By Kira Ratan–
Students across the globe study for hours upon hours, and sometimes spend thousands of dollars, preparing to take standardized college admissions tests. In early March of 2020, thousands of students had been doing just that. Then, the pandemic hit.
The COVID-19 crisis shut down testing for the greater portion of the spring and summer, which prompted colleges and universities to rethink their admissions policies and processes, specifically the consideration of standardized test scores.
According to Fairtest.org, the National Center for Fair and Open Standardized Testing, there are now over 1,630 institutions across the United States that are test-optional, either temporarily or permanently, meaning applicants have the choice of submitting test results but aren’t required to. Sixty-seven others are test-blind, meaning they do not consider test scores at all.
Quite a few schools, including Bowdoin College in Maine, the first American college to go test-optional in 1969, already had test-optional policies in place before the pandemic. But many schools only recently made the switch, after it became clear that testing wouldn’t be feasible for a period of time.
When COVID-19 hit the United States, ACT and SAT test dates scheduled for March 14 and March 28 were quickly postponed or canceled. According to Spectrum News New York, the ACT website listed at least 500 testing locations that were closed down because of the pandemic. At the Masters School alone, according to a survey conducted by the school newspaper, Tower, 50 students were unable to sit for their tests because of COVID-19.
Schools like Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Bard College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. already had test-optional policies in place and therefore didn’t have to amend their list of variables during this unprecedented time. But schools that greatly emphasized standardized test scores in their admissions process, such as Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, were forced to look in a different direction.
In a panel for juniors and seniors at Masters, Kyla McNally Anderson, an undergraduate admissions officer at Northeastern University, talked about her institution’s previous emphasis on standardized test scores and how the pandemic has reshaped their review process. “Becoming test-optional was a huge move for Northeastern; if anyone is familiar with us, test scores are very important, so it’ll be a challenge. But we’re excited to be taking that on and opening the door of accessibility for our students,” Anderson said.
Masters’ Associate Director of College Counseling, Karin Tucker, thinks that moving to a test-optional policy is a necessary decision for all colleges to make, regardless if test scores were previously emphasized. “Over half the nation’s colleges and universities have gone test-optional for many reasons, but especially because it’s just unfair to ask students who are living through a global pandemic to take an exam that they can’t even get to,” she said.
The change is affecting students at other schools as well. Irvington High School senior Richard Ackerman was planning on taking the ACT this past Spring, but because of COVID-19, he had to take the SAT in September instead. He had spent so long preparing to take an entirely different test and, in turn, had to reconsider potential schools. “I had planned on applying to several harder schools, but now I won’t be able to because my scores aren’t high enough to have a significant chance of getting in,” Ackerman said.
Tarah Desousa, Media Communications Strategist at ACT, said that, as the pandemic continues to affect students, the ACT will keep taking the extra steps necessary to make testing during these uncertain times as easy and safe as possible. “Unfortunately, it’s clear that the pandemic will be with us for some time. We’ll continue to open up as many testing sites and seats as possible, and we’ll be rolling out a remote proctoring option in the coming months that will allow students to take the ACT test online, at home or in other safe and convenient locations. We know that scores from the ACT test are important for students, particularly as they plan their futures at college or in a career setting,” she said.
Some colleges and universities have taken the extra step during the pandemic to declare explicitly, in their test-optional policies, that not providing a test score will not be held against an applicant. Yale University, U.C. Berkeley and Caltech in Pasadena are among the 67 colleges and universities that are currently test-blind and will not consider any standardized test scores at all, whether or not a student submits them.
Jack Weidner, a Sleepy Hollow High School Senior, is very glad that so many schools are going test-optional because of the pandemic, and feels it was the only way to make sure there was a level playing field. “Personally, I am very happy about schools being test-optional because I never wanted to take the SAT anyway, and now I don’t have to,” said Weidner. “I also think it’s more fair generally because students had so little control over whether they were able to take it or not.”
Sara Sympson, the director of communications at College Board, the organization that produces SAT tests, said she believes that standardized testing is a valuable part of any student’s college application but understands the extenuating circumstances that leave many students unable to sit for exams this year.
“As schools continue to navigate uncertainties due to the coronavirus, the top priorities for the College Board are the health and safety of students and educators. We’re working to ensure as many students as possible are able to test safely,” Sympson said, in an exclusive interview.
Many seniors this year had no choice but to apply to test-optional schools, which fortunately may not narrow down their choices this year. A few seniors, however, had always planned on applying solely to test-optional schools. In their case, the choices have increased considerably.
Masters senior Reed Gilmore had planned on applying only to test-optional schools, even before the pandemic struck. He decided he wanted to focus on in-school academics and didn’t consider himself a strong standardized test-taker. Gilmore is looking to be recruited by a college soccer program and feels a standardized test score wouldn’t add anything to his applications and recruitment process. Though the pandemic has made it much harder for him to attend clinics and meet with coaches personally, Gilmore is looking forward to putting more schools on his radar now that so many have gone test-optional.
“I was always planning on applying to test-optional schools, but I lucked out with so many more schools becoming test-optional. I expect, or at least hope, tons more colleges become permanently test-optional and review applications more holistically instead of valuing students by a singular test grade,” he said.
Like Gilmore, counselor Karin Tucker believes that, with so many schools going test-optional, students applying to colleges can now focus more on their academics and other parts of the college admissions process that they can control. “We encouraged students to lessen their stress and take this as an opportunity to focus on the important aspects of their application that are in their control.”
–with reporting by Chloe Edwards, Irvington High School, and Phoebe Neilsen, Sleepy Hollow High School.
This article is adapted from one written by Ms. Ratan, first published October 30 in Tower, the newspaper of The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, where the author is a student.