What is the future of the SAT and ACT?

Matt Larriva
Jul 06, 2020
Home » Blog » What is the future of the SAT and ACT?

By Lauren Thompson


In early June, the College Board walked back plans to administer an online, at-home version of the SAT.  The decision came after the College Board administered a similar version of the AP tests – a version which was shortened to 45-minutes and proctored via live video-chat.  However, the attempt was mired by issues.  Students had connectivity issues; they had issues submitting their scantrons; and even when they believed they had submitted those scantrons correctly, they still found their scores cancelled or their scantrons simply not accepted.  It is not difficult to see why this episode has so many wondering what the tests are going to look like when testing picks up again in August and beyond. (For a review of  the changes to the UC system and to find out if you need to take the SAT or ACT, see our article here)

What will the SAT and ACT look like in the near future?  

When testing resumes in August, will students be taking their tests in facemasks with each desk 6 feet apart from the next?  How likely is it that the tests might be cancelled entirely until a vaccine is found?

Answer: tests are not likely to be cancelled entirely.  The College Board and the ACT are already hurting from the large number of tests they have had to cancel during the Spring, so future cancellations are likely to be avoided by both non-profits as much as possible.  So, the scenario where tests are taken in-person while desks are socially distanced is the most likely one for now.

However, this set-up also presents its own challenges.  Going into the August tests, there will be not only the regular students who had originally planned to take the test at that time, but also students whose Spring tests where rescheduled as well as rising Seniors who have not yet taken an SAT or ACT.  The result is a massive volume of students trying to take the test in the Fall.  It is highly likely that students will be able to take the test only once during the Fall and Winter (rather than multiple times, which we recommend).  To further complicate matters, students who wait to register may find that they are not be able to take the test at all.  

To make sure you can take the test if and when you want, we recommend registering now and have provided the test dates below. You can always cancel or move your registration at a later time.

This inability to test multiple times combined with the increased stress surrounding the test means that students are likely going to be scoring lower compared to prior years’ students.  

However, this is not an academic death sentence.  Many colleges and universities, such as those in the UC system, have already announced that they will not penalize students who do not submit a SAT or ACT test score this year.  Some schools, such as the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, have even announced that they will stay test-optional even after the COVID pandemic is over.

Even before the COVID pandemic struck, the number of schools becoming test-optional was on the rise, and now with everything that has happened since, many parents and student are wondering what the long term-futures of these tests are.

For us, the answer to that is two-pronged.  It requires speculating both on how colleges will treat both tests in the future, as well as what the tests will look like in response to said future.


How will colleges treat the SAT and ACT?

Even before the pandemic struck, colleges and universities varied in how much weight they gave to the SAT and ACT.  However, in general, we think there are three most likely end-state scenarios:

1. Schools go test blind

In this scenario, most schools would either not accept test scores or would not consider them during application process.  This scenario will make the SAT and ACT mostly irrelevant. We don’t think this is the highest likelihood because schools would lose an ability to differentiate between students on an objective basis. Grade inflation, differing course offerings, and differing quality of schools makes comparison on GPA alone nearly impossible. Moreover, without a standardized test score, more weight would be implicitly placed on extracurricular activities, which are a large source of socioeconomic-based disparity in applicants.  

2. Schools go test optional

We see this as the most likely outcome. Most schools will accept SAT and ACT scores and will consider them if submitted, but they will not be required in the application process.  This scenario will imply different things to different students. Students who can reasonably be expected to prepare for the SAT or ACT (whose families have the resources to help hem) will be penalized if they do not score well. On the other hand, students for whom preparing and testing well on the SAT or ACT would be an unreasonable expectation will be evaluated on the basis of their grades and extracurriculars. Such students would not be penalized for not testing. For more information, see our article (Does “Test Optional” Mean Optional for Me?)

3. Schools develop proprietary entrance exams

This might happen in some spots, but we expect it to be short-lived. In this scenario, schools would develop their own individual exams to determine college readiness. Or groups of schools band together to develop an exam which they all collectively consider (imagine the UC schools creating their own UC entrance exam that student would be required to take if they wanted to apply to any school in the UC system).  This is riddled with challenges, not only for the schools who will have to somehow develop a bias-free test in limited time, but also for the students who will now have multiple tests to take if they want to apply to a different schools. 

What will the SAT and ACT look like in the future?

 Assuming that the tests are not completely irrelevant to the college application process, the SAT and ACT will most likely evolve to become like the graduate exams, the GMAT and the GRE which feature on-demand testing at test centers nationwide.

The process will likely look like this.  At any time, a student will make an appointment to go to a testing facility, then at the appointed time, the student will take the test on a computer.  If SAT/ACT scores are not required by colleges, submitting a good score will still increase the student’s chances of getting into the school of his or her choice.

There are a couple of reasons why we feel this is the most likely scenario.  First, the SAT and ACT have been moving towards computer-based testing for a while now.  So, while an all-online version of the test is not likely, taking the test on a computer is.  Second, we wrote an article before the COVID pandemic broke out on what the future of the SAT/ACT would be with a growing number of school becoming test optional), and many of the reasons we listed then for why the tests would not vanish entirely have not changed, the most noteworthy reasons being that colleges still need a way to compare GPAs between different high schools and students still need to stand out from their peers.  

So long as these are truths in the college admissions process, there will likely be a place for the SAT and ACT in that process, even if that place is more limited than what it is currently.