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Colleges and universities across the country are considering a “test-optional” policy for 2021 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with some considering a permanent change.
With more states enforcing school closures for the rest of the academic year, students face an unprecedented situation and an uncertain future. The SAT cancelled all exams through June, meaning the August exams will be the first time students will be able to take the test. The ACT has cancelled exams until June, with another date in July.
Some schools are not entirely sure they’ll be able to reopen in the fall.
To ease the pressure on students applying to college next year, an increasing number of institutions are waiving any requirement of a standardized test for admissions in 2021.
While not all schools have embraced the policy - with Cornell and Dartmouth, among others, saying they are not actively considering it - around 51 schools announced over the past month that they will drop the requirement of SAT or ACT score for admissions next year, including Colgate University, Vassar College, Williams College and Boston University, among others.
Both College Board, who administers the SAT, and the ACT Company are trying to adapt and address concerns of access and availability, even considering testing alternatives such as at-home versions of the exams - alternatives that schools such as Cornell supports and is helping to pursue.
"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," College Board said in a statement to Fox News.
The ACT likewise is exploring alternatives.
"Our primary concern at this time is the health and safety of students and our testing staff," Ed Colby, Senior Director of Media and PR for the ACT, told Fox News. "We are exploring opportunities to offer additional ACT testing experiences in multiple modes for the late summer and into the fall to supplement our national test dates, as safety allows. We are committed to supporting students’ needs for obtaining an ACT score during these trying times."
Some believe, though, that the current situation is too much to expect the best out of students.
“The fact that our nation’s testing has been upended ultimately made the decision to move to test optional next year the only responsible choice,” Gary Ross, Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid for Colgate University told Fox News.
“We have applicants who are unable to take the test right now, and we do not want them to be excluded from the process. We adjust as needed in our work to ensure that we are enrolling the most academically talented and dedicated students each year. The same holds true with our decision to become test optional for applicants in 2021.”
Following the college admissions scandal in 2019, the admissions process was already under intense scrutiny. The process appeared prone to manipulation and fraught with inequality that has gone unexamined for years. The decision to go test optional has brought sharp focus on the process again, with many praising the decision and hoping that schools will look to permanently adopt the policy.
“There’s ample literature demonstrating that high price test prep can boost scores by hundreds of points on the SAT,” says Bob Schaeffer, Interim Executive Director at the nonprofit FairTest, who has advocated for a test optional academic landscape for decades.
“Schools provide very different levels of resources to prepare students for the test, and the result is sharp skews in scores by race, gender, and every measure possible of socio-economic status. Test scores correlate more strongly with family income than academic ability.”
While he doesn’t see a test optional policy as the cure to all problems in college applications, he does believe that the benefits will be clear to schools who are adopting the program even for one year.
“They will see, as many other schools that have adopted test optional policies have documented, that going test optional produces more applicants, better-qualified applicants in terms of preparations, and more diverse applicants. Those kinds of trends would be easier to see over a multi-year period, rather than one year after a pandemic, but they should see that after one year.”
Tufts University is one such school undertaking a three-year pilot program to examine the value of a test-optional policy.
“We were not actively discussing going test-optional this spring,” Dean Joseph Duck of Tufts University told Fox News. “However, the rapid pace at which high school students were thrown into uncertainty in mid-to late- March spurred conversations that led to our decision,”
“We followed in the footsteps of over 1,000 colleges and universities that had already implemented test-optional or test-policies long before this spring. Their experience contributed to our confidence in making this decision.”
The U.C. school system is likewise considering a permanent switch to test-optional after conducting studies and assembling a task force to examine the ongoing value of standardized entrance exams.
“In January 2019, the (U.C.’s Academic) Senate established a task force to determine whether SAT and ACT tests are useful measures of academic performance for UC’s admissions process and released its recommendations in February,” explained Stett Holbrook, Senior Communications Strategist for the University of California system.
The recommendation stated that the task force recommended “reforming the U.C. admissions process by updating the U.C. eligibility criteria, with the goal of reducing reliance on test scores, maintaining or improving diversity, while ensuring admitted students are prepared.” However, the recommendation does admit that the tests show value, with intention to "continue to evaluate math and reading achievement due to their foundational importance in college and career success."
Colby College, though, can attest to the benefits of the policy, confirming much of what FairTest preaches.
“The Class of 2024 applicant pool was the largest and most competitive in Colby’s history, and our admitted students represent a remarkable array of talents, backgrounds, perspectives, and interests," Randi Arsenault, Assistant Vice President of Admissions for Colby College confirmed to Fox News. “The cohort also comes exceptionally well-prepared academically with ninety percent of the students expected to graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class.”
“With the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, students may be facing additional uncertainties around standardized testing and the college admissions process. Colby’s decision to provide a test-optional policy is intended to play a small role in helping to diminish some of those anxieties and uncertainties.”
The United States continues to struggle with the coronavirus even as some states appear to be flattening the curve. Currently, the US has 712,184 confirmed cases, with around 32,800 deaths.