down slightly. This year’s mean score was 1,050, compared to 1,060 for the Class of 2021. Students can score a maximum of 1,600 on the SAT.
things to consider
Class 101 Pittsburgh East franchisee John Izzo, an Irwin educational advisor, encourages students to take tests regardless of a college’s admissions requirements.
“There’s a difference between entering and entering with scholarship funds,” Izzo said.
He added that scores can benefit students who want to explore honors options or specific programs.
Smith of Plum is one of Izzo’s students. She eventually decided to submit her ACT “superscore” — the average of her best scores after multiple test attempts — to schools that would accept it. She did not submit a score to Penn State, the only school on her list that did not accept super scores.
“It was strategic,” said Smith, who applied to seven colleges.
Although many colleges insist that a standardized test score does not favor an applicant, students can still use the results to their advantage—for example, when students have a score that is equal to or higher than the average applicant score for that college.
Hoon Kim, a college admissions consultant at the Allegheny County educational organization Pittsburgh Prep, agreed. In general, Kim said, students who want to attend top schools or apply for scholarship funds have not wavered in their decision to take standardized tests.
Additionally, Kim said, students with poor grades on their transcripts could benefit from a high SAT or ACT score.
“The SATs allow them to demonstrate their skills and provide documented evidence that they can be successful,” he said.
Test optional blessings
Before the advent of test-optional policies, a lower SAT score could have cast a bad light on a student with an otherwise outstanding record. For that reason, Kim said he believes the test-optional movement has been a boon to many high school students.
“(Test-optional applications) provide an opportunity for students to show who they are, especially when they have exam anxiety,” Kim said. “A student could be top of his class or president of a school club, and his only flaw is his SAT score.”
When it came time to apply to colleges, Genevieve Henderson, a freshman from Penn State New Kensington, decided against submitting her SAT score. As someone with OCD, Henderson said she found it difficult to sit in a classroom for hours and take a test. A standard SAT or ACT exam takes about three hours to complete.
“I feel like my GPA reflects my knowledge better because I’m not a ‘test taker,'” said Henderson, who graduated from Burrell High School.
Standardized test scores may not reflect who a student is academically — and could even be misleading, said Barbara Hinkle, a former vice president at Seton Hill University with decades of experience in the university’s admissions process. Seton Hill became test-optional about 10 years ago.
Hinkle said she believes standardized test scores only give an “indication” of who a student is. She said they provide little information about how this student would do in college.
“In my experience, there were some students who came in with great standardized test scores who didn’t do well and didn’t stay long,” Hinkle said. “There were other students who came in and turned out to be shining stars.
“My bottom line: There are people who are good at testing and there are people who are not good at testing. Whether you are good at it or not says nothing about your results or achievements.”
Further changes to standardized tests are on the horizon. The College Board announced earlier this year that the SAT will become a shorter, digital test by spring 2024. The ACT can already be taken online.
It’s too early to tell if the test-optional move will hold up. Regardless, there is a “seismic shift” in college admissions, Kim said.
“To think that the test-optional approach will solve all difficulties is naïve,” he said, “but focusing too much on exams can be a barrier to students who would succeed.”
Maddie Aiken is a contributor to the Tribune Review. You can contact Maddie via email at email@example.com or via Twitter .