Higher Education Standardized Testing During COVID-19

November 5, 2020

The Challenge

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have provided higher education stakeholders the opportunity to question and reflect on current or recently changed testing practices to ensure a fair and equitable assessment of all students. Much like the rapid closure of face-to-face instruction in the spring, standardized testing centers closed and disrupted thousands of student’s testing plans, leaving many without a score to report. Limited testing and retesting capability have disproportionately impacted students who are underrepresented, low-income, first-generation or live in densely populated areas. This global disruption in testing has forced more than half of all four-year colleges and universities to drop their mandate for a standardized test score, at least for the current application cycle.

For decades, both higher education institutions and students have relied on standardized exams such as the SAT and ACT to provide reliable, external assessments of millions of students. Standardized exam scores have played a role at many colleges and universities, not only as a factor of acceptance but also in awarding scholarships, especially merit scholarships that do not consider student financial need. State scholarships such as Florida’s Bright Futures have also used these scores for eligibility. Standardized testing supporters have often presented these assessments as a way to compare students from schools across the country, which vary wildly in terms of academic rigor, and to provide selective schools that receive more applications than they can manage, a way to create a cutoff point. However, as Michael Kurlaender, an education policy professor at the University of California Davis, states, “testing in admissions has assessed not just what kids know, but the opportunities that they’ve had access to. They reflect a lot of deep inequalities that we have in our [education] system.”

Criticism of standardized exams have long questioned the reliance on standardized testing scores for college admissions, many arguing these scores exacerbate inequalities in admissions. Research has shown a strong correlation between standardized test scores and socioeconomic factors, proving to be an unreliable prediction of college success. Demographic factors such as race/ethnicity and parental education explain a large portion of the variance in SAT scores, as they are tied to proximate factors such as quality of school attended and the availability of test-prep services. With massive growth and diversification of postsecondary participation by American students, and increased enrollment of international students at US colleges and universities, ongoing, “testing agencies have not been able to ensure that the access to and availability of test administrations, the quality of the testing experience, and the integrity and validity of test scores are preserved consistently.” 

Current Alternatives

While standardized exams have long been a benchmark for college admissions, there are many who believe these scores do not fully or adequately measure a student’s academic capabilities. Therefore, there are some viable alternatives available that have been implemented by various colleges and universities.

Test-Optional Schools | An increasingly popular alternative, test-optional institutions allow students to decide whether they want to submit a test score alongside their application, but a score is not required. Most test-optional schools will consider an exam score if submitted but will likely focus on other factors the university believes are stronger predictors of a student’s success at their institution. These factors can include student essays, grades, recommendations, and the rigor of a student’s coursework, which will be analyzed more closely. Test-optional policies differ from college to college, as there can be various restrictions, such as some colleges requiring test scores for out-of-state students or for students seeking specific majors.

Classic Learning Test | Developed in 2015, the Classic Learning Test (CLT) covers verbal reasoning, grammar/writing, and quantitative reasoning. Unlike the SAT & ACT, the CLT does not focus on Common Core standards and instead focuses on western teachings by notable thinkers such as Einstein and Plato. While accessible, since the CLT is administered entirely online, critics have questioned whether the test has too much of a focus on Western culture. Currently, 172 colleges in the United States – mostly small, private, liberal arts schools –have accepted the test as a supplement to a student’s application.

Individualized Institutional Assessments | Recently, the University of California voted to abandon the SAT and ACT as an undergraduate admission requirement to develop its substitute standardized test by 2025. While recent, this shift has encouraged other colleges and universities to attempt to shift away from the SAT and ACT to develop measures with “broad-based values that the university has identified.”

Mission-Driven Criteria | This alternative allows education stakeholders to develop criteria that reflect the mission of the institution, rather than a standardized score. Applicants are considered based on mission-driven criteria – identified by the school – to develop a representative student body with diverse communities and interests. Mission-Driven Criteria responds directly to a deep understanding of the levers and barriers to access in higher education. This model was implemented by Hampshire College in 2014 after they decided to ban the submission of SAT and ACT scores. The innovation had a clear impact in terms of equity in Hampshire College’s admissions process, with a population of first-generation students and students of color at the highest level in the history of the college.

Policy Considerations

Nationwide closures of testing facilities have provided education stakeholders the opportunity to reevaluate admissions measures through an access and equity lens. The National Association for College Admission Counseling Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students observed that if standardized testing perpetuates or worsens existing inequalities, and if it remains part of the undergraduate admission process at all, it must receive the most stringent of reviews. Policymakers and education stakeholders have the opportunity to discuss the merit of standardized test scores in undergraduate admission and should consider these opportunities through an education equity lens.

Provide Clarity | Education stakeholders and administrators should aim to provide simplicity and clarity regarding updated testing policy procedures. While the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional barriers to accessing standardized tests, certain student populations – such as low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students have faced barriers that will likely remain or even be exacerbated upon a “return to normalcy” if left unaddressed. In a time of heightened anxiety about the undergraduate admission process, stakeholders should aim to provide all students with clear information, avoiding ambiguous language, regarding recent changes in admission policy.

Consider new or alternative evaluations | With thousands of high school students having their standardized testing exams cancelled and therefore left without a score to offer, colleges and universities should consider how to best adapt their admissions process. Institutions can consider the various alternatives offered above such as test-optional policies, the creation of a personalized assessment, and/or shifting to mission-driven selection.  However, when evaluating new alternatives, institutions should consciously consider whether these new policies will provide statistically significant, new information on an applicant that is not already reflected in a student’s secondary school record, as well as ensure they evaluate all options through an equity lens.

Consider Consequences | Standardized testing has played a role in the evaluation and admissions process from a third-party perspective. These external assessments have often been seen as an equalizer to information from secondary schools that often have an interest in the outcomes of the higher education selection process. As colleges and universities move away from utilizing SAT or ACT scores, other academic achievement measures are likely to inadvertently carry more weight in the admission processes. Colleges and universities should be prepared to thoroughly transform their admission process and reassess the factors that will determine selection through an equitable lens while also understanding how these factors will impact high school educators and students.

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