A record number of colleges and universities have in recent weeks dropped the requirement that students applying to enter as freshmen in fall 2021 submit an SAT or ACT test, and some are using it as a pilot to determine whether to eliminate the requirement altogether — actions that could presage a broad shift away from admissions testing in higher education.

Dozens of schools — including major universities and such highly selective schools as top-ranked Williams College and other major universities — have announced new test-optional policies for high school juniors as a response to the shutdown of most public life, in the United States and around the world, to try to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Each day brings new suspensions, and many more are expected in the coming weeks, admissions experts say.

There is a growing chorus of voices for even more schools to take such action. The student-led nonprofit group Student Voice is holding a news conference next week to urge every college and university in the country “to prioritize equity in the admissions process” and adopt test-optional policies for freshmen entering in 2021, according to a statement.

The test-flexible movement, which has been building for years, has grown exponentially this year, with concerns mounting about the value of a single test score and the fairness of using that score in admissions when all students do not have the same access to great teachers and test preparation. But the shift has accelerated since the pandemic hit.

Stay-at-home orders prompted the College Board and ACT Inc., which own the SAT and ACT exams, respectively, to cancel several administrations of the exams. As a result, schools started suspending the rule for 2021 freshmen in numbers never seen.

Some of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country have suspended the testing requirement, including Williams, Amherst, Haverford, Davidson, Pomona, Rhodes, Scripps and Vassar colleges. Davidson, Rhodes and Williams, which routinely ranks as No. 1 in national liberal arts colleges on U.S. News & World Report rankings, are launching three-year pilot programs to test whether the requirement is needed at all. Vassar plans to review the matter next year to see whether to extend it. So is Trinity University, a liberal arts college in Texas.

A number of highly competitive universities have made similar announcements. They include the influential University of California system, which said April 1 that it would suspend its admission testing requirements for students seeking to enter in fall 2021. The UC system, with its renowned undergraduate campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and seven other locations, is a major force in public higher education.

Tufts University has announced a three-year pilot. Boston University plans to review their policies next year to see whether to extend it. Northeastern University, all public universities in Oregon, Texas Christian University and Western Michigan University are just some of the universities that have switched to test flexibility for 2021 because of the pandemic.

These bring the number of accredited, bachelor-degree-granting schools that have recently dropped ACT/SAT requirements for some period to more than 50, according to a list maintained by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), a nonprofit organization that works to end the misuse of standardized tests. In addition, some 45 schools have temporarily waived testing requirements for high school seniors applying to start college this summer or fall.

FairTest, which has been keeping records for years of standardized testing requirements at colleges and universities, says there are now more than 1,100 four-year colleges and universities that do not use the SAT or ACT to admit large numbers of bachelor-degree applicants. (You can see the full list here.)

Bob Schaeffer, interim director of FairTest, said the growing wave of schools moving to test-optional policies could be a turning point for the way colleges and universities assess the value of using test scores in admissions decisions in the future.

“The question is what will policymakers do about testing after the current crisis is over?” he said. “Will there be a knee-jerk restoration of high-stakes testing? Or will the fact that high-quality educational decisions continued to be made in K-12 and higher education without standardized exams persuade many to seriously review the evidence before they react? Assessment reformers hope that one positive consequence of this awful threat to human health will be a wholesale rethinking of the ways America evaluates students, teachers and schools.”

He also said that he thinks standardized testing suspensions — which have also occurred in K-12 schools — will have a more permanent impact in the area of universities.

“It’s a lot easier for admissions leaders at an individual institution of higher education to keep a well-functioning test-optional policy in place than to convince a majority of legislators (and, especially, the test-and-punish ideologues who support them) to vote to repeal testing requirements,” he said.

Zachary Goldberg, spokesman for the College Board, said in an email that “the health and safety of students is our first priority,” but also suggested that it was working on “innovative means to ensure all students can still take the SAT this fall,” even if schools can’t open because the pandemic has not subsided. He did not provide further details, but the College Board is already arranging for Advanced Placement tests to be taken at home in May or June if schools are still closed.

Edward Colby, spokesman for ACT Inc., said in an email that “ACT scores continue to be widely used in admissions, placement and scholarship decisions” and that even though “some institutions make temporary adjustments to their admission criteria to mitigate COVID-19 impact on applications and enrollment, we’re reminding students and colleges that ACT remains committed to benefiting them both.” He also said ACT was exploring new options for the test for the next school year, saying that “testing at home is one of the new test options that we are currently exploring and evaluating.”

Research has consistently shown that ACT and SAT scores are strongly linked to family income, the education level of the test-taker’s mother, and race. The College Board and ACT say their tests are predictive of college success, but there is also research showing otherwise.

The issue of elitism in college admissions was underscored by last year’s Operation Varsity Blues, a federal investigation into admissions fraud that resulted in the indictments of dozens of people, including wealthy parents and college coaches who prosecutors said created false records to secure admission to top schools. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were two of the better-known defendants.

Nearly 50 accredited colleges and universities that award bachelor’s degrees had announced from September 2018 to September 2019 that they were dropping the admissions requirement for an SAT or ACT score, but the pace of such decisions has rapidly increased this year.

This is Goldberg’s complete statement:

“The health and safety of students is our first priority, and we are collaborating with higher education institutions to provide flexibility to students and to support admissions under these unprecedented circumstances. We’re working to address testing access issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic and will provide additional SAT testing dates and increased capacity as soon as the public health situation allows. If, unfortunately, schools cannot reopen this fall, we’re pursuing innovative means to ensure all students can still take the SAT this fall. In every situation, we are committed to finding opportunities through which all students, especially low income students, can distinguish themselves in admissions.”

This is Colby’s complete statement:

ACT scores continue to be widely used in admissions, placement and scholarship decisions. As some institutions make temporary adjustments to their admission criteria to mitigate COVID-19 impact on applications and enrollment, we’re reminding students and colleges that ACT remains committed to benefiting them both.
ACT has already announced that we will be offering new test options, such as online testing and ACT section retesting, in the next school year as part of our national test dates. However, we are also currently exploring and evaluating new testing experiences, including remote proctoring for at-home testing, based on our online research and development. We are committed to supporting students’ needs for obtaining an ACT score during these trying times.
In addition, we are reminding students to continue to utilize a host of free resources ACT provides at www.act.org/covid19 [act.org] to help them prepare for test dates ahead and for success in college.

Here is FairTest’s list of colleges and universities with test-optional or flexible policies, as of April 10. The list is updated everyday on FairTest’s website.

(This version clarifies the schools that have gone gone test-optional.)