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Pandemic drives growing list of colleges to adopt test-optional admissions policy

On May 21, the University of California (UC) announced its suspension of required standardized tests for all California freshman applicants through 2024. According to its website, “this suspension will allow the University to create a new test that better aligns with the content the University expects students to have mastered for college readiness.”

In March, UC suspended its standardized test requirement for fall 2021 applicants to “mitigate impacts of COVID-19 on students and schools,” according to its website.

This provided an opportunity for UC to “analyze the impact of test-optional and test-blind admissions,” according to the website.

“The suspension allows UC to address concerns about equitable treatment for all students regardless of whether they submit a standardized test score,” the website said.

These changes entail the admissions process being test-optional for fall 2021-22 California applicants, meaning it will consider test scores for students who choose to submit them. For fall 2023-24 applicants, the process will be test-blind, meaning UC will not consider California applicants’ test scores in admissions. 

If the new test, which is being created to improve educational quality and equity in California, is not ready by 2025, UC will eliminate its standardized testing requirement for California students, according to its website.

These changes are part of a nationwide shift away from required standardized testing, according to a message from the Country Day college counselors to families in the May 22 Friday email.

Because spring ACT and SAT testing dates have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, many schools have adopted a test-optional admissions model, according to the message. 

The college counselors have advised students to take the SAT or ACT in the fall to ensure they have test scores if needed.

Associate director of college counseling Chris Kuipers said schools are becoming test-optional because the accessibility of testing this year is unknown.

“Even with the potential of fall testing — including added test dates — there are real concerns about the availability of testing opportunities for students,” Kuipers said. “How many students will be able to test on each date, given social distancing requirements at test centers? It most likely will not be enough to meet the demand. 

“As a result, you’re going to have some number of students not able to be able to take, or re-take, a test. Colleges recognize this and are adjusting their requirements accordingly.”

Director of college counseling Jane Bauman said these testing policy changes, particularly regarding the University of California, are largely driven by current lawsuits and were under way before the pandemic.  

“It’s a lot of things coming together,” Bauman said. “The coronavirus is like a final push. The University of California in particular is facing a lawsuit charging them with discrimination for using the standardized tests.

“It’s been found that the tests are a substantial barrier for admission to low-income students and students of color. So, UC decided to drop it.”

A push to increase student diversity and a decrease in the number of 18-year-olds were additional factors in the shift away from required testing, according to Bauman. 

“It is a push and pull between the lack of affirmative action and the barriers the SAT creates,” Bauman said. “Affirmative action helps get over the barriers the SAT creates. But California eliminated using race, ethnicity or gender in admissions with Proposition 209, and now UC is eliminating testing. Nevertheless, education is still not equitable. So we have work to do to eliminate barriers.”

Testing fees and expensive tutors are two factors that make the tests inequitable, according to Bauman.

Furthermore, Bauman said these tests are often not good indicators of college success.

“Colleges are telling us that the high school transcript is the absolute best indicator of college success and that test scores (aren’t),” Bauman said.

“I attended a conference several years ago where the director of admissions of American University talked about the increasing diversity of the applicant pool, and consequently the admits, because they had made the standardized tests optional. She added that admits without test scores were equally successful.”

UC hopes to eliminate the equitability problems of the SAT and ACT by creating its own admissions test. 

“I don’t think they will be able to do this,” Bauman said. “To make a test that is unbiased, valid and reliable is extremely difficult. The SAT has been trying to do it for years and has not succeeded. They have stacks of data to use, and the tests are still considered discriminatory. It strikes me as a very, very lofty goal and one that I believe they will abandon.”

Kuipers added that, even if UC is able to create this test, he cannot predict what it would mean for future applicants.

“The testing landscape is changing so rapidly that it’s really impossible to say what requirements will be in four to five years,” Kuipers said.

As for what UC plans to test differently, Bauman said she has “no clue.”

Junior Avinash Krishna said his reaction to UC becoming test-optional and eventually phasing out the SAT and ACT is  “extreme happiness.” 

“This is for two reasons,” Krishna said. “First, the College Board (administrator of the SAT) is horrible. They make money by forcing underprivileged students to take their overpriced tests. They don’t act in the interest of their consumers, whether that be colleges or students. Anything that weakens the College Board’s influence is good.

“Secondly, the SAT is a terrible test. It is skewed to benefit wealthy students. Bearing in mind that the UC system wields extreme power, it is very likely that this will kick off a trend of states dropping SAT requirements.”

Junior Hana Lee said colleges becoming test-optional may make the admissions process more stressful because it “puts a lot of pressure on your grades.”

UC also is eliminating the writing requirement for the SAT and ACT, which Bauman said is an “excellent change.”

“I believe they required the writing because they wanted all students to be in the same test situation,” Bauman said. “UC was supposedly gathering data on the writing test, but they didn’t use the scores.”

Bauman said UC was part of only a handful of schools that required the writing portion.

The college counselors have advised juniors not to take the SAT with writing, as it is more expensive and unnecessary.

As for SAT and ACT testing this fall, much remains unknown. Bauman said students whose tests were canceled will get priority registration for fall testing.   

The College Board has also added a September testing date, meaning students now have five chances to take the test throughout the fall, one per month from August through December.

But Bauman said she doesn’t know how these tests will be administered (online or in person), and the list of schools requiring these tests continues to decrease. 

“It’s going to change the way admissions decisions are made,” Bauman said. “In the case of most of our students, the testing confirms the rigor of our courses and validates the grades. So now all that validation is going to have to be done through researching and understanding the school. It will be interesting to see how that changes college admissions.”

Whether students should report test scores will be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to Bauman. 

“It’s fairly complex,” she said. “There are some schools that will see (your) test scores, and they might hold them against you because they’re not quite good enough. But there are other schools, like the University of California, which says your test scores will add value to your application but won’t penalize you.”

According to Kuipers, requirements will continue to change as the situation plays out.

“A lot will depend on the situation in the fall,” he said. “If other testing dates are canceled or limited, I think you’ll see more colleges move to test-optional policies — or drop the requirement overall.”

Kuipers said the impact of these changes remains to be seen.

Grades, class rigor, extracurricular profiles and teacher recommendations are areas of strength for Country Day students generally, according to Kuipers. But he added that test scores have often benefited Country Day students as well. 

“There are a lot of question marks,” Kuipers said. “But overall, I’m quite confident that Country Day juniors will continue to be very successful. Indeed, I’m hopeful that some of these changes will actually help students focus a bit more on colleges that are truly a good fit for them.”

Various juniors said they have been affected by these changes, most notably the cancellation of spring SAT and ACT tests.

“I had prepared pretty extensively for the March SAT — upwards of 11 hours a week for over a month — so when (it was canceled) at 9 p.m. the day before the test, I was pretty dejected,” Krishna said. “I don’t remember much and will have to re-study for the August test.”

Junior Bri Davies agreed, saying the only positive has been additional time to prepare for the test, now that she will be taking it in August.

“But it gives me fewer opportunities to take it and do well, and now I’m forced to take it later rather than getting it over with early,” Davies said. 

The situation is stressful, according to Davies, because of the uncertainty when it comes to this year’s admissions process. 

Junior Erin Wilson said, while she doesn’t have strong opinions about the shift to test-optional policies, she acknowledged that it could make getting into college more complicated or challenging. 

“Of course, taking the SAT next school year isn’t ideal,” Wilson said. “But I know that I’m not the only student whose testing schedule has been affected by the coronavirus, so I’m not too worried.”

—By Anna Frankel

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