SAT/ACT: U.S. News makes minor changes, study shows who submitted test scores last year

U.S. News & World Report this week released a new Best Colleges guide, making only slight adjustments to the way it factors in ACT and SAT scores. This summer, a group of higher education organizations and experts had published an open letter urging U.S. News & World Report to drop SAT and ACT scores from the calculations used for its rankings lists, asserting that it was “simply the right thing to do,” considering pandemic-related hurdles and long-standing concerns. “Using average scores of incoming students to rank an institution has never made sense, but is even more preposterous during a deadly pandemic,” they wrote.

The latest guide maintains average test scores as a core component of its “student excellence” measure. As with last year’s guide, SAT/ACT scores make up 5 percent of each institution’s overall ranking.

The publication did announce one change, decreasing the threshold test-optional institutions must meet to receive “full credit” for their students’ SAT/ACT results. Previously, institutions where less than 75 percent of incoming students submitted test scores had the test score component of their rating reduced by 15 percent—an adjustment often viewed as a penalty.

This year, U.S. News reduced that threshold to 50 percent, given “the growth of test-optional policies through the 2019 calendar year and the fact that the coronavirus impacted the fall-2020 admission process at many schools.”

Expressing disappointment at U.S. News’s approach, Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told Inside Higher Ed that the practice of adjusting the scores of test-optional and test-blind institutions “is an added distortion to an already distorted and flawed methodology.”

What’s in store for future rankings?

The Chronicle of Higher Education points out that the latest U.S. News guide reflects the fall 2020 admissions cycle, in which most applicants would have taken the SAT and ACT before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This fall is a different story and “should cause even testing proponents to question the utility of ACT and SAT scores as a metric of student excellence or a means of comparing one college to another,” the Chronicle writes.

In 2020-21, just 43 percent of students who submitted applications via the Common App—a platform used by more than 900 colleges and universities—reported a test score, compared with 77 percent in 2019-20. Inside Higher Ed reports that almost 90 percent of Common App member schools did not require SAT/ACT test scores this year.

New research on who submitted scores

Meanwhile, a new analysis from the Common App sheds light on which applicants ended up submitting scores on their applications during 2020-21. Students living in zip codes associated with a higher median household income were far more likely to report scores than students living in lower-income communities.

As in past years, first-generation college students were less likely to report scores than continuing-generation students. But the gap widened for 2020-21, as 30 percent of first-generation college students included scores with their applications, compared with 48 percent of students with a family history of college attendance. Students from underrepresented minority groups also were less likely to report scores.

“The high percentages of non submitters among historically underrepresented groups is particularly gratifying—clearly allowing all students to apply without ACT/SAT scores removed a significant barrier to access,” Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, which opposes standardized testing, told Inside Higher Ed.

Looking ahead, Common App researchers say they expect continued movement toward test-optional policies and application submissions without scores. According to a recent FairTest tally, more than 1,700 four-year colleges and universities have said they will not require SAT/ACT scores on applications for the fall 2022 term.

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