UPDATED: More universities continue to drop the requirement for standardized tests in their admissions process and the pandemic has done nothing to stop it

By: Claudette Soler

Many students are unable to access testing centers amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Pixabay)

Standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT have been used in college admission processes for almost 100 years but amid the COVID-19 pandemic over 600 colleges and universities have dropped the requirement of SATs and ACTs for students applying this academic year.

As a result of COVID-19 many testing centers, which are usually schools, were closed and test dates were canceled.

“There have been testing centers closed down and what we have done in light of that is to open pop-up centers in some of our highly affected areas,” said Catherine Hofmann, vice president of State and Federal Programs at ACT, in an interview. “For these pop-up centers, the ACT contracts with mainly hotels that have ballrooms or large spaces where we can socially distance students.”

Robert Schaeffer speaks on bias within standardized testing and how COVID and the Operation Varsity Blues pushed more universes to become test-optional

“Kids who grow up in low-income environments aren’t able to fly across the country or fly to another state to take the test or drive a couple hundred miles and pull up at a motel with all those costs of travel and accommodation,” said Robert Schaeffer, Interim Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in an interview. “Whereas kids whose parents have that time and money could give them that opportunity to take the test.”

“They lost millions of dollars in revenue because tests were not available and the pop-up centers are just a way to get more money,” he said.

According to Hofmann, ACT is trying to scale it up, so students don’t have to drive so far to just find a test center.

ACT is also beta testing a remote proctored testing format. However, some universities have expressed they would not be interested in considering an exam administered this way.

“We wouldn’t want to create something that the market isn’t wanting or desiring,” said Hofmann.

“We also don’t want to drive deeper barriers,” she said. “A remoted proctored test would be great for a student that has high-speed internet, who has a webcam, who has a computer that is fast but what about the student who doesn’t? We don’t want to create further inequity in the ability to take a college entrance exam.”

According to Schaeffer, last spring the College Board, who administer the SATs, tried to make another test, the AP exam, online and had a huge number of technical problems.

According to Hofmann, the most common use of the ACT is as a college entrance exam and admissions officers use it to see if someone is fit for their institution.

“It has a 50 percent likelihood of predicting a B or higher in credit-bearing courses your freshman year,” said Hofmann in an interview, “and a 75 percent likelihood of predicting a C or higher in credit-bearing courses your freshman year.”

It is also used by teachers to guide their instruction; 22 states pay for the ACT to be given to every junior and teachers use them to see what the strengths and weaknesses in their students’ education are.

Some high schools use their own state test and don’t use standardized tests to prepare students for their college admission process.

“My high school didn’t really prepare us for big tests,” said student Ashlyn Peralta in an interview, “So I didn’t even understand that my SAT wasn’t terribly great.”

Every state is required under federal accountability that every student is tested once in high school to see where the students are at in terms of learning for Department of Education purposes and over 20 states are utilizing either the ACT or the SAT as that review for high school accountability.

“The SAT and the ACT are biased, they are weak predictors of undergraduate success, they are highly susceptible to coaching and they are not needed,” said Schaeffer. “The SAT and ACT, if anything, are pretty decent measures of accumulated advantage.”

As a result of thousands of students not being able to take the test before the beginning of the pandemic hundreds of universities have become test-optional for the upcoming year.

American University has been test-optional for 10 admission cycles, since 2010.

“A large reason for going test-optional was to improve upon our diversity at the university,” said Andrea Felder, Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Admissions at AU, in an interview “so wanting to enroll students from various backgrounds, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, students from low-income backgrounds, traditionally underserved or marginalized populations in higher education.”

 “There is quite a bit of research that demonstrates the flaws with standardized testing and how it disproportionately advantages those who have advantages,” said Felder, “students who come from wealthier backgrounds.”

Hofmann is worried that this shift will focus too much on the GPA since it can be affected by different factors that wouldn’t have played a part before.

According to Hofmann, some students have been online for almost two full semesters, so some are getting pass/fail grades, some are under so much distress and panic having to do with their grade, some students have to watch their younger siblings, some don’t have Wi-Fi or a device to be able to sign in.

“ACT will always advocate for multiple measures, we would never say that you just need an ACT exam to determine if a student can get into a college or not,” she said, “but having said that we also believe in multiple measures besides just GPA.”

According to Hofmann, GPA is subjective in some cases where the ACT is not. 

“It’s the great national equalizer,” she said. “A student who takes biology in Mississippi might not have the same curriculum or the same subject of grading as a student who takes biology in Oregon.”

“The SAT and ACT if anything are pretty decent measures of accumulated advantage,” said Schaeffer. “Kids who grow up in houses with plenty of food, and parents who don’t have two jobs and have time to read to them and take them to museums and get them into good schools, get them supplemental services, those kids score higher on average on those tests.”

The issue of elitism in college admissions was brought to the forefront last year by Operation Varsity Blues, a federal investigation into admissions fraud that resulted in the indictments of dozens of people caught in schemes to secure admission to top schools. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among the defendants.

 Huffman served two weeks in jail last year after pleading guilty to paying $15,000 for her daughter’s SAT score to be falsified and Loughlin is one month into her 2-month sentence for paying $500,000 so that the admissions committee of University of Southern California (USC) would believe her two daughters would join the women’s rowing team.

 Last year, in part because of this, was a significant year for colleges going test-optional with more than 50 dropping their SAT/ACT score requirement driving the number to about 1,070 universities pre-COVID.

According to Schaeffer, the pandemic added another 600 schools which went test-optional at least temporarily.

According to him, some universities that originally announced a one-year suspension of SAT/ACT requirement extended it to another year or two and in several cases went permanently test-optional.

“Ohio University and the University of Washington in Seattle started off by announcing waivers for a year or two and then went permanently test-optional,” he said.

According to a survey by Inside Higher Ed, two-thirds of admissions directors at schools that became temporarily test-optional believe this will become permanent.

According to Felder, prior to COVID, about 20 percent of students who applied to AU used the test-optional policy but this year they have already seen that about 50 percent of students who have applied to the university have done so using the test-optional policy.

“The test score is just one factor among many,” said Felder “Ultimately, we want to accept students who will be successful in the classroom, who will strive socially at the university, contribute to the community and benefit from attending AU.”

AU’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment looked at how students who opted to not submit a standardized test performed in the early years of the university being test-optional and there was a negligible difference once they were on AU’s campus, said Felder.

“The SAT or ACT is just one piece of the puzzle,” she said, “and we are able to make that decision even without that standardized test score.”

Some students are still unsure of whether to send the test or not, even if the university is test-optional.

Peralta was recently admitted to Johns Hopkins University who went test-optional for this academic year.

“I might have sent it anyway cause it’s hard for me to know what colleges really want,” said Peralta.

Because of this reason some universities have opted to go test blind, meaning that even if a student sends a standardized test score, they won’t look at it or take it into account for their admission. Some of the institutions that have done this are the California Institute of Technology, Catholic University, and Washington State University.

“I would applaud colleges and universities to continue these policies beyond COVID,” said Felder, “just because there are so many ways to see if a student will be successful within your institution.”

“You don’t need a test, any test to do fair and accurate college admissions,” said Schaeffer. “More than a thousand colleges, prove that every year.”

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