With more than 80 percent of colleges and universities not requiring standardized tests as part of their admissions processes, including Cornell, many high school students question if SAT and ACT exam scores can adequately represent the potential for collegiate success.
This sense of skepticism among students comes in light of new data that show a strong correlation between standardized test scores and student socioeconomic status, with students from a higher socioeconomic status often performing better than those from a lower one.
Cornell suspended its standardized testing requirement in April 2020 due to COVID-19 limiting testing opportunities. At the time, Cornell did not intend to permanently remove the testing requirement, but the policy remains in place for fall 2024 applicants.
Three of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges — the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and the Cornell S.C. Johnson College of Business — are “test-blind,” meaning the colleges do not consider standardized scores when making admissions decisions for any applicants.
The other colleges utilize test-optional policies, meaning each applicant can opt into whether to use their standardized test score as a component of their application.
According to the University’s standardized testing policy, the University is conducting two years of “deliberate experimental review” to guide the future role that standardized testing will play in admissions decisions. The standardized testing policy for fall 2025 and following years will be announced this spring semester.
The University declined to comment further on the future role of standardized testing.
Opportunity Insights, a research organization at Harvard University, published a study that found families in the top 20 percent of income earners were seven times more likely to score at least a 1300 on the SAT or a 29 on the ACT than students with families in the bottom 20 percent of income earners.
Laura Whitmore, an ACT and SAT tutor with 16 years of experience, attributed this disparity to inequities in the education system that play a pivotal role in students’ test scores.
“There’s a systemic problem [in education equity], and [the disparities in] standardized testing [are] just a symptom,” Whitmore said. “Depending on what neighborhood you grew up in [and] what your income is, people buy their way into school districts that get more money, more funding and more programs. Some people can’t afford to move to the more affluent areas and pay the higher school taxes, so they end up going to a school that doesn’t have as many resources.”
Whitmore founded and serves as the chief executive officer for Strategic Test Prep, which increases the price of one-on-one sessions based on the experience of tutors. A one-hour private session with Whitmore, who has 17 years of experience in test preparation, costs $250.
Of the students who scored in the 99th percentile on either the ACT or SAT, the study found that 30 percent came from families in the top 1 percent of the national income distribution, while only 10 percent came from families between the 70th and 80th percentile of national income earners.
Cornellians boast impressive standardized test scores. The middle 50 percent of SAT and ACT scores submitted to Cornell range from 1470 to 1550, which is between the 96th and 99th percentile and 33 to 35, which is between the 98th and 99th percentile.
But the correlation between socioeconomic status and standardized test scores may have implications for the composition of classes admitted to Cornell and other elite universities.
According to the Opportunity Insights study, students from families in the top 1 percent are 2.3 times more likely to attend Ivy League universities or other elite colleges than students from families of lower socioeconomic standing.
The Sun reported in 2017 that approximately 10 percent of all Cornell students came from families in the top 1 percent of income earners, compared to about 1.5 percent of students at all colleges.
However, Cornell has the smallest proportion of students from a family in the top 1 percent of income earners among Ivy League universities, according to The Sun’s reporting. Princeton and Yale have the highest percentage of students in this category with about 18.9 percent and 18.2 percent of students, respectively.
Whitmore also believes that a student’s home life plays a major role in their ability to succeed, both as a student and on standardized tests.
“If you’re a student and you’re coming home to a house where your parents don’t care if you’re doing your homework or not, and they don’t think education is important, why are you going to try?” Whitmore said.
The New York Times also reported that the national high school class of 2023 had the lowest average ACT score since the class of 1991, with an average score of 19.5. In the 2023 testing cycle, 43 percent of students failed to meet any of the organization’s benchmark scores in English, reading, math and science.
Whitmore attributes the record low ACT scores to the gap in knowledge created by the pandemic — the class of 2019 scored an average 20.7 on the exam — and the fact that many schools require all students to take the ACT regardless of students’ intentions to apply to college.
“I have never seen such gaps in student learning before [COVID-19]. As a tutor, I almost felt like I was filling in as a teacher at the same time,” Whitmore said. “The data is [also] skewed because kids are taking the ACT for free. When you have kids going in there who may not be interested in applying to college, but they … take the test [anyway], that’s going to definitely skew the data lower.”
There are currently 10 states that require students to take the ACT for graduation, with three other states – Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma — requiring students to either take the ACT or SAT. Ohio is one of the states that requires mandatory standardized testing days, with most districts opting for the ACT.
Brady Payton, a senior at Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield, Ohio, said that mandatory ACT testing days are impractical due to students’ diversity of academic and professional goals.
“The entire [junior] class took [the ACT] at the same time,” Payton said. “There were kids who knew they weren’t going to college or knew that they had a specific route planned out for them, and they maybe didn’t necessarily take it as seriously as those who have a more important view of college.”
Charlie Perlman, a junior at the Hackley School, a private college preparatory school in Tarrytown, New York said that while standardized tests are a helpful method of testing a “student’s overall intelligence,” they do not adequately represent the more nuanced abilities of a student.
“I think it can tell you a little bit about a person as a student but some people are not test takers and there is a lot more to a person than their test-taking ability,” Perlman said. “So [for] people who are more inclined to creative arts and other fields in school, it’s not a fair representation.”
Payton also questioned the ACT and SAT’s ability to accurately represent a student’s abilities.
“I think there are other methods of testing that could prove to be better [than the ACT and SAT], such as experience-based testing,” Payton said. “I don’t think standardized tests are necessarily a testament to how good of a student you may be, but how good of a test taker you are.”
Even as colleges continue to reevaluate their use of standardized test scores in the admissions process, the study from Opportunity Insights found that standardized test scores are still one of the best predictors of a potential student’s success in college. In March of 2022, MIT announced that they would reinstate the SAT/ACT requirement as they believe it allows them to better assess the academic preparedness of applicants.
Despite the current standardized testing trends, Whitmore explained that she still views standardized test scores as a helpful and relevant tool for college admissions officers when determining students’ skills.
“Colleges are businesses, so they have to make a bet on each student that they accept,” Whitmore said. “So [test scores] help mitigate risk for them [and] see where students’ skills are at and what kind of additional support they may need.”