COVID-19 Turns Admission Testing Upside Down—and Maybe That’s a Good Thing

COVID-19 Turns Admission Testing Upside Down—and Maybe That’s a Good Thing

The COVID-19 pandemic upended college admission testing, just as it upended pretty much every other aspect of higher education. And while we all strive for a return to normalcy in so many aspects of life—from a resumption of in-person classes and spectator sports to fearless party attendance and full-throttle participation in campus activities—college admission testing is one thing that may never return to its original state. And unless you happen to work for a standardized testing company like College Board or ACT, that’s probably a good thing. So how is the surge in test-optional policies impacting the higher education landscape, and what does the future hold for the college admissions scheme as we have known it?

Well, for more than 1000 schools, test-optional admissions are old news. Dozens of schools transition away from testing requirements every year. Indeed, the once lofty status of admissions exams like the SAT and ACT was already in a state of decline for years leading up to the pandemic. In the aftermath of this monumentally disruptive event, that status is in free fall.

Why go test-optional in the first place?

Test-optional admission is the red-hot trend in higher education right now. But putting aside the pandemic, how did we get here? Well, standardized testing has gotten a lot of bad press lately. Educational researchers have been highly critical of college board testing for its implicit bias, reinforcement of existing social hierarchies, and its generally limited ability to tell colleges anything meaningful about their applicants.

As FairTest—The National Center for Fair and Open Testing explains it, “In addition to their generally poor ability to predict achievement, their misuse, and their susceptibility to coaching, university admissions tests such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, and MCAT limit educational equity and block access to higher education for otherwise qualified students. This impact weighs especially heavily on Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, females, and low-income students.”

Of course, these inequalities are the product of far more than just the flaws in standardized testing. However, from the perspective of many colleges, test-optional or test-blind admission (as such policies are also sometimes known) offers at least one way of altering these patterns.

The COVID Disruption

When the pandemic struck, the annual trickle of new test-optional schools was suddenly an open floodgate. The reasons for this change are more obvious and immediate than were the well-researched motives of schools going test-optional before the pandemic. In the thick of the pandemic, there was literally no way for most students to take their exams.

COVID-19 shuttered college campuses, unraveled testing schedules, and threw the best laid plans of high school juniors and seniors into total disarray. Ed Surge reports that “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.”

As a result, several hundred colleges and universities were forced to make an abrupt decision. Many colleges—including elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Cornell—responded to the chaos by suspending their testing requirements.

Many colleges—including elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Cornell—responded to the chaos by suspending their testing requirements.”

The suspension of testing requirements was meant as a temporary fix in the midst of a highly fluid and unpredictable situation. But there are a lot of good reasons to believe that many of these schools will not soon return to the old way of doing things. If research on the bias and inequality in standardized testing can be trusted, then this would be a commendable development during a period where disadvantaged and underserved populations have faced unprecedented setbacks.

Why Elite Schools Like Test-Optional Policies

Naturally, this isn’t all about good deeds and socially conscious change. There are also rankings to consider. In our recent exploration on the subject of application inflation, we discussed the illusion of selectivity and how that benefits the already-vaunted status of America’s most prestigious schools. For elite schools who prize the selectivity metric, going test-optional has been a boon.

Colleges and universities who like to boast about their low admission rates have more to crow about than ever before. And there’s evidence that test-optional policies are playing a role. According to the Washington Post, “At the private Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers went out as usual on Pi Day, March 14, despite a crushing workload for the admissions team. MIT had 33,240 applicants, up 66 percent from the year before. It offered admission to 1,340, or 4 percent. Last year, the rate was 7 percent.”

It’s obviously not a coincidence that this comes on the heels of the famously competitive university’s decision to go test-optional just one year prior. It’s fair to wonder whether this pattern is problematic. After all, the heightened selectivity at America’s elite schools suggests an admissions landscape which has become more challenging and rigorous without any actual or meaningful change in output. That is, with more applications than ever before, elite schools are rejecting more students than ever before. This may be helping to advance their status and reputation even if there is no real added value or substance contributing to the shifting metrics.

So there’s that to consider.

Finding Opportunity in Crisis

But there’s another angle on this subject, one that suggests a more equitable admissions landscape, if only slightly.

Yes, the move to test-optional policies has contributed to swelling application rates at elite universities. But we should take a closer look at who is contributing to this swell. According to the Washington Post, “what seems clear is that the test-optional movement has opened doors for many students from traditionally underrepresented groups. It has also raised angst for affluent families whose children typically hold many advantages in the competition, such as private tutoring to raise test scores and alumni connections to designate applicants as preferred ‘legacy’ candidates.”

In some ways, this adds further ammunition to the view that standardized testing reflects bias and deepens inequality in higher education. Whatever the superficial benefits of higher application rates for elite colleges—and they are considerable—there is also some evidence that this is one pandemic-related measure which could be helping disadvantaged and underserved populations.

...this is one pandemic-related measure which could be helping disadvantaged and underserved populations.”

That evidence comes to us most compellingly in the form of a recent study of colleges that moved to test-optional policies before the pandemic. According to a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which examined admission outcomes for nearly 100 colleges transitioning to test-optional policies between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016, the colleges evaluated saw “A 3-4 percent increase in Pell Grant recipients enrolled; a 10-12 percent increase in first-time students from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds; and a 6-8 percent increase in first-time enrollment of women.”

These figures suggest that going test-optional may be one of the more direct pathways to confronting inequalities that are rampant in higher education. In other words, while so many dimensions of the pandemic have only deepened the forces of inequality in higher education, the move to test-optional policies may be doing the opposite. In this regard, it’s worth considering this as a permanent change. And that’s exactly what many colleges are contemplating at the moment.

College Admissions Up Against the Boards

According to FairTest, which has long been a vocal critic of bias and inequality in admissions testing, “at least 1,360 four-year institutions ‘have already announced that they will not require fall 2022 applicants to submit standardized exam results before admissions decisions are made. As has always been the case, schools that experiment with test-optional admissions almost always keep the policy in place — it is a win-win for schools and students.’”

But for many colleges weighing the total suspension of testing requirements in the near future, there is still a need to collect and evaluate data. In the short-term, it’s difficult to make any real meaningful assessment of how the temporary suspension of testing requirements has either improved student access or, conversely, hampered the ability of admissions officers to make informed decisions about college candidates. Only time will provide the required sample size to determine whether or not these policy changes are enhancing diversity, access, and equality.

In the early going, however, the evidence is promising. FairTest noted that the findings at this stage seem to correspond with the American Educational Research article findings. FairTest executive director Robert Schaeffer noted that “No one has ever claimed that test-optional policies are a ‘magic bullet’ that will instantaneously resolve all the problems of college admissions. But, particularly when combined with other initiatives to remove barriers to access, dropping ACT/SAT requirements is a proven way to enhance equity in undergraduate admissions.”

It goes without saying that ACT, an organization which administers and profits from admissions testing, did not share this rosy assessment. In a statement released in response to the study, ACT indicated that “Eliminating standardized testing does not address the systemic issues at the root of educational inequities in our education system. This research right-sizes expectations about test optional. Modest gains might occur, though major gains are unlikely.”

It goes without saying that ACT, an organization which administers and profits from admissions testing, did not share this rosy assessment.”

The ACT statement went on to encourage the pursuit of further and more conclusive data on the subject before drawing any sweeping assumptions. And it’s true that we can’t simply ashcan the entire structure of admissions testing based on the historical blip that is the pandemic. But this is truly an opportunity to tear the band-aid off, as it were. Never before have we been presented with such a sudden and expansive sample size for examination.

Will this be a permanent change?

According to Inside Higher Ed, “ACT estimated that half of four-year colleges were test optional before the pandemic, and that another 30 percent transitioned to test optional during the pandemic.”

All told, says Robert Schaeffer, there were 1070 test optional colleges prior to March of 2020. Over the course of the pandemic, an additional 660 schools joined in waiving test requirements. Of those, roughly half have already announced the decision to remain test-optional through at least fall of 2022. The expectation is that more will join in that decision.

As they do, there is cause for optimism among those seeking a path to improved equality in higher education. But there is also cause for caution. There is one major difference between the schools who were test-optional before the pandemic and those who joined their ranks in the fog of COVID-19. For the latter group, the change was sudden and dramatic. Many schools made this transition with literally no prior intent of adopting a test-optional admission policy.

By contrast, colleges making this move in the past have done so only after deep research and deliberate implementation. For instance, notes EdSurge, when Colorado College made the determination in August 2019 to go test-optional, it did so only after exhaustive consideration.

According to vice president for enrollment Mark Hatch, “We were very, very careful as we walked into this. 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.”

It remains to be seen whether this experience will be shared by admissions officers at the 600+ colleges only now navigating the impact of their new test-optional policies. However, we currently have the opportunity to gain a fuller and truer understanding of the impact that standardized testing has on diversity and equality in higher education. And even more importantly, we are now poised better than ever before to do something about it.

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