Unintended Consequences

By: Rafael Figueroa

Editor’s note: In August 2020, NACAC released a report urging colleges and universities to examine their policies and practices concerning standardized tests and their potential impact on equity and access. This column is the first in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.

The decision most colleges made to go test-optional last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic was the right one to get us through an unprecedented crisis. But such a fundamental shift in college admission left a great deal of uncertainty in the minds of students and counselors alike. As a test center, Albuquerque Academy, an independent day school in New Mexico, worked hard to offer the SAT and ACT as soon as we could safely do so.

But telling the story of how one remarkable and dedicated colleague was able to orchestrate our first testing date after the state shut down raises again the question voiced last year by the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students in its report: What is the real cost of standardized testing, and who bears the burden?

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The bright July sun had just started to peek over the crest of New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains when Donna White started her last-minute preparations for the complex standardized testing operation that Saturday in 2020. The morning was the result of weeks of planning, re-planning, starting over, and finally hitting on the best way to satisfy stringent safety protocols and the public health order issued by the state. But for White, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel and director of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy (NM), the central reason for all her careful planning was the needs of her students.

Soon, the 25 or so proctors and assistants began to assemble, each getting their temperature taken and filling out a health assessment form before being cleared for duty. Some would be room proctors, and they received detailed updates from White about the students who would or would not be showing up that morning to take the ACT exam. Some were there to be “floaters,” giving breaks to proctors and filling in where needed. It was all about the numbers that morning: temperature readings and occupancy limits. While most of the proctors and rovers would be paid a proctor fee by ACT, White herself was not on the payroll that day. Neither was her husband, who served numerous roles. One of Donna’s colleagues was also there to help out that morning, as was that colleague’s spouse, a teacher at a local public school, both volunteering their time.

For that ACT, the first allowed on campus since February 2020, 155 students registered, but only 46 of them were students at Albuquerque Academy. The majority were students at other public high schools in Albuquerque, since the Academy was the only test center in the city that was open that Saturday. We were also one of only two sites open in the entire state. Over the next few test dates for the ACT and SAT, we would see students from all over the state, as well as from California, Arizona, and Colorado, coming to Albuquerque Academy because the word got out that our school was able to safely operate as a test center.

Incidentally, a total of 20 students did not show up for testing that first day. But unlike in the past, the testing agencies did away with standby registration and also took away any control a testing site has as to which students can get assigned to test at that site. So while we were happy to provide a service to such a broad array of students, it would have been nice to have been able to test more of our own students. Or any students.

As thorough and detailed as the colonel’s plan was that day, she still needed to make some last-minute revisions. Instead of handing the health assessments to each student individually, the forms (and a pencil) were put in folders and placed in lines on the Academy football field, spaced exactly six feet apart. As the apprehensive students milled about the edge of the field, the normal test-day anxiety being magnified numerous times by the pandemic, they could see rows of folders lying in neat lines on the field, waiting.

A short time later, which felt anything but, the proctors emerged from the senior commons carrying signs with their room numbers and each took up position at the head of the appropriate line of folders. Students were instructed to line up behind the proctor of their assigned room, pick up a form, and start completing it. Then the screeners went down each line taking temperatures and having the students record the temperatures on the form, collecting and reviewing the answers, and noting when a student had answered a question in a way that indicated there might be some concern. When that happened, they were asked to speak with our school nurse, who was also on duty that morning, an assignment that while not a usual part of her duties, was one she happily performed for the sake of all our safety.

One student ended up being dismissed after showing a fever and other symptoms of illness. She would turn out to be the only student ever dismissed in the health screening for all the testing dates that summer and fall.

When the students assigned to a particular room had all been cleared, that proctor was released and led their students to the assigned classroom to begin testing. This process was also carefully managed in the colonel’s plan. Only two proctors were released at a time, and they were assigned different routes to get into their classrooms, first stopping by different sets of restrooms, so that none of the students in a room ever mingled then, or during breaks, with students assigned to another room.

Testing began that morning at around 8:30, just a little later than on a normal, non-COVID test date. It is little surprise, really, that so few test centers were open that day. How many other school sites had someone with the logistical training and experience of a 26-year Army veteran to oversee the process? The students there were lucky to get tested at all, and many of them expressed their thanks throughout the day. We hope that was some compensation for the colonel, along with satisfaction over a job impeccably done.

At the end of that long, complex, but highly successful day, White attended via Zoom a memorial service for a close cousin, her namesake, who had recently passed away from breast cancer. The service was in Chicago, and although White had purchased an airplane ticket to attend it in person, she opted not to when it became obvious how complex the operation here in Albuquerque would be. After all, that was what was required to serve our students.

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We can’t help wondering how many other schools and counselors have similar stories to tell about the extraordinary efforts they underwent to provide standardized testing in a “test-optional” year. We would encourage colleges and universities to ask local high schools what lengths others have also gone to this past year to serve their students.


Rafael 
Figueroa is dean of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy (NM) and served on the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students.

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