Taking the ACT or SAT has been rite of passage for high school students.
Earning a high score comes with bragging rights for both parents and students. But for those students who view the ACT/SAT with fear and trepidation, the college entrance exams mean hours of studying and often times hundreds of dollars for test prep materials. So when nearly 50 colleges announced that they are dropping the long-time fixture in college admissions, the country could almost feel a collective sigh of relief from some students. Now, at some institutions, admission criteria won’t necessarily be tied to performance on a single test.
But is this summer’s burst of test dropping news an anomaly or can students put away their test prep materials and test anxiety for good?
Increase in Test-Optional Schools
The summer of 2019 saw a significant number of colleges and universities drop the ACT/SAT test from their admissions requirements. Over 50 colleges opted to eliminate using standardized testing in the application process. More than one college a week announced their dismissal of the tests over the duration of this summer.
Moreover, this continues a growing trend over the last decade as more colleges move away from standardized testing. According to Fairtest.org, the number of colleges that have eliminated the test requirement has now grown to about 40% of all colleges and universities. Students and parents can view the complete list of over 1000 schools which includes Brown, Arizona State, NYU and Wake Forest that no longer require standardized testing.
The Test Prep Market
Before taking a look at the future of college entrance exams, let’s consider the longtime rivalry of test prep giants: ACT and SAT. The SAT was first administered in 1926. In 1959, the SAT lost its position as the lone national standardized test used in college admissions with the launch of the ACT. While the SAT was predominantly used by elite colleges and universities on the East Coast, the ACT started out as a modest test serving smaller colleges in the Midwest.
For the first time in 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT in total test takers, just a few years after the SAT made major revisions to its test format and scoring system. After ACT began to capture a larger market share of test takers in 2012, it only took the SAT a couple years to revise their test once again in hopes of regaining their status as top test dog.
While the companies that administer both tests are non-profits, they are clearly economic boomers with ACT reporting a total revenue of $353 million in 2018 and SAT reporting revenue of $1.4 billion. In a recent attempt to nab a greater share of the test market, ACT revealed that in September of 2020, students will be able to take individual subsections as opposed to taking all four test sections per each sitting. In some locations, students will be able to test the test online and receive their scores back in two business days instead of waiting two weeks.
This could be viewed as an attempt by ACT to stay relevant in a college admissions climate that is placing less and less importance on the test. Or it may be a clever tactic to drive more consumer traffic to the ACT over the SAT. It remains to be seen if ACT and SAT can prove their worth to colleges and universities or if these tests will become a thing of the past.
Crafting a Strong Narrative
While ACT and SAT continue to duke it out for student test takers, neither company has figured out how to convince colleges of the value of the standardized test in the admissions process. As colleges and universities continue to evolve their admissions process with less emphasis on test scores, it leaves students and parents wondering exactly how a student will be evaluated. What criteria will be required? How can they prepare for other means of being evaluated?
According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), among the top criteria colleges use to evaluate students include the following: GPA, rigorous high school curriculum, well written essay and passionate involvement in a few meaningful activities outside of school. This is good news for students who can present a picture of their work ethic and involvement over the course of 4 years to prospective colleges. The key for students is to spend their time in high school crafting a sustained narrative of who they are and what they can offer a college community. Also, gap years are growing in popularity. In sum, a student’s personal brand or story is quickly becoming the benchmark for admissions.
This has implications for other skills that students should develop to be competitive. For instance, in-person and virtual interviews may become more commonly used to evaluate applicants.
A Diverse Student Body
However, while students can work to hone a consistent personal brand throughout high school, it is increasingly clear that colleges admissions is more about the college contriving a diverse student body than it is about the merits of individual students. And for those students who have high test scores, but who lack a stand out story…the future of college admissions might look daunting.
The good news is that students can (and must) find a story and sell that to the colleges they wish to attend. In addition, many colleges are looking to fill niche spots in their student body–not only the roles of athlete and musician they need to fill teams and orchestras, but increasingly the roles of activist, politician, economist, philanthropist, scientist, entrepreneur, and many more. High school students who find a way to create a role for themselves during high school will have a better shot of convincing colleges of their value to a diverse campus.
The Future of the Test
The landscape of college admissions is changing quickly, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Sixty percent of colleges still consider test scores as a large part of the admissions process. It doesn’t look like the ACT and SAT are going completely extinct any time soon.
That said, students who aren’t strong test takers have more options than ever before. Regardless of whether or not students take advantage of the growing list of test optional colleges, all students should continue to create a strong overall portfolio of grades, essays, recommendations, and activities as they work to secure the coveted spot at the school of their choice. The rest of us will watch from the sidelines to see if college entrance exams hold their own in the coming years or quietly fade away.