Some colleges are not requiring the SAT or ACT amid the coronavirus, shifting the emphasis to other parts of an applicant’s profile.

By Josh Moody, U.S. News, May 20, 2020

WHEN THE NOVEL coronavirus began to spread throughout the U.S., it upended numerous facets of higher education including in-person instruction, the college admissions cycle and entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT.

Test-makers canceled previously planned sessions of the ACT and SAT and have shifted those exams to later dates this year. But even so, many colleges are reacting to the pandemic by removing testing requirements for applicants.

“Some schools are running an experimental pilot program to evaluate the effectiveness of test-optional, other schools are taking this moment to announce a full transition to test-optional,” says Ginger Fay, director of independent educational consultant engagement at Applerouth Tutoring Services in Atlanta.

Others, she adds, have suspended exam requirements for now but will likely revert once the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

“At this moment, there are new schools announcing test-optional policies every day,” notes Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, which has long fought to reduce the role of testing in college admissions.

Even testing organizations cede the importance of flexibility in these tumultuous times.

“ACT respects the right of every college to determine its own admission policies, particularly in the midst of a crisis such as COVID-19 where flexibility and managing disruption is paramount,” reads part of an ACT statement.

The College Board, makers of the SAT, provided a statement to U.S. News with a similar tone. “We support colleges that are rightfully emphasizing flexibility for the admissions process for next year,” the statement reads in part.

Additionally, both statements emphasize a belief that these exams remain vital to the admissions process.

What Test-Optional Means for Students

Simply defined, test-optional means students are not required to submit standardized test scores on their application. Essentially, it’s up to the student.

Jed Applerouth, founder and president of Applerouth Tutoring Services, says removing testing from consideration shifts the emphasis elsewhere on a college application. “If we pull this piece out, other ones are going to be magnified,” he says.

Schaeffer sees going test-optional as a way to shift the emphasis to a student’s high school experience.

“For teenagers, you know you’ll be judged as more than a score,” Schaeffer says. “What you’ve done in your classes over several years in high school will mean more than how well you filled in bubbles on a Saturday morning.”

But Applerouth suggests that how well a student filled out those bubbles will still have an impact. Going test-optional doesn’t mean that a college won’t look at scores, but just that it doesn’t require them.

“Students who do have strong scores are probably going to stand out a little more in this year,” he says. In a pool of candidates lacking scores, an applicant with strong results will stand out because that is another factor for colleges to consider.

At the same time, going test-optional can also help those who didn’t fare well on the ACT or SAT.

Removing that element forces colleges to consider other factors, both qualitative and quantitative. Colleges will look at GPA, grade trends and the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum alongside letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, admissions interviews and other factors that will be elevated without test scores to consider, some experts say.

While colleges already consider these elements, they grow in importance in the absence of standardized test scores.

“Colleges, as they review a student’s profile, just have to look for clues from other parts of the application,” Fay says.

What Test-Optional Means for Colleges

Admissions experts suggest that going test-optional can benefit both colleges and students alike. For example, Fay says colleges that go test-optional tend to receive more applications overall and from a more diverse class of candidates.

Colleges going test-optional are no longer outliers. It’s becoming an increasingly popular position, Schaeffer observes.

The University of California system, which comprises 10 campuses including the prestigious University of California—Los Angeles and University of California—Berkeley, recently announced that it would go test-optional for students applying for fall 2021 admission due to the coronavirus pandemic. But beyond that, the entire UC system may remain test-optional for 2022 as part of a new proposal for how admissions is structured, which includes discussion of going test-blind for California residents applying to enter in 2023 and 2024.

“Going test-optional has never meant schools are test-blind,” Applerouth explains. “Test-blind is a very different thing.”

Test-blind means that colleges won’t look at scores even if a student submits them.

Students should check application requirements at their target schools to understand the testing policy of each.

Though most of the colleges that have announced changes to admissions in light of the pandemic are going test-optional, some have opted to go even further. Loyola University New Orleans, for example, announced a shift to test-blind earlier this month.

“We recognize COVID-19 has had a large impact on the ability of students to follow the recommended timeline for the college process,” Nathan Ament, chief enrollment officer, said in a news release. “The spring and summer after a student’s junior year are typically when students prepare for and complete standardized testing. … By removing the testing requirement, we hope to reduce some of the stress that might be caused by the college application process.”

Planned dates for standardized exams indicate that SAT testing will resume in early fall. Likewise, the ACT organization has scheduled make-up test dates in June and July, giving test-takers several date options during the summer.

Also, the College Board is considering a scenario in which students may test at home digitally in the fall if high schools are still closed then. An online ACT option is scheduled for the fall, regardless.

Why Students May Want to Consider Taking College Entrance Exams

Admissions experts, testing organizations and even some skeptics agree – it still makes sense to take the ACT or SAT.

“Give it a shot and see where the score falls,” Fay says.

If the outcome is positive, a student can move forward knowing that standardized testing can be a strong part of his or her profile, she says. If not, a student can try to retake the exam for a better score or omit the results on test-optional applications.

“They could opt out if they want. There are plenty of colleges now that are test-optional and you don’t need to play the game,” Schaeffer says. But, he adds, that can become more complicated depending on the number of schools to which a student applies.

“The odds are that one of the schools on that list will probably still require a test.”

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