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Test Optional and COVID-19: When You Can't Take the SAT in a Pandemic

Blog post written by
Julie Hill
School Counselor

As a high school counselor, I first heard the term “test-optional” a few years ago, : a small group of highly selective colleges removed standardized tests as an admissions requirement. While this idea sounded intriguing, it didn’t apply to the group of schools to which my students typically applied; I filed it away, thinking it wouldn’t become part of my regular advising routine. Fast forward just a couple of years, and this movement had legs - nearly 1,000 colleges nationwide have embraced test optional policies, including the majority of the public universities in my state. Citing a number of reasons - equity and access concerns, wholistic admissions evaluations, scores not being a good predictor of college success, not to mention the infamous cheating scandals, becoming more familiar with test optional admissions now made its way to the front burner: I found myself having to rethink how I was advising my students.

Then came COVID-19. In a matter of days, we went from a short closure with eLearning, to not returning for the semester. College Board and ACT cancelled their upcoming tests. While putting new systems in place for the Class of 2020, my thoughts quickly turned to the Class of 2021.

For years, “Take the ACT/SAT by Spring of your Junior year”has been a theme in our college advising. Before COVID-19, students were permitted to wear masks and gloves, under inspection by test center supervisors. If College Board and ACT are able to proceed with testing in June, are local test centers really going to want to open? While I understand the need for test security, now that we know more about the transmission of the virus, I’m not inclined to want to examine every piece of PPE that comes into my building when we are able to begin testing again.

How am I going to recruit proctors? Even if we could get all students admitted and seated far enough apart to allow for both social distancing AND active proctoring, imagine sitting in a quiet room for four hours just after the“conclusion” of a pandemic and someone coughs or sneezes—How valid will those test scores be? We’ve all heard “You can’t do Bloom until you do Maslow”, this crisis is a perfect example. Our students are living in a new world with new standards for personal safety, many will not be equipped for the rigors of a testing atmosphere in the near-future. So at least for the short term, despite the best efforts of College Board and ACT, a significant number of the Class of2021 will not have an opportunity to test even once, forget if they want to take advantage of superscoring.

Even if they do take the test, will it even matter? CollegeBoard is “pursuing innovative ways to ensure all students can still take theSAT this fall” if schools remain closed. Kudos to their efforts to provide students opportunities, but if it will not realistically be viewed in the same manner as previous test administrations, why would we promote it to students? I can’t imagine any of this can be considered “standardized” for the purposes of college admissions.

It seems our current reality has to push more and more colleges and universities to adopt a test optional policy for the immediate future. They are going to have to find new strategies to evaluate student applications. But once schools make this change, if they find it does not have a negative impact on their recruiting efforts (which I have not heard has happened in any of the early adopting schools) - why would they go back?

While none of us has a crystal ball, my experience leads me to believe that COVID-19 will accelerate the colleges and universities adopting test optional policies for the Class of 2021 and beyond. As these institutions find other, likely more personal, methods of predicting student success, there will be less of a need to continue the practice of admissions testing. As a school counselor, it will be imperative that my colleagues and I remain vigilant about which schools have adopted test optional policies, how these policies differ from one school to the next, and how these nuances will impact individual students. For some who are not strong test takers, it may be a benefit, but for others pursuing a scholarship or seeking admission to a specific program, testing may still be a critical component for full consideration. And while the test optional trend may be here to stay, like every other aspect of our job asa school counselor, we cannot take a one size fits all approach. Every student is managing this new world differently, you can’t do Bloom until you do Maslow.

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