One of the most significant effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the college admission ecosystem was the relatively rapid and nearly wholesale adoption of test-optional (or test-free, in some cases) admission policies by colleges and universities.
Prior to the pandemic, the biggest challenge to an institution considering moving to a test-optional admission policy was the institutional decision-making thicket that could prove difficult to navigate, in part due to the inertia that can define systems and structures and inhibit movement away from the status quo. COVID-19 short-circuited the process, as colleges moved away from test requirements out of necessity: The admission testing infrastructure—high schools, for the most part—was locked down. The decision was, in many ways, made for colleges and universities as much as by colleges and universities. Now that the pandemic is receding in the distance, colleges and other stakeholders must begin the hard work of assessing whether the switch to test-optional admission will produce hoped-for improvements to equity, a process that will require careful examination.
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 fifth in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.
I’m not sure I ever thought I’d see that day at the University of California (UC) or the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA), but here we are. On the heels of an admission cycle that mirrored the uncertainty and turmoil of the world around us, I’m being intentional about taking time to reflect on the year and lessons learned.
While the conversations regarding the continued use of standardized testing in UC admission began long before COVID, its onset certainly impacted the decision around test-optional versus test-free. Challenges regarding access to exams and accommodations needed by students were primary in discussions among our staff and faculty and, ultimately, the courts in California settled any lingering uncertainty. Each of the nine UC campuses moved to a test-free admission process and will continue this approach through the fall 2024 admission cycle.
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 fourth in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.
Outside the US, submitting a transcript of classroom achievement is seldom required when applying to universities, which makes testing all the more important in the admission process. While the demise of SAT Subject Tests was welcomed and applauded, international counselors encountered some anxiety and questions from students and parents alike about the potential need to take additional exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, and Advanced Placement tests, especially if applying to non-US universities. This was especially true in regions where students routinely work with agents, and where test prep is an aggressive and big business.
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 third in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.
Much has been written about the sudden, COVID-propelled test-optional movement inside of the US, and the blessings and complications that this movement has wrought for students, counselors, and admission offices there. Outside of the US, this same move to test-optional—plus the end of SAT Subject Tests and the SAT essay—has provoked mixed reactions: celebrations for students who are US-bound, but also concerns about potentially narrower options for students studying in a US curriculum who wish to travel abroad for university.
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 second in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.
At this time last year, “I don’t know” felt like a valid reply to the question of “to test or not to test” when guiding students through the college admission process. Granted, “I don’t know” left everyone feeling unfulfilled, but how could we “know” when each element of testing brought more questions than answers. Relying on some combination of experience, instinct, patience, and each other, we methodically felt our way through last year’s admission cycle and landed somewhere between survival and triumph. A year later, the world is thankfully in a different place, but both the testing question and the “I don’t know” reply remain.
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?
NACAC joined several education organizations this week in calling for changes to the way college rankings are calculated by one of the nation’s largest publishers of such information.
The effort was organized by New America — a think tank based in Washington, DC — which published an open letter to the editors of US News & World Report asking them to end the practice of including the average SAT and ACT scores of incoming students in their Best Colleges calculations.
“Using average scores of incoming students to rank an institution has never made sense, but is even more preposterous during a deadly pandemic,” notes the letter. “…At the same time, a rise in test-blind and test-optional admissions policies has made it difficult to compare institutions using this metric.”
An oft-forgotten yet important subsection of college and university programs are those that take place in prison. While these programs provide prisoners with an otherwise unachievable education, many have problems that prevent prisoners from accessing equitable higher education. These prison programs often are considered selective, with applicants having to prove their worth through standardized tests, essays, and even proof of extracurricular activities. These requirements can be difficult for the average student to meet, let alone an incarcerated student. Recognizing these problems, Erin Corbett and Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc. (SCEA) created a three-principled framework to help transform these outdated prison programs into more equitable ones.
Reconceptualize an admission process that accounts for incarcerated student access to time, information, and opportunity
Broaden partnerships with community-based organizations to ensure community representation in the admission and enrollment process
Implement an open and rolling admission timeline
Create an application process that centers on portfolio assessments rather than GPA or standardized test scores
Imprisoned students are often enrolled in life skills programs that provide certifications upon completion. These certificates can be used in place of more traditional guideposts of student success.
Shift assessment and program models to leverage a competency mastery model
Root curricula and credentials in competency mastery rather than credit hours
Project based learning is an excellent way for students to connect with their studies and demonstrate mastery
Implement and strengthen avenues to award credit for prior learning
Dismantle college-in-prison programs that do not accept credits for prior learning
Award credit though Prior Learning Assessments (PLA)
Using PLAs in prisons have shortened the average degree completion time and resulted in a 43 percent graduation rate compared to 15 percent in programs not using PLAs
Waive prerequisites that would normally increase time-to-degree completion
Use PLA credits to meet general education and program/major requirements
Fund programs that award credit for prior learning
Authors of the framework hope that by better serving minority populations in prison, previous practices that have historically only benefited the privileged will be upended.
NACAC Research Associate Cameron Hair welcomes comments and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
Test-optional policies have become popular among institutions of higher education in recent years, whether due to holistic admission policies or as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. While many celebrate the increase of test-optional admission policies as a win for equitable admission, authors Dominique J. Baker and Akil Bello highlight three major problems associated with the quick adoption of these policies. The authors also break down recommendations for both policymakers and practitioners that may help blunt the negative impacts they believe test-optional policies have on students.
Problems with Test-Optional Policies
The first problem highlighted by Baker and Bello involves requiring standardized testing to graduate high school. Even though many colleges and universities are going test-optional, 25 states require a standardized test to receive a high school diploma. However, due to the rise in test-optional policies as a result of the pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult for students in these states to schedule these exams.
The second problem associated with test-optional policies in the age of coronavirus involves the swiftness with which decisions to go test-optional were made. These decisions are being made at faster speeds than ever before, which does not allow significant time for colleges and universities to prepare for the change.
The last problem with these policies involves the new reliance on student’s prior academic performance. As academic grades have been completely upended due to coronavirus, using these grades as predictors of college success no longer is viable.
Recommendations for Practitioners
Ensure that initial screening policies do not make negative assumptions about those who do not submit tests compared to those who do submit.
Research suggests that taking standardized tests multiple times correlates with an increase in scores. Minority students take standardized tests at lesser rates than white students, indicating that at least some of the score differential between white and minority students could be caused by familiarity with the standardized test.
Address the relationship between test scores and merit aid
The best approach would be to adopt a test blind policy when awarding scholarships.
Ensure that all policies involving test score use is transparent and inclusive.
Recommendations for Policymakers
Certain states need to revisit the standardized test requirement for high school graduation. With coronavirus still rampant, it is unlikely that students will be able to meet this requirement.
State Boards of Education should consider a systematic way to communicate grade changes from the most recent academic term.
Underfunded schools likely do not currently have this capacity.
States should create a single database of grading changes that occurred during the Spring 2020 semester that can be made available to admission professionals.
State Boards of Education should create better communication practices with colleges about the impact coronavirus has on different communities.
This context allows admission professionals to access contextual information while evaluating students.
State Boards of Education should provide coronavirus-related sickness and death rate information linked to the nearest high school or college. This would increase time for review as well as provide insight into the struggles students face during the pandemic.
NACAC Research Associate Cameron Hair welcomes comments and story ideas at email@example.com
Regular updates on NACAC and the world of college admission counseling. For more information about NACAC, visit nacacnet.org.