Why SAT is Coming Back to the Decision Table for Top Colleges?

Dr. Thomson
on 12/19/2020

Here is my take on the changing trendline for universities’ reporting of their incoming freshmen’s preference for SAT over ACT scores:

In the 2018 issue of the US News & Report’s Annual Best Colleges issue, 36 of the top 50 National Universities reported preference for the SAT, including all of the top 10 schools.  Of the top 50 Liberal Arts Colleges, 37 reported preference for the SAT, including 6 of the top 10.  These proportions were typical of the statistics that had held true for the previous 14 years, which is as far back as my copies of Best Colleges go.

In the 2019 issue, a quite dramatic shift appeared.  25 of the top 50 National Universities now reported a preference for the ACT (including 6 of the top 10!).  The shift was even more pronounced among the Liberal Arts Colleges:

30 out of the top 50 reported a preference for the ACT, including an astonishing 10 out of the top 11.

For the 2020 issue, a reversal of the trend appeared: of the top 50 National Universities, 7 out of the top 10 now showed preference for the SAT, and 36 of the top 50; the Liberal Arts Colleges showed 5 of the top 10 preferring the SAT, and 35 of the top 50.

In the 2021 (current) issue, the reversal continues:  9 of the top 10 National Universities now show preference for the SAT, and 42 of the top 50; of the Liberal Arts Colleges, ALL of the top 31 now prefer the SAT, while of the top 50, only 5 schools now prefer the ACT.

How to explain this pattern?  I suspect the major factor is the change to the new SAT in March of 2016.  2016 (i.e. June of that year) high school graduates’ statistics are reflected in the Best Colleges 2018 issue.  But those students had overwhelmingly taken their tests in 2015, hence the continuation of the existing pattern.  IN 2017, however, most of the test results tabulated in the 2019 issue would have been the NEW SAT, which as you recall seemed to have copied the format of the ACT to a great extent (except for the essay!).  The following two years’ SAT seem to have reassured parents that “old reliable” was still on track for their kids; I suspect admissions officers have collectively reached the same conclusion, and so the attraction of the ACT has faded; the high school class of 2019, as reflected in the current issue for 2021, seems clearly more comfortable with the SAT.  It is reasonable to project that this trend will stabilize in the future, especially with more and more schools not requiring submission of the essay score.  (I still firmly believe, however, that we should continue to emphasize the value of this part of the test for our students:  It sets them apart from the many students who won’t submit a score, and gives admissions committees a way to differentiate between candidates.)