The University of Massachusetts Amherst has historically required prospective undergraduate students to submit a standardized test score as part of their applications. In fact, doing otherwise has never seriously been considered by the public research institution, says Mike Drish, director of first-year admissions.
With schools and testing centers closed across the country, COVID-19 has prevented at least one million students in the high school class of 2021 from taking the ACT or SAT exams. Even now, as testing has resumed—albeit with social distancing, face coverings and limited seating—access to testing centers is not equal, nor equitable. Many hundreds of thousands of students are still waiting to take an exam.
The pandemic swiftly changed the conversation around testing at UMass Amherst, as it did at the now hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide that have embraced a test-optional policy for the class of 2021.
As higher education last spring was transformed—with dorms vacated and classes moved online overnight—many admissions officers were closely following word from the College Board, which administers the SAT, and the ACT. When the College Board announced in the spring that it would pause its plans to offer an at-home exam this fall, Drish says he and his colleagues realized in-person testing would be precarious, if it took place at all.
“We wanted to do whatever we could do to minimize barriers caused by the disruptions from the pandemic,” Drish tells EdSurge. UMass Amherst made the decision in July to temporarily drop the exam requirement, one month after Drish started his position there.
But what began as a stopgap measure may ultimately have some staying power: Though a test-optional policy had never been on the table at UMass Amherst before COVID, the university plans to remain test-optional for the next three admissions cycles, during which time it will collect data and conduct research to determine whether future students would benefit from a permanent test-optional policy.
Drish and his team are not alone. While some colleges are implementing one-year exceptions to their testing requirements, others have announced multi-year trials. Still others have already decided to adopt the new policy permanently.
“We think it is likely that a non-trivial number of schools will either extend or make permanent their test optional policies,” Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta, associate director for policy and research at Ithaka S+R and co-author of a recent report on test-optional policies, wrote in an email to EdSurge.
But where would that leave the organizations that produce the ACT and SAT?
A Growing Trend
Even before the pandemic, test-optional policies were gaining traction. According to FairTest, a group that is critical of college admissions tests, 1,050 colleges had implemented a test-optional policy by September 2019. Forty-seven of those had made the decision in the prior 12 months.
One of those is Colorado College, a private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, Colo. that enrolls about 2,000 undergraduate students.
Colorado College announced in August 2019 that it was adopting a test-optional policy. And it did not make that decision overnight, noted Mark Hatch, its vice president for enrollment. “We were very, very careful as we walked into this,” he said.
Hatch worked with a faculty committee to examine five years of admissions data, during a time when the college was seeing an increasingly large applicant pool and a declining acceptance rate. They wanted to understand whether and how often test scores made the difference in admitting a student or not.
“We determined they really had a marginal benefit in predictability” of students’ success in college, Hatch explained. In other words, academic indicators such as GPA and class rank were sufficient on their own. “Sure, there were outliers, but generally speaking, test scores were overly emphasized in predictive value, and we found it wasn’t that helpful.”
Officials at both the College Board and ACT insist this isn’t the case—that for students who come from high schools that are not rigorous or are not well-known to selective institutions, test scores can be a game-changer. “If you’re only focusing on grades, you’re going to leave students behind,” Janet Godwin, the CEO of ACT, told EdSurge in an interview earlier this month.
But Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of “The Big Test,” a book published in 1999 about the history of the SAT, disputed that claim, saying the number of students whose acceptance to a college hinges on their test scores each year is “infinitesimal.”
Colorado College felt that, if test scores were not a pivotal predictor of student success—as its research indicated—then going test-optional would make the admissions process more fair and equitable to prospective students. In its August 2019 announcement about the new policy, the college wrote that “studies in recent years around standardized testing have increasingly made clear the cultural, social and economic biases of test design. This also includes access to preparation materials such as study guides and prep courses. Such design and preparation strategies can have a significant impact on scores, with the results being standardized test scores tend to be higher for wealthier students and for white students.”
In reviewing applications for the freshman class of fall 2020, Colorado College re-weighted its criteria to place greater emphasis on grades, academic transcript and class rank (where applicable) for students who did not submit a test score. About 70 percent of students did submit one, while 30 percent did not. The college is projecting that ratio to shift to 50/50 in the coming admissions cycle.
The freshmen enrolled at Colorado College this fall were the first to be admitted under this test-optional policy, Hatch said. It’s too early to tell how this class of students is performing compared to prior ones, but the college will collect three years of data and, at the end, use its findings to determine whether to keep the test-optional policy.
Hatch seems confident in what they’ll find. “We can make thoughtful, sound admissions decisions with or without test scores,” he said. But, he acknowledges, his institution had the advantage of time, research and preparation. Because of the pandemic, and the hundreds of institutions that made a hurried—if necessary—decision to go temporarily test-optional, admissions has entered a “whole new world.”
A College Admissions Crisis
The organizations behind the two major college admissions tests weren’t sitting idly while their members’ admissions policies were being rewritten. They, like the colleges they serve, were anticipating the impact that the global pandemic would have on their businesses.
By mid-April, the College Board announced that it was preparing to offer a fully online, at-home version of the SAT test, “in the unlikely event” schools remained closed through the upcoming fall semester. “We will be ready if we have to be,” the nonprofit’s CEO, David Coleman, told reporters in a press briefing that day.
That revelation opened the door to many questions, including how the College Board would ensure that all students, including those who lack reliable high-speed internet or a quiet space to work uninterrupted for three hours, could reasonably expect to access the test.
By early June, the organization had walked back its earlier announcement. It paused plans to roll out an at-home test by fall, and instead encouraged colleges and universities to “extend deadlines for receiving test scores and to equally consider students for admission who are unable to take the test due to COVID-19.”
That was a big deal for an institution that had already lost ground with many of its customers. Its biggest one, the University of California system, made waves in May when it announced it would make test scores optional for students for the next few years and eliminate them from their admissions practices altogether by 2025.
The College Board would not make anyone available for interviews for this story. It did provide a written statement to EdSurge. In it, communications officials wrote that one million first-time SAT takers in the class of 2021 were prevented from taking the test between March and August. In August, only 130,000 students worldwide were able to take the SAT test, out of the 402,000 students who originally registered to do so (due to testing centers remaining closed or limiting capacity due to safety protocols).
“Early on, we urged our members to provide flexibility for students and families this cycle,” the College Board wrote in the statement. “It was the right thing to do for students and families, and colleges have responded in kind.”
They added: “Even with the flexibility that higher ed has put into place, we know that students still want to take the exam.”
Is There a ‘Better Way’?
Even with test-optional policies, many students may still choose to take the tests and submit their scores, believing that it may improve their chances for admission. Godwin, the ACT CEO, said that she has heard “loud and clear” from parents and students that they want to “demonstrate what [they] can do” by taking the test. She said that, test-optional or not, “we’ll see a demand from students.”
Between March and Sept. 9, when Godwin spoke with EdSurge, about 130,000 students had taken the ACT. “We normally would have tested a good three times that,” she said. “We are facing an incredible backlog.”
Across the three test dates the ACT offered in September, another 180,000 students sat for the exam. The nonprofit is working with non-school sites, such as hotels and convention centers, to set up pop-up testing centers to further chip away at that backlog.
The ACT is also moving forward with its own plans to launch an at-home, remote-proctored version of the exam. “This fall, we’re doing a series of proof of concepts and pilots to test the technology, [which will] give us feedback on what’s working and not, and get the kinks out before we launch it for live use,” said Godwin. The goal is to offer this alternative, on a limited basis at first, by December or January. Students in areas with limited testing centers will get priority, she added.
For students who lack sufficient internet speeds or suitable spaces to concentrate on the test, ACT has partnered with organizations that can provide the proper accommodations. It hopes to identify about 10,000 locations across the country that can offer this option to students. “We think that will alleviate access concerns that are very real,” Godwin said.
Acknowledging the stress that the class of 2021 has undergone this year, she said she appreciates that many colleges have gone temporarily test-optional to try to minimize that stress. “It’s right on,” she said. At least 1,600 institutions have announced test-optional policies for the upcoming admissions cycle.
And in the event some of those policies stick around after the pandemic subsides and the admissions process stabilizes, Godwin said she wants the ACT to be a partner to colleges, not a pariah.
“Will we go back to the way we were before? I think the answer is likely no. There will be facets of what we were doing, because it worked and served some students in those traditional models. But the energy and focus will be on how this will evolve and what the future looks like. And that I can’t predict.”
Hatch, the enrollment officer at Colorado College, shared that his daughter is a high school senior this year, so he has a front-row seat to this issue. His daughter had been signed up to take both the ACT and SAT last spring, when she was a junior. Both exams were canceled. Over the summer, they talked about it as a family. She asked her dad if she really had to take them.
“I said, ‘It is your choice,’” and she decided not to reschedule the exams, he recalls. “I’m delighted for my daughter that there’s one stress point, of many, in this college process that really isn’t there for her. … Test scores are a stressor that most families shouldn’t have to feel.”
Hatch said he hopes that this year will lead many colleges and universities to do some “soul searching” about their admissions policies.
“I hope, in some ways, with the pandemic, the very few people who have been able to take tests this year and the colleges evaluating applications will begin to rethink the role of standardized testing in higher education and college admissions,” he said. “I think it’s time.”