Test-Optional Insights: Understanding the Impact of the SAT and ACT on College Admissions in 2024

In the dynamic landscape of college admissions in 2024, a notable shift is underway as certain institutions that went Test-Optional during COVID are re-evaluating their approach. They’re realizing that relying solely on grades to determine a student’s college readiness isn’t cutting it, so they’re putting SAT and ACT scores in the spotlight again, according to the New York Times. This shift brings both challenges and opportunities for students. 

To discuss the evolving college admissions landscape, I sat down with David Blobaum, the Director of Outreach at the National Test Prep Association. He sheds light on the policy changes happening at universities across the country and provides valuable perspectives for parents navigating the intricacies of college admissions.

Watch Interview with David Blobaum, Director of Outreach at the National Test Prep Association

Read Interview Transcript

Ann Dolin: So a lot has changed when it comes to standardized testing and college admissions, especially in the last few years with the test-optional movement. Can you tell us a little bit about the current state in 2024 of college admissions?

David Blobaum: Absolutely. So starting in 2020, colleges were forced to go test-optional, and they were truly test-optional that first year because students couldn’t take the test. Schools were closed.

With every year after 2020, schools have become increasingly less truly Test-Optional. So now, there’s really a bunch of different policies that schools have. So a few schools have gone back to being test-required, most notably MIT and Georgetown. Then there’s Test-Required with a few exceptions. That’s most of the highly selective schools.

So if you see a school and 75% of their enrolled students submitted test scores, they’re basically Test-Required unless you have some other hook to get in. Like you’re a recruited athlete, or a legacy, or, you know, a child of a large donor. Then there’s Test-Preferred. So some schools are coming out and saying, Just, you know, being authentic and saying, we prefer that you submit test scores that would be like UT Austin or Ohio State University.

Then below that, there’s truly Test-Optional. So that would be the schools where maybe 30% of enrolled students submitted test scores. 

The last category of schools is what I call “Test Blind-ish.” So they’re saying they’re Test-Blind, but really what they mean is they’re SAT/ACT-blind.

So for instance, CalTech or the UC schools, they’re SAT, ACT-blind, but a lot of them still use AP exam scores or IB scores. Or Caltech, for instance, wants to see AMC scores. That’s a very competitive mathematics exam that students can take. So really, it’s confusing for students to figure out- well, what scores do I need, and do I need to submit scores?

So, the best way to do that is really look into each school’s policies and research that school through the Common Data Set. 

Ann Dolin: One time you said to me, you know, and the winds have really shifted. Tell us a little bit more about that. 

David Blobaum: So, it was always the case that everyone in admissions said grades are the most predictive measure for success in college.

And then SAT and ACT scores are somewhere on the spectrum from a little bit helpful to, you know, fairly significantly helpful. The winds have really shifted in that there are three top schools, Harvard, Yale, and Brown, that have come out and said SAT and ACT scores are the largest predictor of success in college.

That’s the first time we’ve ever heard that from colleges to say, not only are SAT and ACT scores helpful for admitting a class that’s going to succeed at an institution. But actually, they’re the most helpful criteria in the admissions process.

There have been some other schools like Emory that have come out and said that because of grade inflation, grades really don’t mean much these days, so they’ve said they’re going to weigh external assessment more that includes SAT scores, ACT scores, AP exam scores.

So to hear colleges say that they’re actually going to use standardized test scores equally or more heavily than grades in the admissions process is quite groundbreaking. And I would say yes, means the winds have shifted. 

Ann Dolin: So I know that grade inflation plays a big part in this. But we’re not just seeing this at top universities where everybody has great grades, but also at schools that you wouldn’t expect to want test scores like the University of Tennessee. It sounds like we’re seeing more of this and in these schools that weren’t as competitive in past years. 

David Blobaum: It is truly unprecedented, the scope of grade inflation around the country. So UCLA has been running the American Freshman Survey since 1966. And in 1966, it was 21.8% of students had an A-average who were going into four-year universities. Two years ago, in 2022, the last year that there’s the data for, it was 80.6% of students had A-averages who were going to four-year universities. So, if you just picture that, that there were 80% of students who didn’t have A-averages, Now, there’s 80% of students who do have A-averages, who are just going to four-year universities. That’s not the highly selective or the selective. That’s just going to a four-year university. So, essentially, everyone applying to a four-year university has an A-average. 

So, that’s why you cannot stand out with grades. It’s not possible. It can help to stand out with straight-A’s and an AP classes. But even straight-A’s in AP classes aren’t impressing anyone these days because you could get an A in an AP US history class, but maybe your AP exam score was a 2. Well, that doesn’t convey mastery. So without that AP exam score, the college doesn’t really know what’s an A even in an AP class mean these days because of so much grade inflation.

Ann Dolin: What are some other things that kids can do to stand out aside from grades and test scores?

David Blobaum: So, beyond those, there are, of course, extracurricular activities. There’s writing good essays. There are good teacher recommendations. So students really should have good relationships with their teachers. The most helpful teacher recommendations are when a teacher will say, you know, “Bobby was the best in five years,” so superlatives like “best,” those are very helpful.

Really it is just the first pass that colleges are going to do in the application process is just… 1. Can the student succeed at the institution? So that’s going to be based on grades, test scores, and the rigor of those classes. After a student has passed that- 2. Can they succeed here? Then that’s when the college admissions officer is diving into 3. Will the student be a good fit here? That’s when they’re going to look more at the extracurricular activities, the recommendations, the essays. And I should qualify that with the fact that once we’re talking about fit, that’s really only applicable to the selective and highly selective schools. The vast majority of schools in the country admit most applicants.

So, on average, the average university in the country is admitting about 70% of people who apply. So they really just care- Does the person have even mediocre qualifications, and will the check clear? That’s basically their two criteria. 

Ann Dolin: David, I’m wondering what you think the future holds for standardized testing within admissions decisions.?

David Blobaum: I think a majority of schools will stay Test-Optional because it’s very, very hard for schools to go away from Test-Optional admissions, even though schools that say they really value SAT and ACT scores. Another way to see how much they value test scores is also in the Common Data Set. So in the Common Data Set, they’ll list out all their admissions criteria. And then say- Is that admissions criteria very important, important, considered, or not considered? So there are some schools, there are a lot of Test-Optional schools that will rank standardized test scores as very important in their admissions process. Just the same category as grades. So that’s another way to see how important are test scores. 

I think we’ll see more schools, though, even if they are Test-Optional, start to indicate that they are Test-Preferred. But even if they don’t indicate that they’re Test-Preferred, I think behind-the-scenes, they’ll start to preference test scores more in the admissions process. Because again, there’s so much grade inflation, and if they want to keep up the competitiveness of their institution, they’re going to have to use grades. We’re seeing that students who didn’t submit test scores, they unsurprisingly, had lower test scores. That’s why they chose not to submit those test scores. And colleges are aware of that, and they’re upfront about that. So, they’re giving students an advantage in the college admissions process. If that student is submitting good test scores. 

Ann Dolin: That makes sense, David. Well, it certainly does sound like the winds have shifted. Thank you so much for shedding light on such an important topic for everybody out there. I so appreciate your time today. 

David Blobaum: My pleasure. Thank you.

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