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Only 44 percent of those who applied to college through the Common Application through Feb. 15 submitted SAT or ACT scores. That represents a substantial decline from last year (comparing only colleges that used the Common App both years), when the total through Feb. 15, 2020, was 77 percent.

A memo to Common App members from Jenny Rickard, CEO of the Common App, said that "not surprisingly, given the difficulties students faced in accessing testing sites during the pandemic and members’ flexible policies around test score submission, the share of applications submitted with test scores fell significantly from the prior year."

The Common App processes applications from more than one million students a year.

Most colleges that went test optional before the pandemic have said that between a quarter and a third of applicants don't submit scores. So if the numbers hold, they will represent a major change in the way students apply to college and the way colleges evaluate applicants, at least temporarily.

The Common App does not release data on individual colleges, but it does release totals in aggregate.

The data provided by the Common Application show as well deep reductions in the number of minority applicants submitting scores. Consider the following table showing underrepresented minority applicants (Black or African American, Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander) versus white and Asian American applicants. Selectivity in the table is determined by percentage of applicants who are admitted. More selective colleges admit less than 50 percent of applicants.

Underrepresented Minority Applicants

Category of College % Submitted Scores 2019 % Submitted Scores 2020
Private, large (10,000 and up), less selective 73% 28%
Private, large (10,000 and up), more selective 84% 40%
Private, small (<10,000), less selective 68% 25%
Private, small (<10,000), more selective 78% 34%
Public, large (10,000 and up), less selective 74% 32%
Public, large (10,000 and up), more selective 81% 49%
Public, small (<10,000), less selective 63% 21%
Public, small (<10,000), more selective 71% 27%

White and Asian-American Applicants

Category of College % Submitted Scores 2019 % Submitted Scores 2020
Private, large (10,000 and up), less selective 77% 44%
Private, large (10,000 and up), more selective 90% 61%
Private, small (<10,000), less selective 73% 38%
Private, small (<10,000), more selective 86% 54%
Public, large (10,000 and up), less selective 80% 49%
Public, large (10,000 and up), more selective 87% 64%
Public, small (<10,000), less selective 69% 32%
Public, small (<10,000), more selective 79% 47%

Similar statistics are available for first-generation students and those who received fee waivers on their applications.

These reductions in the number of applicants submitting scores are larger than testing companies have wanted to see or have speculated would take place.

ACT last week admitted a decline, but Janet Godwin, ACT's CEO, blogged that the colleges that still do look at test scores said they were using them in admissions decisions "despite the 20 to 30 percent decrease in students sending test scores."

ACT, in response to the new data, issued a statement. "These figures are disappointing, particularly for our students from underserved backgrounds who already face barriers to postsecondary success. Test scores are an important piece of the admissions puzzle. They convey a wealth of information beyond a number from 1-36 that helps colleges and institutions understand a student’s needs to better support them through each step of the college journey, academically and socially and emotionally," the statement said.

A College Board spokesman said that he had the same reaction as he had to Godwin's blog post. "The College Board has supported flexibility in admissions during the pandemic. That flexibility must extend to all student achievements, ranging from schoolwork to extracurricular activities, because students are living in more challenging and changes circumstances than ever," the spokesman said. "Never has it been more important for admissions officers to look at students’ achievement in context."

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, and a long-standing critic of testing, said, "The only shocking fact here is how high the percentages of nonsubmitters are in essentially every category."

He said that "some observers expected a diffusion-of-innovation delay in students applying without ACT-SAT scores until they (and their counselors, parents, etc.) were more confident that test-optional policies were legit. The Common App report shows their concerns were not justified."

Added Schaeffer, "The bottom line is that going ACT/SAT optional is a win-win for both institutions and applicants. That is why so many schools that temporarily suspended testing requirements for fall 2021 have already extended that policy to fall 2022 and, frequently, beyond."

Leslie Cornfeld is founder and CEO of the National Education Equity Lab, an organization that helps low-income college students get into college.

She said, "I think we have known for quite some time that standardized tests like the ACT and SAT can mask talent in the Black and Latino communities."

Cornfeld added that "it is critical that we think about alternatives to the SAT and the ACT in this country." She said, for example, the programs in which high school students take college courses could "provide a demonstration of college readiness."

Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, said he didn't see the drops as too surprising, "given the difficulty of taking tests, the aspirations of students who see the optional movement as a possible way into the best colleges and the great efforts colleges expended to convince their applicants that optional means optional and that nonsubmission would not hamper their chances of admission."

Plus, he said, "with the decreased opportunity to take the test and the increased number of applications submitted to highly selective institutions, it is no surprise that the number of nonsubmitters grew significantly. From the student perspective, it is a 'what have I got to lose?' moment. 'My test scores would have excluded me last year, so I wouldn’t have applied, but I’ll give it a shot now since test scores are optional.'"

What will we see in the future? "While I believe that the über-selective colleges that became test optional in response to COVID will return to requiring the tests, most colleges will remain test optional," Massa said.

"So we will continue to see fewer students submitting scores than in the ’19-’20 cycle, but more test submissions to the most selective colleges than in the current cycle. This will continue to challenge the test-optional selective colleges as they strive to create an equitable process that applies consistent evaluation rubrics in the reading of their nonsubmitter applicants."

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