Colleges say SAT, ACT score is optional for application during COVID-19, but families don’t believe them – USA TODAY

Chris Quintana
 
| USA TODAY

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Days after federal health officials pleaded with Americans to refrain from traveling over Thanksgiving, the organization that runs the SAT exam offered students a piece of advice.

If any would-be test-takers had plans to travel to find an open testing center, they should “follow any quarantine requirements or travel restrictions,” wrote the College Board, the nonprofit behind the SAT college admissions exam.

The guidance, at least on Twitter, received a failing grade. 

Why, after all, should students travel to take a test that colleges across the country are insisting is optional this year, given limitations and safety concerns from the coronavirus

But the nonprofit’s message was in line with measures many families were already taking themselves, believing students who find a way to take standardized tests will have an edge in elite college admissions. Headline after headline has documented students’ efforts to take either the SAT or the competitor test, the ACT, even as places to take the exams in person become increasingly unavailable. Students are driving to other states where the  tests are offered, and at least one student said she contracted COVID-19 taking a test in a room with other teens.

Many higher education administrators insist students don’t need an ACT or SAT score to be admitted to college this year. So why the skepticism?

Much of the college application process has long seemed veiled and uncertain to families. A high test score may seem like a concrete indicator of a student’s ability to get into a college with acceptance rates in the single digits. And some families and students have questioned why colleges have simply said the exams are optional. Why not say they won’t consider test scores at all?

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In the Facebook group Paying for College 101, parents have been asking how “optional” the tests actually are.

“I do think parents believe test-optional colleges when they communicate that students without test scores will be competitive applicants,” said Debbie Schwartz, founder and operator of the Facebook group. “But there’s still skepticism whether students with a test score will have an advantage over a student without a test score.”

Colleges say they know students likely won’t have easy access to the exams, and the admissions officers interviewed by USA TODAY said they would never encourage students to put their safety at risk to take a test. 

At the same time, they said they don’t want to penalize students who may have already taken  a test and who believe it may benefit them. And they insist “optional” does, in fact, mean optional. 

“We put out statements, and a bunch of people signed letters,” said Rick Clark, the director of admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s obviously not resonating.” 

2 million tests and counting

That’s true for millions of students nationally based on testing numbers from the ACT and College Board.

Since April, more than 1 million people have taken the ACT, said John Wannemacher, the ACT’s chief marketing officer. And 1 million students have taken the SAT since August, the College Board said this month.

“While a number of schools have gone test-optional, it hasn’t been very clear to parents and students what that actually means,” Wannemacher said. Plus, he said, some students rely on high test scores to help round out their applications, especially those who might have weaker grades in high school.

ACT officials have taken safety precautions such as requiring the use of masks or booking large venues — empty hotel conference centers, for example — to allow for social distancing. Students’ travel, he said, indicated high demand for the exam.

The College Board, for its part, said it had asked colleges to extend their deadlines for students to submit exam scores. Spokesman Jerome White said colleges were right to be flexible with tests this year and defended the SAT as a data tool for higher education.

“The College Board’s mission isn’t to ensure all colleges require the SAT, it’s to expand access to college for more students and help them succeed when they get there,” he said in a statement. “Whether required for admission or not, SAT scores help colleges create data-driven programs to ensure admitted students get the supports they need to graduate.”

Ditching the tests: Unthinkable, or the new normal?

Coronavirus may have accelerated the so-called “test-optional” movement, but by no means did it birth it. CNN in April even described the abandonment of the exams as “unthinkable,” though many colleges had in previous years allowed students to decide whether submitting test scores was right for them.

Currently, about 1,600 colleges, from highly selective private schools to those that accept most students who apply, have temporarily waived requirements for the SAT or ACT exam, according to the Center for Fair and Open Testing. (A notable exception: the University of Florida.) Some colleges indicated this pause would be a year long. Others, such as the private Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, had been considering a test-optional approach, and the pandemic provided an excuse to launch years-long pilot programs.

The pilot, said J. Carey Thompson, the dean of admissions at Rhodes, is necessary to gather enough data to draw conclusions.

“I think a lot of colleges are finding out after a period of adjustment that they can do this,” Thompson said.

Time will tell, he said, if colleges might lose information usually obtained via an SAT score that indicates how well students might do in their first year of higher education. 

At Rhodes, students aren’t waiting to see if the optional adjustment sticks. Thompson said more than 50% of prospective students so far had applied this year without a test score.

Other colleges, such as Indiana University, had planned to go test-optional this year, even before the pandemic. 

The university approved the test-optional approach in January, the culmination of a years-long effort that required coordination among the state’s multiple universities. At the time, a public institution with a student body as large as the Bloomington campus marked a huge milestone in the test-optional movement. Prior to that, one of the most notable adopters had been the University of Chicago, a highly selective private institution.

IU had expected somewhere between 11% and 18% of students would submit their applications without exam scores, said Sacha Thieme, executive director of admissions. Instead, roughly 40% of prospective students so far have applied without scores this year. 

“The opportunity for students to decide whether or not to be represented academically by this test score has really created some access points for students who otherwise may have felt excluded,” she said.

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Scores give officials a shortcut, may help with scholarships

Critics say the SAT and ACT favor wealthy students who have the time and resources to prepare for the tests. And some researchers argue students’ grade point averages in high school are better predictors of how they’ll fare in college. The exams also may not cover the subjects most important to some institutions.

The Georgia Institute of Technology has a heavy focus on science, engineering and math, all of which require calculus, said Rick Clark, director of admissions. 

“The SAT barely touches precalculus,” Clark said. “Ninety-seven percent of our incoming students have already taken calculus or higher.”  

His college so far has seen about 1 in 3 students apply this year without test scores, many of whom will be admitted soon. He hopes that will be enough proof for those families still harboring doubts.

To be sure, at the most competitive tier of college applications, a standardized test could benefit a student’s application.

But in almost all cases and at most institutions, a test score is just one of many factors admissions officers are reviewing.

A score can give a shortcut to reviewers, said Jeff Schiffman, director of admissions at Tulane University in New Orleans. That university went test-optional for the year. When a score isn’t in an application, it doesn’t mean colleges don’t understand or see students’ potential; instead, they may look at other portions of the application more deeply.

Admissions officers told USA TODAY they rely equally, if not more, on other markers, such as how a student performed in their advanced placement classes and on their admissions essays. They’ll consider what students did outside the classroom or what was said in their letters of recommendation. 

When it comes to merit scholarships, Schiffman said, a standardized test score might make a difference. Once applicants are admitted, he said, a college is comparing straight-A students to other straight-A students, and officials are looking for tiebreakers. That could be a high test score, Schiffman said, but it also could be a great letter of recommendation or outstanding extracurricular activity. And many colleges have stressed a test score would not impede students’ chances at merit scholarships. (If students or families are unsure, they should contact the college.) 

As for Tulane, which has an acceptance rate in the low teens, Schiffman said a “sizable” chunk of students recently admitted for fall 2021 didn’t submit exam scores, which he hopes will be encouraging for others.

Schiffman’s guidance for students since Tulane went test-optional has been simple. They can take standardized tests repeatedly in an effort to get the best possible score. They could take a test once and move on. Or they can unsubscribe from the testing world altogether. He said he couldn’t tell them which path to take, but the ones who chose to apply without worrying about the  tests were the least stressed. 

When coronavirus restrictions are lifted, some colleges are likely to reinstate their testing requirements. Plenty of others will keep the tests optional, permanently — giving students and families lots of options if they decide their patience for exams has been tested enough.

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