Are you concerned that, as a result of the novel coronavirus, you won't be able to take an SAT or ACT this fall? Multiple spring and summer exam dates have already been cancelled as a result of COVID-19, and there's no guarantee that in-person exams will be safe to hold in the fall. What does that mean if you were planning to take one of those tests, especially if you're a high school senior who needs standardized test scores to apply to college?
In this article we go over everything we know about potential online SATs and ACTs, as well as our expert opinion on what online standardized tests will be like, how they'll be viewed by colleges, and if this means the exams will move online permanently.
Will the SAT Go Online Because of the Coronavirus?
The College Board, the organization that creates and administers the SAT, announced in April that they might move to online exams in the fall as a result of the pandemic. In their statement, they announced, "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."
However, on June 2nd, they walked back that assertion. Specifically, they stated, "The College Board will pause on offering an at-home SAT this year because taking it would require three hours of uninterrupted, video-quality internet for each student, which can’t be guaranteed for all."
Basically, it was decided that offering online SATs would be impossible because of both the possibility of cheating and the difficulty of making online testing experiences as equal as possible when students have drastically different internet speeds, distractions, and test-taking spaces. While the College Board offered the 2020 AP exams online, those tests had numerous problems. Many students complained of their scores not submitting, their internet cutting out, etc. In order to avoid a repeat of the situation, online SATs are no longer an option for 2020.
Instead, the College Board is asking colleges to be flexible with their admissions policies this year to reduce stress for students potentially unable to take an SAT in time for deadlines. This can include making their school test optional for the year, and/or accepting SAT scores taken after application deadlines. The College Board has also stated that, if in-person exams are deemed safe, they will offer an SAT every month through the end of the year to make up for cancelled spring and summer exams. There may also be a January 2021 exam if there's demand for it. The May and June SAT exams have been cancelled, and the next potential exam date is August 29.
Will the ACT Go Online Because of the Coronavirus?
Currently, ACT Inc. has not set out a public plan as firmly as the SAT, but a spokesperson for them announced that they are also prepared to move to online tests if the need arises. After the College Board announced in June that they would no longer consider online SATs, ACT Inc. confirmed that they are still planning to offer a remote version of the exam in the fall if they need to.
As of right now, ACT Inc. is still planning on holding in-person exams on June 13th and July 18th, but there is a strong possibility one or both of those exams will be cancelled. If they are, and in-person fall exams seem unlikely, then ACT Inc. will begin to make plans for online versions of their exam. The current ACT fall dates are September 12 and October 24 although, like the SAT, they may add more fall exam dates for high school seniors who need their scores in time for college deadlines.
What Would an Online Standardized Test Be Like?
If you need to take a standardized test online, how would that work? We don't know for sure as the College Board and ACT Inc. haven't announced many details, but we can make a good guess. Like the regular exams, online versions would require you to register for the exam and begin it at a specific time on a certain date. Online versions of the test might be shorter than an in-person exam, but they will still be strictly timed.
As with in-person exams, once you complete a section, you won't be able to return to it and review your answers. Online tests will likely still test the same content as in-person exams, have similar question types, and consist of multiple-choice and grid-in questions (excluding the optional essay). You may receive your scores right away, or you may need to wait several weeks, as you would for in-person tests.
In terms of what an online standardized test would look like, we expect the format to be similar to the GRE or Khan Academy practice tests.
In the screenshot above for the Reading section, you can see the total time in the top left and the time remaining in the top right. Each page includes one passage (on the left) and its associated questions (on the right). On the bottom, directions are on the left and navigation is on the right.
But what about the problems of cheating and potential technology issues? We also expect there to be significant anti-cheating technology involved. Before they decided to forgo online SATs, the president of the College Board stated that there could be an online proctoring system that "locks down everything else in the computer. The camera and microphone are on, you can detect any movement in the room. If the parents are in there, next to them, that would be detected."
As for technical problems, the testing software will likely be available beforehand, so students could get used to it, and there'd be a makeup exam for those who had technical problems and couldn't complete the test.
Will Colleges Still Accept Online Scores?
Although there hasn't been much official confirmation yet, it's highly likely that colleges will still accept online standardized test scores if in-person exams aren't possible before college deadlines. However, the importance of those scores may change.
Already, dozens of colleges have already dropped (at least temporarily) their standardized test requirements, showing they're confident they can evaluate applications without SAT or ACT scores. Even those schools that still require scores will likely give them less weight because it might be challenging to compare these new results to the previous score standards they had. Expect to see the importance of other applications components increase, such as extracurriculars, GPAs, and personal statements.
If you can take the SAT or ACT, whether in-person or online, we still recommend it. High standardized test scores will always be a strength on an application, even if they're being viewed differently this year. And remember to strengthen other areas of your application as well. An application that's strong across all areas is still the best way to get into the colleges you want.
Will These Changes Be Permanent?
It's no secret that the makers of the ACT and SAT have long resisted moving their exams online. A major reason is that they fear having an online exam will make it much easier to cheat. This cheating could be done by using notes while taking the test, taking the test as a group or with someone nearby to give you answers, or using answers from someone who already took the test. With online exams, there are no proctors to look for cheating. As the infamous Varsity Blues scandal from 2019 showed, people will go to great lengths to cheat on even highly-regulated in-person exams. Cheating during online exams has the potential to be much worse.
Another issue is that online exams can increase inequality problems that makers of the SAT and ACT are trying to reduce. Students from wealthier backgrounds, on average, score higher on the SAT and ACT, and many fear that online exams will make this worse. For in-person tests, everyone takes the exam in the same room, sitting in identical desks with identical (and ideally minimal) distractions. However, if students are taking the exam in their home, you could have some students taking the SAT in a private office with a large monitor and high-speed internet, while others have a spotty internet connection, an older computer system, and no private room to block out distractions.
So the test makers don't want their exams being taken online, but will the pandemic leave them no choice? There's been discussion for years about whether or not the SAT and ACT will move to widespread computerized versions of the exam. However, in those scenarios, the computerized tests would still be taken in test centers with proctors and strict oversight, similar to the GRE. Having online tests that students take at home, if it happens, won't last any longer than it needs to. As soon as a vaccine is developed/people feel safe being in enclosed spaces with other people, the SAT and ACT will revert to being paper and pencil exams only, with the potential of computerized versions taken in test centers happening sometime in the future.
There are no current plans for the ACT or SAT to go online due to the coronavirus pandemic. In June, the College Board announced that they won't be offering an online SAT, while ACT Inc. stated they are still considering it as an option for the fall.
There aren't many details on these online tests, but they'll likely be similar in format to the GRE and Khan Academy online practice tests. Colleges will still accept these scores, but they may place less value on them than they have in previous years. In order to give yourself the best shot at getting into the colleges you apply to, make sure your application is strong across the board, not just in test scores.
Taken the ACT or SAT already but unhappy with your score? Use our guide to decide whether you should retake the test.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.