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Will COVID wipe out standardized college testing?

March 2, 2021, 6:13 PM UTC
Multiple Choice Exam Paper
Carolyn Barber writes that COVID-19 has forced colleges to confront an already present question: Should SAT and ACT scores affect admissions?
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For students and colleges alike, the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have affected virtually every facet of the educational process. It’s tougher to teach. It’s certainly tougher to learn. Many campuses have sat largely empty. And the idea of extracurricular activity has, for all intents, dried up.

This is, of course, alarming in its own right. But with those same realities facing high school students as well, it has also prompted new waves of thinking about the college admissions process. In a COVID world in which many of the old rules don’t apply, how do schools decide whom to admit?

“The pandemic caused tectonic shifts in the college admission process,” said Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University (TCU). “In a flash, students were homebound, unable to engage with their college search in traditional ways.” Added Karen Richardson, dean of admission at Princeton University: “A lot of things just came to a screeching halt.”

In conversations with admissions officers at colleges and universities across the country, the notion of adaptability was clearly on the minds of administrators. Put simply, highly selective schools have had to throw out the playbook on admissions and spend far more time trying to meet students where they are—which, for some, is in the midst of personal chaos or family crisis.

But this pandemic may well also prompt a permanent change, one that many would argue is long overdue. At a time when even setting up an SAT or ACT standardized test appointment has been and continues to be at times impossible, the idea of incorporating such test results into the process is rapidly losing steam. It could be a forever trend—a massive change in the way colleges do business.

“If a student applies without tests, they get full consideration. If they apply with tests, they get full consideration,” said Richard Shaw, dean of admissions at Stanford University. Though Stanford has long incorporated standardized test scores and may well do so again, Shaw’s simple statement could represent COVID’s lasting mark on the larger conversation around college admissions.

Already, more than 1,450 colleges and universities have announced that they are moving at least temporarily to a test-optional policy; the range encompasses tiny private institutions and massive land-grant state schools alike. Per the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), “We strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” Said Princeton’s Richardson: “Students are not disadvantaged if they do not submit testing.” 

That pandemic-prompted explanation, at a time when many prospective college students simply can’t get to a testing site, is certainly narrow enough. In the larger picture, academicians and sociologists have argued for years that the tests themselves are both culturally biased and form a barrier to entry for many students, particularly low-income and first-generation students who can’t afford the test-prep courses that have come to form a lucrative subindustry within the college admissions game.

It’s not a new argument, but the age of COVID has forced a real-time reconsideration of the point of the tests at all—and it has forced college admissions officers to adjust on the fly to the fact that they’ll have to evaluate potential incoming classes on a set of criteria that very likely does not include a test score.

“This is a year of maximum flexibility in many ways,” said Matt Bonser, who directs admissions for Colorado College. While his school had switched to a test-optional policy before the pandemic, Bonser said, “We are cognizant that there are disproportionate socioeconomic impacts depending upon family resources and school resources to attempt a healthy learning environment [right now]. We cannot and should not use the same rubric, but rather hear student voices about how they are adapting to their communities’ needs, whether that be within their household or throughout their region.”

Some students “have made five unsuccessful attempts at taking the SAT or ACT” owing to cancellations and postponements, said Erin Robison, director of Hammer Prep, a test-prep service based in San Diego. Trying to avoid the risk of cancellation, some students (who could afford it) traveled to other states, where they thought they might have a better chance of taking the test. At testing sites, students often underwent safety screening surveys and temperature checks and were masked and distanced. One student’s test started more than 90 minutes late as a result, said Robison. 

Despite “repeatedly assuring families that optional means optional,” TCU’s Einstein said, students have felt the need to try to sit for these tests, even in a pandemic. Added Einstein: “Demonstrating through data that students who opt not to submit test scores aren’t penalized in the admission process will be one of the challenges admission offices face in the coming years.”

At the University of Southern California (USC), dean Tim Brunold said that while the SAT and ACT have added “validity to our decisions…we are also well aware of the multiple shortcomings of the tests. Even before the pandemic, we had been considering whether the positive aspects of the SAT and ACT outweigh the negatives.” He said that USC will shortly decide whether to extend their test-optional policy for several more years.

The University of California college system, which incorporates some 280,000 students, last year announced its intention to phase out all use of SAT and ACT test scores by 2025. TCU’s Einstein said that according to the 2020 Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officials, 68% of colleges that have adopted a test-optional policy because of the pandemic anticipate keeping the policy—a development that could rock a multibillion-dollar testing enterprise.

While standardized tests are part of an overall assessment, Einstein said, “Most of what we know about a student’s likelihood for academic success can be found by looking at a transcript and school profile. Test results correlate most closely with socioeconomic factors, and so while taken alone, the exams have some limited predictive value, the system is fraught with inequity.” Still, he said, “the elimination of tests is not a silver bullet to equity in the college process.”

In a study released this month, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found—after surveying more than 55,000 public high school graduates—that grade point averages were five times as strong at predicting college graduation as were ACT scores. At the same time, college admissions officers warn, grade inflation is real, as is variability among schools and grading systems. An objective benchmark for evaluation will always have some allure.

Princeton recently announced that it would remain test-optional for next year. Richardson said the test has value, but it is “just one piece of a holistic review. We’re still looking at the whole student and who they will be in the classroom. We have to look at a lot of different factors: the rigor of the curriculum, the grades, the teacher recommendations, the graded written paper.” Stanford’s Shaw agreed, saying his school has consistently employed standardized scores as part of a much broader, comprehensive review of applications. “But that policy [of using test scores] will be under review by the faculty in the year ahead,” he said. “I think it deserves a review, and that’s what we’re doing.” 

That is where all this appears to be heading. As a report by the NACAC put it: “After we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, we cannot simply ‘go back to normal.’” The report called for institutions to conduct stringent reviews of their policies and “make changes that are carefully evaluated, that balance institutional circumstances and needs with those of the greater good, and as a result, will be more likely to persist and impact necessary change.”

The stakes are certainly high enough. While many of these more selective institutions and large public schools with whom I spoke have received higher numbers of applications this year as compared to last, and anticipate meeting their enrollment goals, this likely will not be the case for colleges nationwide.

According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshman enrollment this past fall declined approximately 13%, or by more than 327,500 students, which the center called “unprecedented.” The impact of the pandemic, as you’d suspect, is disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students, according to Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director: “The immediate college enrollments of those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest…There is a risk of a lost generation in terms of educational attainment and skill development, potential future employability and productivity, and economic mobility and equity in our society.”

Admissions officers, meanwhile, are digging into the task at hand. Brunold said high school seniors applying this year still have several years’ worth of experiences to share. “We are learning a lot about how students’ passions have been put on hold and about how the pandemic has affected so many families,” Brunold noted. “Even so, the things we’re seeking in our applicants—academic excellence, motivation, character, resilience, and maturity, just to name a few—remain quite evident.” 

TCU’s Einstein said that amid the pandemic, students “shine in unanticipated ways. From starting online baking clubs to performing virtual concerts, students have demonstrated significant resiliency.” And some are just trying to survive, desperately trying to get part-time work to help their families make rent payments, perhaps because their parents have been laid off, fallen ill, or even passed away in rare cases. “We strive to look at each student who applies individually, holistically, and comprehensively, as well as compassionately,” said Michael Davis, associate director of admissions at the University of North Carolina.

Admissions officers are dealing with another reality as well: Almost none of their applicants are visiting the campus to see the environment for themselves. In a normal year, Brunold said, USC would host “tens of thousands of prospective students” for tours and informational sessions, and admissions officers themselves would fan out across the country (and in some cases around the world) to make in-person visits to some applicants. “Obviously,” he said, “none of that has happened” in the age of COVID. Princeton welcomes more than 70,000 visitors to campus in a calendar year—but not this year.

However, Richardson said that Princeton was able to reach more students than normal from various parts of the country and the world because of its virtual programming. For many schools, that virtual component of recruiting and outreach may well become a permanent part of the future mix. 

“If there is an upside to all of this, the pandemic has shown us that we can do these things in a different way,” Richardson said. Colorado College’s Bonser concurred: “Virtual recruitment is here to stay.” When the pandemic hit, the University of California at San Diego “pivoted to 100% virtual, enabling us to expand our reach to students,” said Adele Brumfield, the school’s associate vice chancellor for enrollment management.

In the end, these may be some of the small gifts that remain from a largely scarring and challenging process. Virtual recruitment, meeting students where they stand, holistic assessments that do not by definition include SAT or ACT scores—these are all steps toward building a different model not only for recruiting students, but for determining on what basis those students are then considered for admission.

“All of the Ivies, MIT, Stanford—we only serve about 1% of the nation” in terms of college enrollment, said Stanford’s Shaw. “The other 99% are served extraordinarily well by a huge and broad and beautiful array of opportunities…Let’s let kids find joy, passion, and love in what they do. That’s what we all want.” Added Richardson: “We’re looking for reasons to include a student in the community that we’re building.” 

Increasingly, colleges and universities are asking whether the inclusion of standardized tests gets them any closer to those goals. It was the pandemic that accelerated the process. The question now is whether the coronavirus might wipe the testing dogma clean, shaping a new path forward.

Carolyn Barber has been an emergency department physician for 25 years. She is cofounder of the homeless work program Wheels of Change and author of the book Runaway Medicine: What You Don’t Know May Kill You, which was a top-ranked Amazon bestseller in health care administration.