Commentary: Will COVID wipe out standardized college testing? (2023)

For students and colleges alike, the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have affected virtually every facet of the educational process. It’s tougher to teach. It’s certainly tougher to learn. Many campuses have sat largely empty. And the idea of extracurricular activity has, for all intents, dried up.

This is, of course, alarming in its own right. But with those same realities facing high school students as well, it has also prompted new waves of thinking about the college admissions process. In a COVID world in which many of the old rules don’t apply, how do schools decide whom to admit?

“The pandemic caused tectonic shifts in the college admission process,” said Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University (TCU). “In a flash, students were homebound, unable to engage with their college search in traditional ways.” Added Karen Richardson, dean of admission at Princeton University: “A lot of things just came to a screeching halt.”

In conversations with admissions officers at colleges and universities across the country, the notion of adaptability was clearly on the minds of administrators. Put simply, highly selective schools have had to throw out the playbook on admissions and spend far more time trying to meet students where they are—which, for some, is in the midst of personal chaos or family crisis.

But this pandemic may well also prompt a permanent change, one that many would argue is long overdue. At a time when even setting up an SAT or ACT standardized test appointment has been and continues to be at times impossible, the idea of incorporating such test results into the process is rapidly losing steam. It could be a forever trend—a massive change in the way colleges do business.

“If a student applies without tests, they get full consideration. If they apply with tests, they get full consideration,” said Richard Shaw, dean of admissions at Stanford University. Though Stanford has long incorporated standardized test scores and may well do so again, Shaw’s simple statement could represent COVID’s lasting mark on the larger conversation around college admissions.

Already, more than 1,450 colleges and universities have announced that they are moving at least temporarily to a test-optional policy; the range encompasses tiny private institutions and massive land-grant state schools alike. Per the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), “We strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” Said Princeton’s Richardson: “Students are not disadvantaged if they do not submit testing.”

That pandemic-prompted explanation, at a time when many prospective college students simply can’t get to a testing site, is certainly narrow enough. In the larger picture, academicians and sociologists have argued for years that the tests themselves are both culturally biased and form a barrier to entry for many students, particularly low-income and first-generation students who can’t afford the test-prep courses that have come to form a lucrative subindustry within the college admissions game.

It’s not a new argument, but the age of COVID has forced a real-time reconsideration of the point of the tests at all—and it has forced college admissions officers to adjust on the fly to the fact that they’ll have to evaluate potential incoming classes on a set of criteria that very likely does not include a test score.

“This is a year of maximum flexibility in many ways,” said Matt Bonser, who directs admissions for Colorado College. While his school had switched to a test-optional policy before the pandemic, Bonser said, “We are cognizant that there are disproportionate socioeconomic impacts depending upon family resources and school resources to attempt a healthy learning environment [right now]. We cannot and should not use the same rubric, but rather hear student voices about how they are adapting to their communities’ needs, whether that be within their household or throughout their region.”

Some students “have made five unsuccessful attempts at taking the SAT or ACT” owing to cancellations and postponements, said Erin Robison, director of Hammer Prep, a test-prep service based in San Diego. Trying to avoid the risk of cancellation, some students (who could afford it) traveled to other states, where they thought they might have a better chance of taking the test. At testing sites, students often underwent safety screening surveys and temperature checks and were masked and distanced. One student’s test started more than 90 minutes late as a result, said Robison.

Despite “repeatedly assuring families that optional means optional,” TCU’s Einstein said, students have felt the need to try to sit for these tests, even in a pandemic. Added Einstein: “Demonstrating through data that students who opt not to submit test scores aren’t penalized in the admission process will be one of the challenges admission offices face in the coming years.”

At the University of Southern California (USC), dean Tim Brunold said that while the SAT and ACT have added “validity to our decisions…we are also well aware of the multiple shortcomings of the tests. Even before the pandemic, we had been considering whether the positive aspects of the SAT and ACT outweigh the negatives.” He said that USC will shortly decide whether to extend their test-optional policy for several more years.

The University of California college system, which incorporates some 280,000 students, last year announced its intention to phase out all use of SAT and ACT test scores by 2025. TCU’s Einstein said that according to the 2020 Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officials, 68% of colleges that have adopted a test-optional policy because of the pandemic anticipate keeping the policy—a development that could rock a multibillion-dollar testing enterprise.

While standardized tests are part of an overall assessment, Einstein said, “Most of what we know about a student’s likelihood for academic success can be found by looking at a transcript and school profile. Test results correlate most closely with socioeconomic factors, and so while taken alone, the exams have some limited predictive value, the system is fraught with inequity.” Still, he said, “the elimination of tests is not a silver bullet to equity in the college process.”

In a study released this month, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found—after surveying more than 55,000 public high school graduates—that grade point averages were five times as strong at predicting college graduation as were ACT scores. At the same time, college admissions officers warn, grade inflation is real, as is variability among schools and grading systems. An objective benchmark for evaluation will always have some allure.

Princeton recently announced that it would remain test-optional for next year. Richardson said the test has value, but it is “just one piece of a holistic review. We’re still looking at the whole student and who they will be in the classroom. We have to look at a lot of different factors: the rigor of the curriculum, the grades, the teacher recommendations, the graded written paper.” Stanford’s Shaw agreed, saying his school has consistently employed standardized scores as part of a much broader, comprehensive review of applications. “But that policy [of using test scores] will be under review by the faculty in the year ahead,” he said. “I think it deserves a review, and that’s what we’re doing.”

That is where all this appears to be heading. As a report by the NACAC put it: “After we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, we cannot simply ‘go back to normal.’” The report called for institutions to conduct stringent reviews of their policies and “make changes that are carefully evaluated, that balance institutional circumstances and needs with those of the greater good, and as a result, will be more likely to persist and impact necessary change.”

The stakes are certainly high enough. While many of these more selective institutions and large public schools with whom I spoke have received higher numbers of applications this year as compared to last, and anticipate meeting their enrollment goals, this likely will not be the case for colleges nationwide.

According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshman enrollment this past fall declined approximately 13%, or by more than 327,500 students, which the center called “unprecedented.” The impact of the pandemic, as you’d suspect, is disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students, according to Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director: “The immediate college enrollments of those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest…There is a risk of a lost generation in terms of educational attainment and skill development, potential future employability and productivity, and economic mobility and equity in our society.”

Admissions officers, meanwhile, are digging into the task at hand. Brunold said high school seniors applying this year still have several years’ worth of experiences to share. “We are learning a lot about how students’ passions have been put on hold and about how the pandemic has affected so many families,” Brunold noted. “Even so, the things we’re seeking in our applicants—academic excellence, motivation, character, resilience, and maturity, just to name a few—remain quite evident.”

TCU’s Einstein said that amid the pandemic, students “shine in unanticipated ways. From starting online baking clubs to performing virtual concerts, students have demonstrated significant resiliency.” And some are just trying to survive, desperately trying to get part-time work to help their families make rent payments, perhaps because their parents have been laid off, fallen ill, or even passed away in rare cases. “We strive to look at each student who applies individually, holistically, and comprehensively, as well as compassionately,” said Michael Davis, associate director of admissions at the University of North Carolina.

Admissions officers are dealing with another reality as well: Almost none of their applicants are visiting the campus to see the environment for themselves. In a normal year, Brunold said, USC would host “tens of thousands of prospective students” for tours and informational sessions, and admissions officers themselves would fan out across the country (and in some cases around the world) to make in-person visits to some applicants. “Obviously,” he said, “none of that has happened” in the age of COVID. Princeton welcomes more than 70,000 visitors to campus in a calendar year—but not this year.

However, Richardson said that Princeton was able to reach more students than normal from various parts of the country and the world because of its virtual programming. For many schools, that virtual component of recruiting and outreach may well become a permanent part of the future mix.

“If there is an upside to all of this, the pandemic has shown us that we can do these things in a different way,” Richardson said. Colorado College’s Bonser concurred: “Virtual recruitment is here to stay.” When the pandemic hit, the University of California at San Diego “pivoted to 100% virtual, enabling us to expand our reach to students,” said Adele Brumfield, the school’s associate vice chancellor for enrollment management.

In the end, these may be some of the small gifts that remain from a largely scarring and challenging process. Virtual recruitment, meeting students where they stand, holistic assessments that do not by definition include SAT or ACT scores—these are all steps toward building a different model not only for recruiting students, but for determining on what basis those students are then considered for admission.

“All of the Ivies, MIT, Stanford—we only serve about 1% of the nation” in terms of college enrollment, said Stanford’s Shaw. “The other 99% are served extraordinarily well by a huge and broad and beautiful array of opportunities…Let’s let kids find joy, passion, and love in what they do. That’s what we all want.” Added Richardson: “We’re looking for reasons to include a student in the community that we’re building.”

Increasingly, colleges and universities are asking whether the inclusion of standardized tests gets them any closer to those goals. It was the pandemic that accelerated the process. The question now is whether the coronavirus might wipe the testing dogma clean, shaping a new path forward.

Carolyn Barber has been an emergency department physician for 25 years. She is cofounder of the homeless work program Wheels of Change and author of the book Runaway Medicine: What You Don’t Know May Kill You, which was a top-ranked Amazon bestseller in health care administration.


Why are colleges moving away from standardized testing? ›

“Standardized testing has historically been a way to exclude people of color from access to elite schools and access to economic advantage,” said Williams. He explained that standardized tests negatively affect educational access and equity and the removal of them will be an important step towards opening doors.

Will standardized testing become obsolete? ›

The SAT is becoming more and more obsolete, as studies have repeatedly emphasized that the SAT is not a very good predictor of college success. Due to all these factors, the College Board recently announced changes to the SAT which will supposedly make the exam easier and shorter, and it will be administered digitally.

Why colleges should not require standardized testing? ›

Standardized tests are a poor measure of college readiness and intelligence, which diminishes their overall credibility. Standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, do not test in every field of education. Therefore, it is unfair as most students tend to accelerate better in certain classes over others.

Do colleges still care about standardized tests? ›

SAT scores help colleges compare students from different high schools. Your scores show your strengths and readiness for college work. But remember standardized test scores are just one part of your college application, along with grades, course rigor, and recommendations.

Why are people against standardized testing? ›

Standardized tests reduce the richness of human experience and human learning to a number or set of numbers. This is dehumanizing. A student may have a deep knowledge of a particular subject, but receive no acknowledgement for it because his or her test score may have been low.

Why are colleges removing SAT? ›

For SAT critics, test-optional admission at colleges and universities took far too long to become prevalent. The test has been accused of putting students from underrepresented communities of color at a disadvantage for years.

What are 2 disadvantages of standardized testing? ›

Some of the cons of standardized testing include the fact that standardized tests are unable to assess a student's higher-level thinking skills, teachers may alter their curriculum in order to "teach to the test," and standardized tests have been shown to result in inequitable outcomes for students.

What is the biggest problem with standardized testing? ›

The problem of standardized testing is that it has less to do with the development of kids and a lot more to do with funding, which starts at the top of the federal hierarchy. Schools rely on test scores and graduation rates to acquire the same, or better, federal funding for the next year.

What could we replace standardized testing with? ›

1. Multiple Measures. The multiple measures approach uses a combination of assessments to follow student progress without the high-stakes standardized approach. Along with assessments, it also makes use of data apart from tests, such as graduation rates and demographic information.

Do we really need standardized tests? ›

Standardized testing creates a baseline for measuring student performance among districts, maintains teacher responsibility, and aids educators while developing their curriculum.

Why are colleges becoming test-optional? ›

One of the reasons we made the decision to go test-optional is that it provides students the ability to decide if they feel the test is an accurate reflection of their academic ability. About 60 percent of our students choose not to submit a test score.

Why standardized testing is unfair for poor students? ›

For decades, critics have complained that many standardized tests are unfair because the questions require a set of knowledge and skills more likely to be possessed by children from privileged backgrounds''(p.

Are standardized test scores declining? ›

Nationally, students posted the largest score declines ever recorded in math in the assessment's history. In each subject, public school students in a majority of states experienced significant score drops between 2019 and 2022.

Will SAT be required for class of 2023? ›

But for now, the short answer is that most colleges are not requiring SAT or ACT test scores for the class of 2023.

Are colleges requiring SAT for class of 2024? ›

The majority of colleges and universities in the United States remained test optional through the 2022-23 application cycle. Many have already announced that they will remain so through 2024, and we expect more announcements along those lines to come.

What are the harms of standardized testing? ›

Teachers have also expressed that not only is standardized testing getting in the way of their teaching, but it has negative effects on their students such as poor self-confidence in low- scoring students, taking away student creativity, lowers student motivation, and test anxiety (Mulvenon, et al, 2005).

Why is standardized testing unfair? ›

Many believe that scores serve as indicators of future success, but standardized tests fail to assess students in crucial areas such as creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, and artistic ability.

Why did Harvard drop SAT scores? ›

The College Board argued that “the expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the Subject Tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know.” But that overlooks the fact that AP courses theoretically cover college-level material.

Is Harvard getting rid of SAT? ›

Harvard College will allow students to apply for admission without requiring SAT or ACT scores for the upcoming Harvard College Classes of '27, '28, '29, and '30.

Why are SATS unfair? ›

The main charge of bias raised for the SAT stems from persistent score disparities. There are both racial and gender gaps in average test scores, which causes many to assume that the test itself is unfair. The numbers themselves seem to support these claims.

How do standardized tests affect students mental health? ›

This can cause many mental issues as students are studying for long periods of time and stressing about a test. According to, “Standardized testing causes headaches, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, stress and attendance issues”. Standardized testing is also, in some cases, ineffective.

Why is standardized testing outdated and inaccurate? ›

There are many factors that can impact a student's test score negatively, including stress, lack of language skills, and lack of special needs accommodations. Additionally, standardized tests do not test every field of education, making them all the more inaccurate.

Is standardized testing good or bad for students? ›

Standardized testing is also a good way of ensuring that students are properly learning the information that is being taught to them. If an entire class performs poorly on a standardized test, more likely than not, it's a reflection on the professor's method of instruction.

When did standardized testing become a problem? ›

The arguments against standardized tests grew after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law in 2002. The NCLB Act mandated annual testing in all 50 states. After the mandate, United States' students fell from being ranked 18th in the world in math in 2000 to 40th in 2015.

Is test anxiety real? ›

Test anxiety can be a real problem if you're so stressed out over a test that you can't get past the nervousness to focus on the test questions and do your best work. Feeling ready to meet the challenge, though, can keep test anxiety at a manageable level. Use a little stress to your advantage.

How do you get rid of standardized testing? ›

By opting out, you can….
  1. Send the message that school time should be used for teaching and learning, not testing and test prep. ...
  2. Protest harmful uses of standardized exams. ...
  3. Demand better ways to assess and promote student learning. ...
  4. Prevent test results from being used to harm students, teachers and schools.

Do standardized tests still matter? ›

Yes, standardized tests still matter. For students applying to academically selective colleges in the US, they should still take and submit their ACT or SAT scores.

What does Finland do instead of standardized testing? ›

Instead, teachers receive general assessment guidelines and assess the students themselves. The Finnish system also encourages students to develop self-assessment skills and develop their own benchmarks for progress.

What is the real purpose of standardized testing? ›

Standardized testing allows for comparisons to be made among schools in regards to student achievement, ensures accountability for teachers, and has the ability to inform instruction for educators. These important reasons show why standardized testing is one of the hottest topics in education.

How do standardized tests hold schools accountable? ›

Standardized testing requirements are designed to hold teachers, students, and schools accountable for academic achievement and to incentivize improvement. They provide a benchmark for assessing problems and measuring progress, highlighting areas for improvement.

What are the positives and negatives of standardized testing? ›

The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing
  • Pro # 1. Standardized testing is a metric for learning. ...
  • Pro # 2. Standardized testing helps pinpoint areas for improvement. ...
  • Pro # 3. Standardized tests can help schools evaluate progress. ...
  • Con #1. Test scores can impact confidence. ...
  • Con #2. ...
  • Con #3.

What percent of colleges require standardized tests? ›

Currently, only 4 percent of colleges that use the Common Application system require a standardized test such as the SAT or the ACT for admission. Even before the pandemic, more than 1,000 colleges and universities had either test-optional or so-called “test-blind” policies.

What are the cons of test optional? ›

The Disadvantages

Critics of test-optional or test-flexible admissions claim these types of policies are geared more toward the institution than the student. Institutions with test-optional policies can often attract (and reject) more applicants, which lowers their acceptance rates and makes them appear more selective.

Why is Harvard test optional? ›

Harvard College announced on Thursday that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic it would not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT standardized testing scores for its upcoming classes of 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030.

Why standardized testing hurts students? ›

If a student performs poorly on a standardized test, they can face increased pressure from their parents and peers to do better and be “smarter.” This can lead to students resenting learning and believing that they are worse than everyone else because of their low score.

How much money does the US spend on standardized testing? ›

Currently, states spend about $1.7 billion a year on standardized tests. That money could be used for much more fulfilling educational opportunities for students. It could be put toward field trips, art supplies and many other things that don't show up on a test but are pivotal for development.

Are SATS racially biased? ›

Since their inception almost a century ago, the tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system. Decades of research demonstrate that Black, Latin(o/a/x), and Native students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests administered from early childhood through college.

Which state has the hardest standardized test? ›

New York tops list of states with most difficult tests.

What percent of teachers don t like standardized testing? ›

More than 6,000 teachers responded, and they were overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating standardized testing in 2020-21. Nearly 94 percent of those responding were in favor of suspending standardized testing.

Can I get into Harvard without SAT 2023? ›

Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard College is extending our standardized testing policy through the 2021-2022 application cycle. We will allow students to apply for admission without requiring ACT or SAT test results.

Does Harvard require SAT scores 2023? ›

Admission Requirements:

Final school report. SAT or ACT (optional for 2022-2023 applicants, but recommended)

Can you graduate without doing SAT? ›

These states include Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, and Washington. Keep in mind that these schools and districts don't require students to take the SAT, nor is it a requirement for graduation.

Can I graduate without my SAT? ›

25 states require SAT or ACT scores as part of high school graduation requirements. Check with your high school counselor to determine if your state requires a score from one of these two tests to receive your high school diploma.

Why is the SAT changing in 2024? ›

The SAT is switching to a digital format for two main reasons: to make the SAT easier to take and easier to give and to make the SAT more relevant. Many of the changes to the SAT's format and content are designed to make the exam more accessible for students.

Why are colleges going test optional? ›

One of the reasons we made the decision to go test-optional is that it provides students the ability to decide if they feel the test is an accurate reflection of their academic ability. About 60 percent of our students choose not to submit a test score.

Are colleges moving away from ACT scores? ›

As the college application process picks up steam for the upcoming academic year, a new survey shows that more than 80% of U.S. bachelor-degree granting institutions will not require students seeking fall 2023 admission to submit either ACT or SAT standardized exam scores.

Why are ACT scores dropping? ›

The declines in the number of students taking the ACT and the declines in their test scores were announced as many higher education institutions are moving away from requiring standardized tests for admission.

Are you at a disadvantage if you go test optional? ›

If a school is test optional, that means you get to decide if you want to submit SAT or ACT scores. If you submit them, they'll be reviewed as part of your application, but if you don't, you won't be at any disadvantage compared to applicants who did submit test scores.

Is it a good idea if a school is test optional? ›

If the college does not require the test, then generally NO, it will not hurt your application. But know that without test scores other parts of your application will become more important. This includes your GPA, your college essay, awards and achievements, references, and any extracurricular activities you include.

What colleges are getting rid of SAT and ACT? ›

Which Colleges Are Not Requiring SAT/ACT Scores for 2022/2023 College Admissions?
School NameLocation
Point Loma Nazarene UniversitySan Diego, CA
Pomona CollegeClaremont, CA
Portland State UniversityPortland, OR
Princeton UniversityPrinceton, NJ
230 more rows
Aug 28, 2022

What is the lowest ACT score Harvard accepted? ›

The average ACT score of Harvard-accepted students is 33. Although Harvard claims there is no minimum ACT score, if you apply with a 29 or lower, you'll have difficulty getting in. So, to get into Harvard, it is important to note the different Harvard University requirements for test scores.

Has the average ACT score dropped to the lowest in 30 years? ›

ACT test scores drop to their lowest in 30 years in a pandemic slide The class of 2022's average ACT composite score was 19.8 out of 36, marking the first time since 1991 that the average score was below 20.

Is ACT less prestigious than SAT? ›

Is the SAT or ACT more important for college admissions? All colleges view the SAT and ACT equally. Neither test is seen as more prestigious or important by admissions officers. You should take the ACT if you score higher on the ACT and the SAT if you score higher on the SAT.


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