It has been well over eight months since the SARS-CoV-2 virus first spread around the world, causing governments to instantaneously shut all school and college campuses until the tides calm.

Most students and teachers can agree that, despite its best efforts, traversing through the limitations of education through online classes have posed several dilemmas and is not viable as a permanent option. Alongside classes, the virus has also subverted expectations on the university application and selection process, leaving far too much for speculation. Such is the case with the CollegeBoard and the SAT.

The SAT – Standardised Admissions Test – is a national examination to measure and represent the academic performance of prospective students applying to U.S universities through a score between 400 and 1600. Originally, it was intended as an objective and purely numerical measurement of a child’s ability in mathematics and English, with additional tests specified per subject. This was a strong step forward against the grade inflation in US schools from the mid 2010s; PBS reported a staggering 42% of college students earned an A and 77% of students earned an A or a B. Therefore, a score that stands independent against inflated and curved grades as an advantage against the competitive pool.

This system is effective, but it comes with a steep price.

Studies and statistical analyses have determined a direct correlation between family income and average SAT scores, raising several questions on the affordability factor of a child’s higher education. Last year, the average cost to take the SAT was $47.50, with an additional seventeen dollars for the essay section. A subject test will set you back another $26, with $22 per individual test. Extremely selective majors can require applicants to take the SAT with essay and two to three subject tests to qualify as a competitive candidate. All of this excludes the additional international fees and prep material that students outside the US must pay in order to sit for the tests. Yes, CollegeBoard does offer fee waivers and financial aid options, but there are recent shifts in trends and preferences towards the test in the admissions process.

Enter ‘test optional’.

First, some misconceptions need to be cleared. When a university states they are going ‘test optional’, they are referring to the scale of preference for the SAT in applicants, ranging from ‘Required’ to ‘Test Blind’, in which SAT is only considered for scholarships and financial aid. ‘Test optional’ states that all applicants are free to submit their SAT scores at their own discretion, but recognise they must have outstanding extracurriculars and GPA to make up for it. As discussed earlier, the SAT is highly objective, and grade inflation makes the pool more competitive. The only difference is that students more comfortable disclosing their scores to universities are welcomed, while those who refuse are not obliged to and are not looked upon less favourably. Almost all tier-one universities – Stanford, JHU, the Ivies – have announced a test optional stance for two reasons.

The first is that most students, especially international, are unable to sit for the tests due to the health and safety conditions relative to country. Therefore, in an attempt to alleviate the process, they will naturally apply to schools that do not consider the SAT as a prerequisite. Although more students are applying to a school, the number of seats available remains unchanged. Therefore, the admission rates for the university will fall, making them seem more competitive and ‘prestigious’.

The second is dependant on the student’s decision to submit scores. An applicant will be less likely to submit lower SAT scores in order to place a greater emphasis on his/her GPA and other extracurricular activities. Another applicant might, however, feel their score meets the school’s criteria, and will include them in the applications. These aggregate towards increase the school’s average SAT score, which once again correlates to a title of elitist ‘prestige’. The only difference from conventional practices, however, is that students at lower income are not at a disadvantage, as they can omit the SAT as a requirement entirely and opt for financial aid provided by the respective school.

As the fall semester reaches its end under lockdown, it’s difficult to estimate additional challenges and drawbacks when applying to university, especially in the United States. With that being said, maybe the SAT has reached a climax to throw in the towel and accept change in its stubborn path.

Referenced from:

Simple Way to Help Low-Income Students: Make Everyone Take SAT or ACT

How an epidemic of grade inflation made A’s average

The ‘Other’ College Scandal: Grade Inflation Has Turned Transcripts into Monopoly Money

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