The 2020 SAT (and ACT): next steps for juniors and sophomores

In light of today’s College Board announcements, I am recommending the following:

For juniors who have not yet taken their first SAT:

  • Register for the August AND September SAT as soon as you are allowed to register in May.  The College Board is giving you early access to the registration process; take advantage of that and sign up for both tests, just in case.  (What if you sign up only for August, and then the August SAT is canceled while the September and October SATs are “sold out”?)
  • Consider also registering for the October SAT, just in case. It’s important to have as many options as possible during this time of uncertainty.  (What if the August and September tests are canceled? I expect the August, September, and October test dates to “sell out” faster than a Taylor Swift concert, and I also expect the November and December test dates to “sell out” well in advance of their registration deadlines.)  Moreover, you may wish to use the October SAT as a retake opportunity that will yield scores in time to be submitted with early applications to colleges (most early applications have a November 1 deadline).  The November and December SATs will yield scores that you can use in regular-action applications due January 1, 2021.
  • Consider registering now for the July 18th ACT, and later on for the September 12th ACT, to keep your options open and to give yourself some additional test-taking practice.  In my experience, the SAT is a better showcase of most students’ skills than the ACT, but the two tests are similar enough that students preparing for the SAT will not need too much additional ACT-specific preparation to feel reasonably ready for the ACT.
  • Forget about SAT Subject Tests.  Focus your energies on scoring well on the SAT and on doing your best work on college applications, including essays, activities lists, awards lists, and research on specific colleges, as well as communication with your college counselors, teachers who are writing your recommendations, and admissions officers at colleges (to the extent needed).

For juniors who have taken the SAT at least once already but are seeking an opportunity to score higher:

  • First, ask yourself whether you really need to retake the test.  One of my juniors scored a 1520 last fall; she tells me she wants to retake it so that she can (perhaps) score above 1550.  I explained to her that a small score increase at that stratospheric level will not make the difference between getting into a certain college and not getting into that college.  I have other juniors whose initial scores were in the 1400-1450 range; if they strongly desire a retake opportunity, it’s not unreasonable for them to pursue such an opportunity.  Re-testers should either (a) invest a lot of time in test prep in the 4-6 weeks before a retake date or (b) invest hardly any time, instead just taking one or two complete practice tests in the 1-2 weeks before a retake date.  Keep in mind that the higher your initial SAT score, the less likely you will be able to raise it on a subsequent test, even with lots of extra preparation.  As Harvard recently announced in a special message for high-school juniors, “We know that there are fewer opportunities to take the SAT or ACT given the cancellations to date. This means that many students may not be able to take these tests more than once. The fact is that there are diminishing returns in taking these tests multiple times, and we hope students will not feel compelled to do so now or in the future.”
  • If you want to retake the SAT, register for the August AND September SAT as soon as you are allowed to register in May.  If you had been registered for the June 6 test, it appears that the College Board will give you early access to registration for this fall’s tests.  Sign up for both the August and September SATs, just in case.  (What if you sign up only for August, and then the August SAT is canceled while the September and October SATs are “sold out”?)
  • If you have taken the SAT only once so far, and you think you might want to have two retake opportunities (rather than just one), consider also registering for the October SAT, which will produce scores in time for your early applications.  The November and December SATs will yield scores that you can use in regular-action applications due January 1, 2021.
  • Consider registering now for the July 18th ACT, and later on for the September 12th ACT, to keep your options open and to give yourself some additional test-taking practice.  In my experience, the SAT is a better showcase of most students’ skills than the ACT, but the two tests are similar enough that students preparing for the SAT will not need too much additional ACT-specific preparation to feel reasonably ready for the ACT.
  • Forget about SAT Subject Tests—at least until after you have obtained your final set of SAT scores.

For sophomores (the high school class of 2022):

  • Start preparing now, or as soon as possible, for the PSAT and SAT (and/or ACT).  As I’ve discussed before, there are many compelling reasons to start test prep (i.e., essential skill development in reading, grammar, vocabulary, and problem-solving) as early in your high-school career as possible.  The earlier you start test prep during this era of uncertainty (likely lasting into 2022), the more options you will have if tests are unpredictably and suddenly canceled.  The students in a real pickle right now, the ones with the fewest options, are the current juniors who will now not have a chance to take the SAT for the FIRST TIME until August 29th (the start of their senior year).  So start preparing soon and enjoy the luxury of having plenty of time to prepare and a long “runway” for getting your tests done.  Note that the PSAT/NMSQT will be administered (coronavirus willing) in mid-October 2020, so you will want to feel well prepared for that test.
  • If you have already started preparing, or if you are already scoring very well on practice tests, sign up in May for one or more of the SAT (or ACT) administrations between August and December 2020. 

The SAT in 2020: no tests until August 29th, plus (maybe) a “digital SAT”

Earlier today, the College Board confirmed what most of us had expected: the cancellation of the June 6 SAT.  Furthermore, the College Board will not attempt to schedule an SAT in July; instead, it will add a September date (I predict that date will be September 19, one week after the September ACT and two weeks before the October SAT).  The new September test date is the only one that the College Board plans to add to offset the loss of the June 6 and May 2 tests and (for many, if not most, test-takers) the March 14 test.

Sometime in May, registration will open for the August through December 2020 SAT dates, for which the College Board is seeking additional test-center capacity:

Students can register for these administrations starting in May. We’ll contact students directly when we have the exact date. Eligible students can register with a fee waiver.

For each administration, we’re preparing to significantly expand our capacity for students to take the SAT once schools reopen. We’re calling on our member schools and colleges, as well as local communities, to provide additional test center capacity so every student who wants to take the SAT can do so.

Certain students will receive priority in reserving their spots for the August, September, and October tests:

Students can get early access to register for August, September, and October if they’re:

  • Already registered for June
  • In the high school class of 2021 and don’t have SAT scores

From this College Board tweet, it seems that there are two distinct (but to some extent overlapping) categories of students receiving early access:

(1) all students who had registered for the June SAT or SAT Subject Tests and

(2) current juniors who don’t have SAT scores yet.


The lost March 25, April 14, and April 28 school-day SAT administrations may be “made up” this fall, if schools reopen:

Almost all of our state partners and many of our district partners have expressed interest in administering the SAT during the school day in the fall. Some states, like Michigan, have already announced fall testing.

This is an important opportunity, as states and large districts who participate can provide the SAT for free to all their students. Specific information about state and district testing will be shared in the coming weeks. If students were scheduled to take the SAT as part of state-required testing, they can check with their school or district for updates.

However, the College Board acknowledges that there’s a possibility that schools will not reopen this fall.  If (and presumably only if) schools stay closed, the College Board will offer an at-home online SAT, using the soon-to-be-tested model of at-home AP Exams scheduled for this May and June.

In the unlikely event that schools do not reopen this fall, College Board will provide a digital SAT for home use, like how we’re delivering digital exams to 3 million AP students this spring. As we’re doing with at-home Advanced Placement exams, we would ensure that at-home SAT testing is simple, secure and fair, accessible to all, and valid for use in college admissions.

Like the paper test, a digital, remote version of the SAT would measure what students are learning in school and what they need to know to be successful in college.


I imagine that College Board staff are working intensively now to develop that “digital SAT” so that it will be ready to launch this fall if needed.  I expect it will be somewhat shorter than the regular pencil-and-paper SAT, and there will be serious questions about testing integrity and equity.

(The ACT is planning to offer online testing at certain test centers this fall; this will not be an at-home testing option.)

The advent of a computer-based SAT (and PSAT?) to be taken at home

Ahead of today’s expected announcement from the College Board, read this thoughtful piece by Akil Bello that raises important questions about the feasibility and equity of an “eSAT.”

The past several weeks of e-learning across the US have revealed the starkness and unfairness of the “digital divide”; many students lack access to wifi and don’t have computers or tablets.  As Bello writes, “How can the College Board ensure that it will deliver a similar digital experience to a student on a farm with a four-year-old laptop with a 13-inch screen as it will to a student living on Park Avenue using the latest, fastest PC with dual 24-inch monitors?”

The likely answer is that despite good intentions, neither the College Board nor any other institution or organization will be able to deliver “similar digital experiences” to differently situated students, in different homes.  A couple of weeks ago, one of my students, who lacks wifi and who spent the first two years of high school writing papers on her phone (she had never owned any other device), completed the College Board’s form requesting help in gaining online access ahead of this May’s AP exams, but has not heard back from the College Board or from any organization partnering with the College Board to help students gain access.  I don’t know how the College Board, even with the help of partner organizations, can meaningfully address the wifi/device access gap between now and mid-May—or within the next year or two.

Unfortunately, the reality is that no amount of public and private effort will be able to eliminate the digital divide within the next few years.  Efforts will be made, and the digital divide may be reduced somewhat, but the pandemic will continue to shine a harsh light on the fundamental inequities that plague our society and especially our educational systems.

No normalcy in 2020-21: online college and an online SAT loom ahead

Most colleges (and boarding schools) have canceled their summer programs or converted those programs to virtual programs.  For example, Harvard announced changes to its summer programs earlier this week.

Now, colleges are fast approaching a key decision point about how to handle the re-opening of campuses this fall.  It now seems all but certain that campuses will not be able to reopen, at least not in any “normal” way, on time in August or September.  Waiting until January 2021 to start the new academic year is one of the options that many colleges and universities (including Boston University) are exploring.

This must-read article appearing in today’s New York Times explores the impact of the pandemic on current college students as well as on current high-school seniors and juniors.  Here are some key points from the article:

More schools are making the SAT and ACT optional.  However, as I’ve pointed out previously, students who are nonetheless able to submit strong test scores to test-optional schools have an advantage in the admissions process.

It seems that the College Board is moving in the direction of an online, at-home SAT to be administered during the 2020-21 school year.  If so, this will be a seismic shift in the testing landscape:

David Coleman, the president of the College Board, which administers the SAT, said last week that he was preparing for “an at-home style solution” for testing if the national shutdowns continue, and the organization plans to make an announcement on Wednesday [April 15] about the future of the SAT.

On the admissions front, there may be a silver lining for at least the privileged (full-pay) members of the high-school class of 2021:

Despite disruptions to testing and the admissions process, it could be easier for [current high-school juniors] to get into their stretch schools or off the wait list if overall enrollment declines — especially for those who can afford to pay full tuition, if fewer international students apply to U.S. schools.

I’ve been strongly recommending that current high-school seniors take a gap year in 2020-21.  Current college students may want to consider taking a yearlong leave of absence as well.  All college students (including incoming freshmen) should take a hard look at what their e-learning experiences have been like this spring and ask whether they really want to sign up for a full academic year of e-learning, with a significant price tag, in 2020-21.  

Overall, for various reasons, student enrollment will drop in 2020-21, further undermining the financial security of many institutions:

Many current students are dissatisfied with how the virus has changed the nature of college. To some, online classes and closed student centers, gyms and science labs don’t seem worth the high prices they’re paying. At places like the University of Chicago and Iowa State, students are petitioning their schools to cut tuition by as much as 50 percent for as long as the pandemic lasts.

So far, universities have resisted, saying they will try to increase financial aid instead — although declining endowments and donations could make that difficult. 

Institutions are considering creative solutions, including reconfiguring their courses to enable greater flexibility:

Hampshire’s president, Ed Wingenbach, has put together a working group that is considering shorter units of study that would allow students to cycle in and out of remote learning if the virus comes and goes.

“If we’re looking at remote learning in the fall,” he said, “I think it’s more likely students will take a gap year or semester, and that will have a different impact on revenue.”

 

School Day SAT administrations cannot be rescheduled

The College Board has provided a further update on the SAT administrations by school districts that had been scheduled for March 25, April 14, and April 28, 2020:

SAT School Day Administrations

In alignment with coronavirus guidance from public health organizations, school closures across the country, and discussions with local education leaders, College Board can’t reschedule the March 25 SAT School Day administration or provide administrations on April 14 and 28.

We’ll be flexible in making the SAT available within and outside of school as soon as possible. We’re exploring multiple solutions to address increased demand and are talking with states and districts about School Day administrations.

PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9

College Board also can’t provide the April PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 administrations. Unfortunately, there won’t be opportunities for PSAT 10 or PSAT 8/9 testing this spring.

This inability to offer make-up tests does not come as a surprise.  In the era of coronavirus, students have extra reasons to start test prep early and take the SAT or ACT at least once BEFORE the start of junior year.  Colleges will not be abandoning the SAT or ACT as an important element of applications anytime soon.  But the most important reason to start test prep early is that test prep, if approached correctly, identifies and addresses gaps in students’ learning in the key areas of reading, vocabulary, math, and grammar.  Why wouldn’t you want to strengthen these skills as early in your high-school years as possible?

The demise of SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests, previously known as SAT II and (before that) as Achievement Tests, are hourlong multiple-choice standardized tests administered by the College Board.  They cover a somewhat odd variety of subjects (how many American high schools teach courses in Modern Hebrew or Korean?), and for many years, top colleges required applicants to submit three SAT Subject Test scores.  More recently, many elite colleges have been recommending that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.  Students’ (and parents’) awareness of these tests and their role in college applicants has been minimal; over the past 16 years, I’ve seen many students who suddenly realize in the fall of senior year that they need to take SAT Subject Tests; they study very little for these tests and don’t score particularly well, and their SAT Subject Test scores become a weakness in their college applications.

But we are now on the verge of a permanent shift.  On March 20, 2020, MIT announced that it will no longer ask applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores; in fact, it will not even ALLOW any future applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores.

“[I]n fairness to all applicants, we won’t consider them for anyone. We think it would be unfair to consider scores only from those who have scored well and therefore choose to send them to us. They are neither recommended nor optional; they are simply not a part of our process anymore.”

About the timing of the announcement of this policy change:

We had already been planning to make this change, and decided to announce as soon as possible in part because we wanted to make sure no one was spending more time or energy studying for tests they wouldn’t have to take for us, especially during a public health emergency. As we’ve written elsewhere, your focus right now should be on your health, and the health of your community, and not worrying about college applications.”

Bravo to MIT for making this change, for insisting on leveling the playing field by not allowing any applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores, for putting students’ well-being first, and for announcing the change now instead of waiting until this summer.  (Note that “test-optional” colleges, which don’t require but still allow applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, end up with two categories of applicants: higher-scoring kids who submit their scores (~80% of applicants) and kids who can be presumed to have scored lower because they’ve chosen not to send in scores (~20% of applicants).  This is emphatically NOT a leveling of the playing field.  Are there any colleges that simply do not permit any applicants to submit test scores?  That would be a true leveling of the playing field.) 

(MIT’s updated testing requirements for applicants are listed here.)

Traditionally, colleges revisit their application requirements, from testing requirements to application essay prompts, during the summer months.  The summer of 2018 saw a mass exodus away from requiring or recommending that college applicants take the SAT or ACT essay; most students now have no reason to take the SAT or ACT essay.  I predict that the summer of 2020 will bring a mass exodus away from requiring or recommending that college applicants submit SAT Subject Test scores, especially now that an institution as prominent as MIT is leading the way.  

[April 15, 2020 update: Harvard has announced that applicants will in no way be disadvantaged in the admissions process if they do not submit SAT Subject Test scores.]

Many current juniors are wondering whether they should take SAT Subject Tests between now and this fall (October is the latest test date for students applying early to colleges).  My advice is to focus first on taking or retaking the SAT (or ACT), as needed; those tests have always been more important than SAT Subject Tests.  Once you have achieved what you feel are your best possible SAT or ACT scores (on your first or second try), check the admissions websites of the colleges you plan to apply to and ascertain whether any of these colleges is requiring or recommending SAT Subject Test scores for 2020-21 applicants.

In recent years, many colleges had already moved away from SAT Subject Tests by downgrading them from “required” to “recommended,” and/or by asking for scores on two rather than three SAT Subject Tests.  As of this year, only a small number of colleges were asking for SAT Subject Tests, and they were simply recommending that students send SAT Subject Test scores.  My senior who was just admitted to Stanford, Wharton, Emory, and USC, among other schools, did not submit any SAT Subject Test scores to any of the 18 schools to which he applied.  (He needs heavy financial aid, so he applied to more schools than the typical applicant.)

In sum, I expect SAT Subject Tests to pass into irrelevancy by August 2020.  

More on 2020 AP Exams (and whether to take them)

UPDATE (April 15, 2020):

The College Board is anticipating the inevitable problems that will accompany in-home online AP Exams this spring: “Students can test in either May or June, but we’re strongly encouraging May test dates. Students are allowed to test in June, but should understand that if they encounter a problem on exam day, they won’t have additional opportunities to test.”

Read this chemistry teacher’s compelling case for not taking the AP Chemistry Exam—or other AP Exams—this spring.)

Harvard has announced in a special message for current high-school juniors that they will not be disadvantaged if they do not submit AP Exam scores when applying to Harvard this fall.


The College Board has just released its much-anticipated April 3rd update with details about this spring’s AP Exams.  (More information is forthcoming in a few weeks: “We will share details about how students will access exams, complete tasks, and submit responses by late April.”)

As we already knew, “this year’s AP Exams will be open book/open note. However, students may not consult with any other individuals during the testing period.”  It will be interesting to see whether and how the College Board is able to enforce the prohibition on consulting with other individuals.

The FAQs page explains what “open-book, open-note” means:

Students may access class notes and class resources to reference concepts covered during their course. We strongly advise students to organize their materials prior to the AP Exam so they do not waste exam time searching for information or incorporating misinformation.

Students are not permitted to incorporate work which is not their own and students are not permitted to provide or receive aid in any kind from anyone, in-person, online or mobile. During the exam, students may not:

  • Communicate with any other person during the exam through any means, including online, in-person, by mobile or other device
  • Crowdsource support from group messages, online forums or social media
  • Incorporate the work of another person or technological service into their own exam response, including language translation

The following notes, resources, and tools are permitted for the 2020 AP Exams:

  • Class notes created by the student
  • Classroom resources provided by the teacher
  • Previous assignments or assessments returned by the teacher
  • Calculators for certain exams (see specific exam information for details)

We understand these resources and tools may be digital, and students are welcome to store and access these notes in the following places:

  • Personal or school email
  • Digital classroom site
  • Online storage accessible only by the student

As announced previously, each exam will be only 45 minutes long (instead of the customary 2-4 hours).

The main news today concerns the format of each specific AP Exam.  Each 45-minute exam will consist of either one or two questions.  For example:

  • English Language, English Literature: one 45-minute question.
  • Comparative Government and Politics: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • European History: one 45-minute question
  • Human Geography: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • US History: one 45-minute question
  • World History: one 45-minute question
  • Calculus: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • Computer Science A: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • Statistics: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • Biology, Chemistry, Physics: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question

Students are being given 5 minutes to upload their answers to each question.

AP Exams will be given from May 11 to May 22, with make-up testing from June 1 to June 5.  “In late April, we’ll provide AP students and educators with information on how to access the testing system on test day, and video demonstrations so that students can familiarize themselves with the system.”

Here, the College Board indicates that scoring will be on the usual 1-5 scale, and rather optimistically and vaguely proclaims, “We’re confident that the vast majority of higher education institutions will award credit and/or placement as they have in the past. We’ve spoken with hundreds of institutions across the country who support our solution for this year’s AP Exams.”  In other words, there is no guarantee that colleges will award credit for strong scores on this year’s AP Exams.  Don’t be surprised if the college you end up attending chooses not to give you college credit for your 2020 AP Exams.

The College Board has provided additional details on the issue of exam security.  For example, “Each subject’s exam will be taken on the same day at the same time, worldwide.”  This means that some students will be forced to take the exams at odd or suboptimal times.

Presumably, the free-response questions will focus on analysis and synthesis of material: “The exam format and questions are being designed specifically for an at-home administration, so points will not be earned from content that can be found in textbooks or online.”

The College Board has not committed (and realistically cannot commit) to creating a truly level playing field for all students taking the AP Exams.  It is admirably striving to help students who lack computers and wifi acquire devices and connectivity, but it will be impossible to give all those students what they need.  And it has not yet offered specifics about accommodations: “Students will be able to take online AP Exams with College Board–approved accommodations such as extended time. Details will be available soon.”

I am deeply dismayed that the College Board continues to tout the ability of students to use their PHONES to take the AP Exams this spring—as if the students who are forced to use their phones because they lack computers and/or wifi will be able to use their 45 minutes of test-taking time as productively as students who are seated comfortably at their computers with reliable wifi.  The latter group of privileged students are already less burdened than their lower-income counterparts, who have less access right now to online AP classes and study materials (and bear heavier day-to-day burdens in the form of caregiving responsibilities, food insecurity, and the specter of eviction).

For most students, from a social-justice and equity standpoint, as well as from a pragmatic standpoint, it will make more sense to skip (or “boycott,” if you will) this year’s AP Exams than to take them. 

No August or October SAT? Testing and schooling disruptions may extend through this fall

As I noted earlier this week, educational institutions are starting to contemplate and plan for the possibility that they will not be able to reopen for in-person classes this fall.

The College Board, which administers the PSAT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Exams, is now openly acknowledging that possibility (emphasis mine):

We’re committed to being flexible and innovative to give all students opportunities to test as soon as the situation allows. We’ll share more details as soon as possible, but right now we can tell you the following:

  • Currently, the next SAT is scheduled for the first weekend of June. We’re working with test centers and we’ll decide whether we can safely hold [the June 6th] administration as soon as it’s feasible, given the evolving public health situation.
  • We’ll add U.S. and international test administrations in response to canceled administrations. We’ll be flexible in making the SAT available in school and out of school as soon as the public health situation allows. We’re looking at a range of creative solutions to address increased demand and are in direct conversations with states and districts about School Day administrations. Throughout, we’ll continue to place a special focus on students with fee waivers and those with accommodations.

If, unfortunately, schools cannot reopen this fall, we’re pursuing innovative ways to ensure all students can still take the SAT this fall. We’ll provide updates about those plans if they become necessary.

Let’s hope that those potential “innovative” and “creative” SAT solutions don’t resemble the “solution” that the College Board has devised for AP Exams this spring: a 45-minute, open-book, open-note free-response test that will cover only 60-70% of the full year’s curriculum in a given AP subject.  Despite the College Board’s undeniably good intentions and efforts, this type of test will not be fair to students who don’t have computers or wifi, or to students who need certain kinds of accommodations, and even a top score on this type of test will not signify the kind of mastery that colleges infer from high scores on “normal” AP Exams.

Finding meaning and solace in poetry

Today marks the start of National Poetry Month.  I fell in love with poetry in fourth grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Austern, introduced us to the haiku, cinquain, and other forms.  I struggled to write any poems that required rhyming schemes, but in all the others I reveled in the freedom to express myself in new ways—to paint pictures, evoke feelings, create moods, and find meaning.

Mrs. Gouletas, my fifth-grade teacher (I attended Bell Elementary School, a public school in Chicago), also gave us poetry-writing assignments; as I recall, we also read and analyzed poetry.  Here’s one of the poems I wrote that year (autumn has always been my favorite season):

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In my work over the past 16 years, with middle-school students in particular, I’ve looked for opportunities to make poetry accessible and enjoyable.  I’ll never forget the day an 8th-grader who had repeatedly professed his dislike of poetry excitedly answered a question I’d posed to the class about the meaning of a particular poem.  “I get it, I get it!” he exclaimed.  That was the turning point for him: poetry had ceased to be an inscrutable, frustrating mystery and was now an intriguing and satisfying puzzle.

I’ll keep posting about poetry throughout April.  For today, I’ve chosen Mary Oliver’s beloved poem “Wild Geese,” which resonates more strongly than ever in these pandemic times.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver