Marquette University recently became the latest school to announce that it will no longer require an SAT or ACT score from applicants.
The Jesuit college in Milwaukee, Wisc., joins more than 1,000 other schools — including the University of Chicago, Bowdoin College in St, Brunswick, Maine, and eight others that rank among U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 universities — in eliminating the SAT as a requirement.
For decades, high scores on standardized tests were considered a vital part of a college student’s application, as some parents invested in extra tutoring to push their kids closer to a perfect 1600 score on the SAT.
And more colleges are preparing to change their policies in the coming months. “There are about 40 more schools in the pipeline right now that haven’t announced but that we know will be test-optional soon,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). A dozen of these announcements will likely be made before the fall, Schaeffer told MarketWatch.
Schools that do go test-optional generally see an increase in the number of black and Latinx students, who are less likely than their white peers to have access to expensive SAT prep. And these increases come without declines in graduation rates, a 2018 study of over 28 colleges with a total or more than 950,000 applicants found.
But the College Board, which makes the SAT, continues to assert that the test is important in making admissions decisions. The company’s own research found the test is predictive of college success and can “help to further differentiate student performance in college within narrow [high school GPA] ranges,” Jerome White, a College Board spokesman, told MarketWatch in a statement.
For parents, the rapid increase in test-optional schools may call into question the value of expensive SAT tutoring. High scores on standardized tests have long been considered a vital part of a college student’s application, and wealthier parents often invest in extra tutoring to push their kids as close as possible to a perfect 1600 score on the SAT.
Thousands of students receive some kind of preparation for the SAT or ACT each year. In affluent areas, as many as three-quarters of high school students could be getting extra help to prepare for college admissions tests, said Andy Lockwood, a private college consultant based on Long Island, N.Y.
These test-prep programs vary widely. Large companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan offer both private tutoring sessions and group classes. Princeton Review’s “SAT 1400+” group summer class includes over 54 hours of instruction and proctored testing and goes for $1,599.
But the group classes often don’t fit into students’ schedules, Lockwood says. “A lot of group classes don’t work because the times don’t work. Kids are so overscheduled today.”
One-on-one tutoring sessions from Princeton Review runs as high as $2,600 for 10 hours of private instruction. Prices for boutique tutoring agencies or individual tutors can be even higher.
One-on-one tutoring sessions from Princeton Review runs as high as $2,600 for 10 hours of private instruction. Prices for boutique tutoring agencies or individual tutors can be even higher. Lockwood, whose company provides tutoring services, says hourly rates for private tutors run between $100 and $800 on Long Island and are even higher in Manhattan.
Manhattan-based SAT tutor Anthony-James Green charges his clients $1,500 an hour and claims to deliver “an average score improvement of over 215 points on the SAT and over 4.66 points on the ACT,” according to this website.
There are ways to save money on test prep. The College Board, for example, is now trying to help students who can’t afford expensive test prep through a partnership with free online tutoring service Khan Academy.
The amount of time teens spend with these tutors varies, but Schaeffer estimates that students who work with a private tutor will generally spend 20 to 30 hours getting ready for a college admissions test, meaning some wealthy parents are dropping upwards of $10,000 on SAT prep in hopes of securing their kids seats at elite institutions.
Could the test-optional movement kill this industry? Not yet, but perhaps in the future, experts say.
“More than half the colleges in every state in the Northeast are test-optional,” Schaeffer said. Most students will probably continue to take the test “to see if it’s a useful card to play” but Schaeffer thinks some may soon opt out altogether as the number of test-optional institutions rises.
A March 2019 report from IBISWorld valued the tutoring and test preparation industry at $1.1 billion, with exam prep services making up 25% of the industry. The report predicted the increase in test-optional schools could “constrict demand for these services” in the coming years.
Lockwood and Caroline Koppelman, a private college admissions counselor based in New York, are more hesitant to predict an end to expensive SAT prep. “It’s not really changing how parents are preparing for the test,” Koppelman told MarketWatch. “No one is saying UChicago went test-optional, so we shouldn’t prepare for the tests at all.”
A Princeton Review spokesman noted that test scores play varying roles in college admissions. “We don’t see the ACT or SAT fading into the sunset. It is important to remember that colleges can — and do — use students’ scores on these tests in decisions about aid awards,” said Princeton Review Editor in Chief Rob Franek.
‘Dropping the test requirement is a bit like blaming the messenger if you don’t like the message.’
Private 1-on-1 tutoring from Kaplan starts at $1,999, and teacher-led prep classes go for $899. A spokeswoman said SAT prep makes up less than 1% of the company’s overall business.
She questioned whether dropping SAT scores would achieve colleges’ intended goals. “Colleges have long been experimenting with ways to diversify their student populations, and some believe that dropping the test requirement will help them with that goal,” said Carina Wong, executive director of communications at Kaplan. “In reality, standardized tests are just an indicator of broader issues facing K-12 education nationwide. Dropping the test requirement is a bit like blaming the messenger if you don’t like the message.”
Lockwood said he doesn’t think “we’re at the point where kids aren’t taking the test. Usually, they’re taking it three or four times and then if they don’t do well, they apply to test-optional schools.”
“It’s a safety net for students and parents,” Koppelman said. “With more test-optional schools, they know they can just apply to those if they do poorly on the tests.”
But for the most part, kids are going to keep taking the test, she says. In fact, it’s the word “optional” that keeps them studying. “I think if lots of schools said they were not accepting test scores anymore, people would stop studying. But as long as schools make it an option, kids are going to study for the tests,” Koppelman said.