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School, disrupted: Coronavirus upends learning and cancels spring tests for millions of U.S. students

April 6, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

Jake Louden, a junior at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, Mass., has spent every day over the past few months toggling between his regular coursework, prepping for Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and studying for the SAT, which he’d planned to take March 14. 

Before he could take the SAT, though, both the March and May exams were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. And a few days later, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker was the latest state leader to order school closures statewide. Meanwhile, colleges everywhere have postponed hundreds of in-person events for prospective students that were scheduled during spring break.  

For 15-year-old Jake, who has been strategically cramming so he can graduate a year early and pursue his passion—economics—in college, the torrent of change in the middle of an important school year feels like whiplash. 

“He’s had this plan for so long, and to just have this wall come down in the timeline of that plan is so disheartening,” says Noi Sabal, Jake’s mother. “And not knowing what’s on the other side of the wall is the hardest part.”

The teen is hardly alone. Millions of students in K–12 school systems across the country are navigating unprecedented educational upheaval as a result of the virus, which forced schools to close temporarily in most states at least through April. In the hardest-hit areas, such as New York—the current epicenter of the outbreak—it’s likely that schools will not reopen this academic year. 

‘Impossible to replicate’

The uneven transition from classroom to virtual learning could result in learning losses for students who are academically struggling as well as for those who don’t have Internet connectivity or a suitable device at home. 

Andrew Worthington, a special education and English teacher at Pace High School in Manhattan, says roughly one-quarter to half of his students were “online and ready to go” the first week of remote learning, which began March 23 in New York City public schools. Attendance gradually improved to about 70% the second week, he says. 

Though teachers have been working overtime to adapt their lesson plans, a bigger challenge is student engagement.

“It’s very hard to get every student on Zoom at one time during the day,” Worthington says. “You have students who have family members who have COVID-19. You have students whose parents are health care workers, and they have to babysit and teach their 5-year-old siblings during the day, and they don’t get to work on any of their own schoolwork until night.”

The result is a piecemeal instructional process that compels teachers to respond to student emails at all hours of the day.

“It’s impossible to replicate what the real classroom would look like,” he says.

Testing in turmoil

School closures overlap with annual springtime state and local assessments, Advanced Placement tests, and college-entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, forcing test administrators to reschedule and recalibrate.  

The College Board, the organization that administers AP tests and the SAT, among others, announced Friday that the AP tests will go on as planned in May—but with some major changes. The tests will last 45 minutes instead of three hours. In most cases, the multiple choice component is scrapped in favor of essay questions. The tests may take place at home or in schools, if they reopen. And students may take the tests on any device, including a smartphone, or write responses by hand and submit them via a cell phone photo, according to the company.

The College Board seemed to acknowledge the process could be challenging for low-income and rural students. 

“We recognize that some students may not have access to the tools and connectivity they need to review AP content online and take the exam,” the company wrote on its website. “If your students need mobile tools or connectivity, you can reach out to us directly to let us know.”  

AP exams cost $94 each and represent a considerable investment for some families, especially those with multiple children taking multiple AP courses. Students who score well can test out of some introductory college classes, meaning they arrive their freshman year with a few credits already under their belt. 

Kimberly Tuttle, an AP Language and Composition teacher at Levine Middle College High School in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., says she’s adamant about not teaching to the test. Her philosophy is that as long as she does her job well, and students learn the material, they will pass. 

“And they do,” she says. But the 22-year veteran teacher worries that the cumulative loss of instructional days this semester owing to tornados, a snowstorm, and now the pandemic, will make it harder for North Carolina students to shine on this year’s AP tests.

The next SAT is scheduled for early June, and The College Board says it’s working with test centers to “decide whether we can safely hold that administration as soon as it’s feasible, given the evolving public health situation.” 

At the local level, there is a reprieve for states that want one: The Department of Education will waive federally mandated testing requirements for students impacted by school closures as a result of the coronavirus in the 2019–20 school year. States can also request a one-year waiver on the requirement that student test scores be used in teacher evaluation systems, the department said. 

Thirteen states require high school exit exams in order for students to graduate with a diploma, per a 2018–19 survey conducted by Education Week. In New York state—home to New York City public schools, the country’s largest school system, with 1.1 million students—education officials on Monday canceled those exams, known as the Regents, which were scheduled for June. The decision followed pressure from educators and advocates who argued it would be unfair to test students on material they may have missed amid the shift to remote learning. As of Monday, it was unclear whether a second round of Regents will go on as planned in August. 

‘Test optional’ is trending

Widespread cancellations and the uncertainty surrounding college-entrance exams has spurred more colleges and universities to go “test optional,” meaning they are dropping requirements that students provide SAT or ACT scores to be considered for admission.

Officials at the University of Toledo were discussing the idea and analyzing retention patterns of incoming students for months, says Jim Anderson, vice president for enrollment management. In March, as test sites began canceling spring SAT tests, the school became the latest public university in Ohio to go forward with a test-optional pilot.

“We’re an access-driven university,” he notes. “We hope that offering the choice for students to petition for admission in the best way possible [will] actually improve the access that students have to the university. Whether that be ethnic, racial, income, or gender diversity, that’s what we’re after, and that’s the mission of our university.”

The University of Toledo, which admitted about 90% of applicants in 2019, will use self-reported grades and high school GPAs to conditionally admit students until final transcripts are available, according to Anderson. There are a few exceptions to the new policy, including the nursing program and the engineering program, which will continue to require standardized test scores for entry.

Nationwide, more than 1,000 colleges and universities have decided to pass on the SAT or otherwise de-emphasize the use of standardized test scores in admissions. From September 2018 to September 2019, a record 47 schools “announced new test-optional admissions policies,” according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), which tracks the numbers nationwide.  

‘Give students the benefit of the doubt’

Many higher-education leaders are trying to exude a sense of calm, even as updates roll out daily. Carolyn Geldermann, an independent college consultant in Lake Forest, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago, says a big part of her job right now is to reassure the students she works with that colleges aren’t taking a punitive approach to a situation that is beyond anyone’s control.

While her students, especially the high school juniors she works with, are stuck at home, Geldermann is encouraging them to stay focused, work hard in their online classes, and ask teachers for letters of recommendation to bolster their college applications. 

Students who had signed up for April SAT and ACT tests, now canceled, are being automatically shifted to June or later. But students should check in a few weeks ahead of their new test date to confirm details, Geldermann advises. 

If a student still hasn’t been able to take the test by October, a growing number of institutions have signaled that they will accept scores far later in the admissions process than normal. 

“[Colleges] are going to be, I think, more holistic,” Geldermann says. “This is the exceptional class. This is the class that they’re going to have to look at a little bit differently—maybe read those recommendations from teachers a little more closely, look at the essays a little more…They’re going to give students the benefit of the doubt rather than treating them negatively.”

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