Student filling out the bubble sheet for the SAT exam.
The future of standardized testing is standing on shaky ground, and the College Board is scrambling to maintain its long-held monopoly in the college admissions game. Between cancelled tests, a recanted proposal for an online SAT and, on the other side of the fence, a university-led shift towards a more holistic admissions process, it might fail.
In an effort to make up spring SAT exams that were cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the College Board initially announced a plan to administer a digital exam students could take from home. But the need to maintain integrity and equity outweighed the need to make up for lost revenue, and it withdrew this plan in a press release on Tuesday, explaining; “…taking it would require three hours of uninterrupted, video-quality internet for each student, which can’t be guaranteed for all.”
Offering an online administration would have been challenging on multiple fronts. Access issues do not stop at internet access; many students don’t have access to devices on which to take the exam, and others do not have a distraction-free space where they could sit for the exam.
Of significant importance when considering online tests are also issues of integrity. In a piece published by the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss wrote that many integrity concerns accompany an online exam; “…students could cheat with their parents whispering answers, and about proctoring technology invading the privacy of young people taking the test in their homes.” Without the integrity of in-person exams, digital exam scores would be rendered undesirable, especially to colleges that are already moving toward a more holistic application review process
Many schools have shifted their admissions requirements to SAT and ACT optional policies in direct response to canceled spring administrations. Some schools have taken this as an opportunity to implement long-term changes to their testing requirements, such as the University of California, which will implement a test-optional policy for the fall of 2021 and 2022, and then shift to a test-blind policy for fall 2023 and fall 2024. The test-optional policy will apply to all students in the class of 2021-2022, but the test blind policy for the 2023-2024 entering classes will apply to California residents and may look different for non-residential students, according to a timeline for the future of standardized testing at UC.
The fact remains that test-optional policies are not test-blind policies. Despite an increasing trend away from testing and towards a more holistic admissions process, any school that continues to accept standardized test scores will continue to consider them when evaluating student applications.
The College Board is doing what it can to maintain the status of its exam as an integral part of the college application, including recanting its digital SAT proposal before allowing students to submit test scores of questionable integrity, offering more test dates for the fall of 2020, and calling on colleges and universities to exercise increased flexibility concerning standardized tests. In Tuesday’s press release, it asked for flexibility in the following three ways: “accepting scores as late as possible in the admissions process, equally considering students who are unable to take the exam due to Covid-19 as those who submitted scores, and recognizing students may not have been able to take the test more than once.”
Should it be safe to resume in-person testing this fall, College Board is planning to offer one administration per month beginning in August. Test dates for the fall of 2020 are scheduled as follows: August 29th, September 26th, October 3rd, November 7th, and December 5th, with SAT Subject Tests offered at the August, October, November and December administrations. College Board is expecting to accommodate expanded testing capacity for students for each administration, and called on schools to aid them in this endeavor in its coronavirus update: “We’re calling on our member schools and colleges, as well as local communities, to provide additional test center capacity so every student who wants to take the SAT can do so.”
College Board is working on both fronts: planning to offer as many testing opportunities to students as possible, while also encouraging colleges to adopt policies that would preserve the test.
Furthermore, in addition to test scores maintaining significance in applications to schools with test-optional policies, they are relevant in areas other than college admissions. SAT scores are frequently used in awarding student scholarships; “many public and private schools offer academic scholarships that require a minimum SAT score to even be considered” writes Marie Willsey in a piece explaining how SAT scores affect financial aid. Further, she writes that a National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) study found that nearly four out of five colleges use standardized test scores as an eligibility criterion for merit aid.
Colleges can shift away from the SAT, but opponents of this shift point out the continued need for a national comparison point, considering the significant discrepancies in high school curriculum and grading systems between states and schools themselves. “Think of it like this: half of high school students today graduate with an A- average, so how meaningful is an A? Consider that good grades from a struggling public school in Mississippi could be discounted by admissions officers and scholarship committees compared with good grades coming from an elite private or public magnet school that offers AP courses and an honors curriculum,” writes Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in a New York Times op-ed. Between college admissions and scholarship allocation, a shift towards holistic assessments will still require some form of qualitative analysis to replace standardized test scores.
College admission seems to have arrived at an impasse. Ultimately, only time will tell whether colleges and universities will continue to consider standardized testing as a component of their applications.