By Eric Hoover
The Chronicle Of Higher Education – July 29, 2020
For decades, everyone held up their end of the bargain. Colleges set the testing requirements. Test companies made the tests. And students with revving pulses and clammy palms glued their backsides to chairs and bubbled in the answers.
Then the novel coronavirus shut down the world’s schools, where teenagers each year take millions of mass-produced exams that higher education prizes.
Almost overnight, cancellations unraveled the elaborate bargain. That’s what standardized testing is, a business arrangement among various parties, each with something important at stake. The ACT, SAT, and many other exams drive a series of transactions in which billions of dollars change hands. Students pay fees to testing organizations, which sell their personal information to admissions offices, which use the data to woo prospective applicants, who take (and retake) tests to earn scores seen by the colleges they desire. With merit-aid discounts on the line, the results help decide who ends up sending tuition checks to whom, and for how much.
By late March, the certainty of the ritual was gone. No one knew when testing would resume, or how many seats would be available when it did.
Next, a dizzying number of things happened. Disruption prompted more than 200 selective colleges to suspend (in some cases, permanently) their ACT and SAT requirements. The University of California announced that it would soon remove test scores from admissions evaluations, quite possibly for good. And the rollout of take-at-home Advanced Placement exams revealed the perils of online testing, raising concerns about its viability on a planet where many homes lack internet access and a quiet place to sit.
More importantly, a spring of protest reminded us to consider college-entrance requirements in their essential context: structural inequality. Just as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis compelled many Americans to confront racial and socioeconomic inequities, selective colleges — which help perpetuate those divides — now have reason to weigh old questions with new urgency. If an admissions policy disproportionately harms low-income and underrepresented minority students, is it right, in this broken world, to cling to that policy?
Crisis has delivered the test of our tests and the system that supports them. Some college officials describe the moment as a reckoning that could forever change the assessment industry and diminish its most-familiar products.
Still, it’s too soon to eulogize the high-stakes exams we grew up sweating. Test scores have long stamped a meaning inside the skulls of college presidents, trustees, professors, enrollment officials, financial-aid directors, state legislators, and, yes, parents and students. That helps explain why flagship universities in more than a dozen states, including entire public systems in Florida and Georgia, have yet to adjust their policies, why some colleges continue to require the tests for institutional scholarships, and why many teenagers are risking their health to take one three-hour exam. The bargain has unraveled, though by no means all the way.
The ever-unfolding story of tests is about people with great power making choices that affect, often profoundly, people with little or no power. Colleges and testing companies set the terms and conditions; students must sharpen their pencils and comply. Sorry, kids, that’s the deal.
Months of chaos, cancellations, and nail-gnawing anxiety have revealed a lot about our relationship with tests. It’s charged, conflicted, and at times abusive. And for many students around the world, it has become even more intense.
Bertha Tobias wanted 7s. All her friends did, too. At her private secondary school in Changshu, China, everyone knew that a 7 was the highest score you could get on each of the International Baccalaureate program’s culminating exams. A 7 signified the ultimate academic success; to earn one was to snag a sparkling crown.
An insightful young woman with deep-brown eyes and a melodic voice, Tobias spent the winter studying and counting down the days until the exams, which would begin in early May. She saw them as one last opportunity to prove herself.
Tobias, then 19, grew up in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, in sub-Saharan Africa. A generous scholarship enabled her to attend the United World College in Changshu, which has a two-year cost of attendance of about $100,000.
Though Tobias liked her school a lot, it enrolled few other Black students. She felt a constant need to demonstrate that she belonged: “That I was not just a charity project.” Each time her classmate from Belgium invited her on trips to other cities during breaks, Tobias declined. She couldn’t afford to travel. And even if she could’ve, she would’ve felt obligated to study instead.
The International Baccalaureate, or IB, is an education foundation known widely for its rigorous curriculum, taught at schools in more than 140 countries. Students take mandatory exams in six subjects. Those who pass and complete core course requirements get an IB diploma. Their test scores are used to assign final IB grades, which, in many parts of the world, play an enormous role in admissions.
The ever-unfolding story of tests is about people with great power making choices that affect, often profoundly, people with little or no power.
Tobias, who planned to attend college in the United States, had internalized the importance of scores: “They’re a formal, officialized validation that you’ve done something meaningful.”
But as spring neared, Covid-19 threatened to rob nearly 175,000 IB students worldwide of that validation. After Tobias’s school closed, she went home to Namibia, expecting to take her exams at a school in Windhoek.
At the time, Siva Kumari , the IB’s director general, was trying to decide if it was advisable, or even possible, to administer standardized tests during a pandemic. “It felt enormous,” she says. “Terrifying.”
After finding Kumari’s private email, IB students flooded it with pleas. Don’t cancel. I’ve been preparing forever. Don’t deprive me of this.
When Kumari and her colleagues conferred with schools throughout the world, though, they heard about students whose family members were getting sick, whose parents were losing jobs, whose teachers were dying of Covid-19. The IB considered creating online versions of the exams but decided that a new testing format would stoke anxiety and disadvantage students who lacked a reliable internet connection.
“We didn’t want to introduce another stressor,” Kumari says, “in an already stressed world.”
In late March, the IB announced that it would cancel all exams. It would use an algorithm to assign final grades, which would be based on students’ completed coursework, their predicted grades from teachers, and historical data.
That night, Tobias was watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when a friend from school texted her to say that the exams were off. After confirming the shocking news, she barged into her mother’s bedroom to vent.
Tobias felt her heart hammering. She wouldn’t get 7s or 6s — or any scores at all. She went to bed feeling empty and woke up feeling empty.
But as the weeks passed, Tobias questioned herself. Why did a number on a test have such a hold on her life? What did that say about her education? Her conclusions would speak directly to everyone, everywhere, wrung out by the testing bargain.
By April, the pandemic had stolen at least one thing from everyone: certainty. Comforting television commercials for Mazda, Sprint, and U-Haul reminded us that we were in “uncertain times.”
The College Board, a membership organization that owns big-name tests, made a commercial, too. “These are uncertain times,” it said. “And it’s only natural to concentrate on all of the kind of bad things that have happened.”
The short video, “College Admissions Leaders Support AP Students,” was emailed to students all over the world and posted on YouTube. It was a pep talk written by the College Board that promoted its Advanced Placement exams as an antidote to uncertainty. “You now have the chance — in fact, you have the responsibility,” says Barbara A. Gill associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland at College Park, “to show us …”
“… to show your teachers,” said Yvette Gullatt, vice provost for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of California, “to show your support network and your champions, as well as yourself, what you can do.”
Gill and Gullatt, like three other admissions officials appearing in the video, hold unpaid positions on the College Board’s Board of Trustees. The video was meant to ensure that students knew colleges would accept this year’s AP scores, a spokesman for the organization says. But the production was also a reminder: Colleges and testing organizations have close relationships that help perpetuate the bargain.
The International Baccalaureate and the College Board had confronted the same question: Should exams be canceled? But the two rivals reached very different answers.
The College Board decided to offer online AP exams after surveying 18,000 AP students. Nine out of 10, the organization said, wanted to take the exams. “The comments were full of emotional statements,” Trevor Packer, a senior vice president at the College Board, told The Chronicle in April. “Students said, ‘So much has been taken from us — prom, senior trips. Please do not take this normalcy away.’”
Students said, ‘So much has been taken from us — prom, senior trips. Please do not take this normalcy away.’
Those comments moved Packer, who, as a high-school student back in 1986, didn’t ask his parents for $47 to take the AP European-history exam because he knew they couldn’t afford it, according to a Washington Post profile. After his school principal called home to explain that the young man could earn college credit by taking the test, his mother gladly wrote the check.
Packer went on to oversee the ever-expanding AP program, which in 2018 served up 4.22 million exams and generated $480 million in revenue. This spring, he led the push to ensure that AP students would have the chance to earn college credits. In eight weeks, the College Board created digital versions of paper-and-pencil tests in 38 subjects, each lasting 45 minutes instead of the usual three hours, and consisting of free-response questions. It was product redesign for the ages.
Though billed as an antidote to uncertainty, the take-at-home AP exams caused plenty of it. During the first week of testing, in May, thousands of students couldn’t upload their answers. The College Board said technical errors affected less than 1 percent of the 4.6 million exams students began. Seven percent of all exams were not completed for reasons that the organization did not attribute to technology issues (last year, a slightly higher percentage of free-response questions like those on this year’s AP exams weren’t completed).
But students took the tests under very different conditions. For security reasons, each test was offered at the same time worldwide. Students in New York took the Computer Science A exam at 4 p.m. on a Friday, and students in China took it at 4 a.m. on a Saturday.
Some students took the exams at their parents’ second homes, and some took them in bathrooms and closets to avoid the wailing of baby brothers and sisters. “We can’t control the conditions in students’ homes,” David Coleman, the College Board’s CEO, wrote in an email to the organization’s members in May acknowledging the disruptions that might affect exam experiences: “Like the virus itself, these disruptions will disproportionately impact low-income and underrepresented students.”
Stephanie Sun had an up-close view of how disadvantaged students fared this spring.
From the start, Sun, an AP English teacher, was skeptical of the take-at-home plan. She didn’t see how the drastically altered exams would be as valid as the previous versions.
She had deeper concerns, though. Amid a chaotic pandemic, she knew the high-stakes exams would unnerve many teenagers at her school, the Math, Engineering, and Science Academy Charter High School, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
After virtual instruction began, many students, Sun says, “fell off the face of the earth.” Some had to babysit their younger siblings. Some had two parents who lost jobs. And some had parents who died of Covid-19.
Sun taught a high-achieving junior — let’s call her Natalie — with a major worry: The 60 days of free internet access a cable company had provided after schools closed would expire before her AP English exam on May 20. The young woman’s mother is an Ecuadorian immigrant who sells Icees from a cart in downtown Brooklyn. Sun worried that she couldn’t afford to keep their home connected.
The College Board had vowed to provide Chromebooks and wireless hot spots to test takers, and it would end up distributing 7,500 devices and providing customer support to more than 28,000 people. Still, many, many students were left with unmet needs after the terms of the testing bargain changed.
In spring, Sun completed a College Board form requesting a wireless hot spot for Natalie, but did not get a response. When she called the organization in May, she says, a representative suggested taking the AP exam outside a McDonald’s with free Wi-Fi.
No, Sun thought. Taking a timed test under pressure outside a fast-food joint in a city deluged by Covid-19 was unthinkable.
That night, Sun wrote an op-ed about Natalie’s predicament that was published by the New York Daily News. Within hours, she says, the College Board contacted her and offered to send a wireless hot spot. The cable company contacted her, too: It extended the family’s free internet through June.
After learning that she could take the exam at home, Natalie emailed Sun: “I can be at peace now.”
An hour before the AP English exam, Sun hosted a “pre-party” for her students on Zoom. She shared motivational images with puns (“I beleaf in you”). She told them the exam wouldn’t determine their worth.
Students had to write a short response to a prompt — that was the entire exam. Natalie’s was an excerpt from Helen Keller’s autobiography. Though some students who had struggled in Sun’s course received high scores, Natalie, who excelled at writing, did not. She told her teacher she was disappointed in herself.
Sun had mixed feelings about AP exams. She understood why some students hoping to become the first in their families to attend college put a lot of stock in their scores. “They’re a stamp of achievement,” she says. “They equate their scores with their ability to step into this other world.”
But for many teenagers this spring, the tests were a burden. “It was an extra layer of pressure,” Sun says, “this feeling that you’re AP-anointed, and you have to do well even though your family is struggling and everything around you is crumbling. For a lot of them, it was trauma.”
“You now have the chance,” the pep-talk commercial says, “in fact, you have the responsibility, to show us … what you can do.”
This spring, the University of California, one of the largest public systems in the country, confronted a fact that it had long tip-toed around: The testing bargain just isn’t fair.
Forget, for a moment, the disadvantaged students you might know who got a top-notch ACT or SAT score, including those at highly selective colleges. Their stories matter. But their stories are exceptional. Over all, low-income and underrepresented minority students get much lower scores on those tests than their white, affluent peers do.
In May, UC’s Board of Regents considered a proposal to cut ties with the ACT and SAT. Janet Napolitano, the system’s outgoing president, had recommended that the system — which had previously suspended testing requirements for one year because of Covid-19 — remain test-optional through 2022. In 2023 and 2024, UC would adopt a “test blind” policy in which no scores would be considered. In 2025, the system either would adopt a new exam for in-state applicants or eliminate its testing requirement for them.
The regents’ six-hour meeting, full of expert testimony and breathless tedium, had some illuminating moments. But Varsha Sarveshwar stole the show.
Sarveshwar, president of UC’s Student Association, had learned a lot about testing. She knew that high-school grades are the best predictor of success in college (as measured by first-year grades), and that test scores can add some predictive value beyond that.
But she agreed with Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at Berkeley, who told the Board of Regents that though it’s important to admit well-prepared students, “if we want UC’s students to reflect California’s diversity, we have to recognize that predictive performance can’t be the lodestar of our process for selecting them.”
Sarveshwar believed that UC must weigh the statistical benefits of testing requirements against their “social costs.” That’s the term Saul Geiser, another researcher at Berkeley, used in a recent study of UC applicants. He found that the correlation between students’ socioeconomic background and SAT scores is about three times greater than the correlation between their socioeconomic background and high-school grade-point averages.
When Geiser ranked applicants using high-school GPA, Black and Hispanic applicants made up 23 percent of the top decile. When he ranked them by SAT scores, Black and Hispanic applicants made up 5 percent of the top decile. Given the “independent and growing effect” of race on those scores, he wrote, UC should replace or eliminate the ACT and SAT.
Sarveshwar agreed. When it was her turn to speak, she described the layers of advantage that she had as a college applicant.
Growing up in Oak Park, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, Sarveshwar said, “preparing for the SAT was an extracurricular of its own.” Private-tutoring sessions helped her raise her score nearly 200 points. She disputed the notion that free or low-cost test-prep resources offered the same kind of benefits to less-affluent students.
When you pay for test prep, you pay to turn standardized testing into a class.
“Here’s the difference,” Sarveshwar said. “Self-studying for standardized testing takes a lot of initiative outside of your classes. A student has to set aside time in the evenings and weekends for weeks, if not months. I have that discipline today as a 22-year-old, but I sure didn’t have it when I was 16. When you pay for test prep, you pay to turn standardized testing into a class. For the wealthy, extensive preparation for the SAT or ACT is therefore a given. For lower-income students, who are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Native, as well as rural students, preparing is on them. That is a classist and racist expectation.”
Sarveshwar, who graduated from Berkeley in May, later told The Chronicle that, as someone from a privileged background, she had a responsibility to “just kind of own it.” As a test-taker who scored in the 99th percentile, she reminded everyone that those benefiting from an unfair system can still humbly call out its flaws.
The Board of Regents’ unanimous vote in favor of Napolitano’s proposal was historic. Still, UC’s plan sent a mixed message. For one thing, UC would continue using the very same tests it had deemed problematic to determine scholarships and statewide eligibility for four more years.
In 2025, the system would either go test-blind for good or … adopt another college-entrance test that surely would have many of the same flaws as existing exams. Those very different paths forward remind us that, when it comes to standardized testing, higher education has a conflicted heart.
Evidence of that conflict is easy to find. It seeps from the text of several recent announcements about testing requirements.
When the University of Oregon adopted a permanent test-optional policy this spring, it posted advice to applicants: “On one hand, standardized tests give us a way to measure something about your potential that we can compare equally across all applicants, but there is concern that a test score could simply reflect how good a student is at taking tests. From this perspective, standardized tests present us with a fuller picture for some applicants, but might actually limit or skew our understanding of others.”
One could say that Oregon wants to have it both ways. Tests matter except when they don’t. Scores might tell us something kind of useless, but we don’t want to discourage anyone who’s proud of their scores, which can be helpful to us.
For many applicants, Oregon says, “submitting test scores is a great idea if you have them.” But, really, no pressure: “We also know you might have unusual challenges taking the test in the first place.”
That’s just it. Many students don’t have test scores because of widespread cancellations this spring and summer. A recent national survey found that two-thirds of rising seniors had yet to take the SAT, and nearly three-quarters had yet to take the ACT. Uncertainty looms over scheduled testing dates later this summer and fall.
Purdue University’s “test flexible” policy for fall 2021 says that applications will be evaluated without scores, but “if students can take an SAT or ACT, we’d still suggest and prefer they do so.”
The University of Michigan states that though the lack of an ACT or SAT score won’t harm an applicant’s chances, “scores are encouraged … if available.”
Some college counselors have said that Cornell University’s one-year-only test-optional policy doesn’t sound optional at all: Applications from students who don’t submit scores would be evaluated with “increased scrutiny,” and they might “more often be asked … for additional evidence of continuing preparation.”
Is it any wonder that for months many prospective applicants have been thinking the same thing? If there’s any way to take the test, I must.
Holly Markiecki-Bennetts, a school counselor at Mercy High School, in Farmington Hills, Mich., describes a “subculture of fear” among her rising seniors despite the plethora of test-optional announcements. “Growing up, everything they’ve heard is the importance of these tests, these tests, these tests,” she says. “So when I talk to them about test-optional, I’m going up against everything they’ve ever heard. They fear that they haven’t done enough, and that if they don’t submit a score, they’ll be looked at differently.”
Recently, a young woman she advises managed to take the ACT at a high school outside Detroit. Sitting among mask-wearing test takers, she became distracted when another student started coughing.
In late July, two students tested positive for the coronavirus after taking the ACT at a high school in Oklahoma. It was a reminder: Testing has become a public-health issue.
That’s why at least one admissions official has publicly discouraged testing. “Please don’t test,” Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, urged students in a recent blog post: If a college is “encouraging you to take a test to make them feel better about admitting you, ask yourself what that says about them.”
Right now it’s risky to sit for an exam. But some students, Markiecki-Bennetts says, “think the risk of not getting a test score is too high.”
Amid conflicting calculations of risk, many people’s faith in the importance of the testing bargain grew. Or maybe fear of forgoing the bargain — by not submitting an ACT or SAT score — kept the whole thing going.
Something powerful drove families to search far and wide for places to take exams. The frantic scramble began last winter when some wealthy parents in New York City flew their children elsewhere to take the March SAT after Manhattan’s schools shut down. “There was a run on test sites before there was a run on toilet paper,” says Adam Ingersoll, founder and principal of Compass Education Group, a college-advising and test-prep firm.
Since then, opportunities to test have remained scarce because of Covid-19. After urging students to register for exams (“Don’t let these unexpected circumstances get in the way of your potential”), the ACT canceled numerous administrations this summer. At the end of July, the organization took down its registration page “due to high demand,” and then announced that it would re-open registration a few days later with an “accelerated” process for students affected by cancellations.
The College Board put its plan to offer an online, take-at-home version of the SAT this fall on hold. Though both organizations added testing dates for later in the year, none can be guaranteed.
All summer, families weighed the hassle and hazards of traveling just to take a test. After two ACT cancellations this spring, Ashley Chichila a rising high-school senior in suburban Detroit, couldn’t find a nearby spot to take the exam in July. So she planned to pile into a Chrysler Pacifica minivan with her family for the four-hour drive to a test site in Sault Ste. Marie. Ultimately, they decided that staying a hotel overnight before a big exam was a bad idea.
Kim Burrill, in San Jose, Calif., spent hours searching for testing centers with available spots for her son Reese, a football player who gets two hours of private test-prep each Sunday. She finally registered him for a seat at a high school in Las Vegas, but the test was canceled just before he and his father were supposed to hop on a plane in mid-July.
The short supply of tests revealed a disparity: Many students who depend on exams being offered in their schools or nearby locations have limited options.
In Washington, D.C., Sanjay K. Mitchell, director of college and alumni programs at the Thurgood Marshall Academy, recently heard from a low-income student who had found a testing site about 30 miles away, in Virginia. But the young man didn’t have a family member who could drive him there on a Saturday morning.
A young man wishing to go by the name Stephen C., who says diagnosed disabilities leave him in “a constant battle with my mind,” had been unable to find an ACT testing center that would let him take the exam in a separate room so that he could more easily concentrate. Normally, his high school, in Orange County, Calif., would provide that accommodation, but it will be closed this fall.
Everywhere, the test shortage of 2020 revealed how deeply standardized tests are embedded in the mechanisms of college-going, including eligibility for state and institutional scholarships.
Sybella Rosenthol, a senior in Centreville, Va., felt anxious about taking the SAT in August. “I really don’t want to risk getting a virus just to take a test,” she says. But she believed that she had no alternative: Her top choice, the University of Toledo, which offers the ultra-rare major in cosmetic science that she seeks, requires test scores for its presidential scholarship. The minimum SAT score: 1360 (out of 1600).
Without that scholarship, which covers tuition, room, and board, her mother, Mary Rosenthol , who was laid off from her job at a corporate gym this spring, said affording Toledo would be “painful.”
Amid all the anxiety, though, one could find stories of relief. That’s what Grace Halfmann felt recently when her college adviser told her that her dream school, Marian University, in Indianapolis, wouldn’t consider ACT or SAT scores for admission or merit aid this fall.
Halfmann, a rising senior who attends a private high school in Festus, Mo., has a 3.9 grade-point average and many extracurricular accomplishments. But she had worried that her middling ACT score would keep from getting Marian’s top scholarship, without which she doesn’t think she could afford to attend.
Timed exams have always been a struggle for Halfmann, who has mild dyslexia. When she took the Pre-ACT, she faltered during the science section and left the room crying. “I felt like almost a failure,” she says, “because I couldn’t get all the answers in time.”
Knowing that Marian wouldn’t see her ACT scores made college seem tangible. “I’m a good student; I’m involved,” she says. “Now they’ll be able to see that without this score weighing down on me.”
Still, Halfmann, who took the exam for the first time in June, figures she’ll take it again this fall, if possible. Just to see if her score goes up.
In this upside-down world, it’s hard to say what will happen next. But hyperbolic predictions abound. After Harvard University suspended its testing requirements because of Covid-19, The Boston Globe called it “a pivotal decision that will likely ripple across higher education.”
But it wasn’t pivotal, nor did it ripple. The world-famous university in Cambridge, Mass., was just following the herd. Harvard, like many other big-name colleges, says it intends to restore its ACT and SAT requirements after this year. Decisions made out of necessity — many students won’t be able to take exams before fall deadlines — shouldn’t be confused with an anti-test revolution or a noble college-access crusade. A test-optional policy is not the same thing as, say, a commitment to expand need-based aid by 20 percent.
That said, the pandemic necessitates an unprecedented pause in rituals during which colleges must reevaluate their admissions practices. That could inspire fundamental shifts.
“Will this mark a permanent change? For many colleges, yes,” says Satyajit Dattagupta, vice president for enrollment management at Tulane University. “It will be difficult to roll it back once you’ve gone test optional.”
As for Tulane and other hyper-selective colleges, though, he’s not so sure. That’s partly because when he thinks about standardized tests, he feels pulled in two directions at once.
Growing up in India, Dattagupta had no access to tutoring or Princeton Review guides. Before he took the SAT at 17, his father told him, “This is the only $60 we have — if you don’t do well, we can’t afford another one.” The future enrollment official threw up an hour before the exam and struggled all the way through it.
Dattagupta tries to remember that feeling even as he tends to the demands of a highly selective admissions process. “Sometimes I struggle with a personal tug of war between romance and reality,” he says. The romantic part of him wants to enroll more students who perhaps don’t test well, but the tactical part must contend with the challenge of reviewing 43,000 applications: “A test score, while not everything, does help us streamline the process. When you take it away, the process gets more complicated.”
While many enrollment officials agree with that in general, some say it’s really not that much more complicated. Sure, it’s a challenge to thoughtfully compare applicants from very different high schools with very different grading systems. “But colleges have been navigating this for years,” says Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which supports test-optional policies. “We’re not asking people to breathe underwater here.”
Still, this year many colleges with no experience evaluating great numbers of applicants who lack scores will soon have the added challenge of sifting through applications full of pass-fail grades from this spring.
Let’s remember here that ACT and SAT scores aren’t just evaluative tools used to select applicants behind closed doors. They’re also a powerful means of advertising an institution’s supposed greatness, and this is an essential part of the bargain.
Test requirements transmit a signal to the world. Tony Sarda has been thinking about the meaning of that signal for years.
Sarda, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, was a half-hearted high-school student who graduated with a 2.5 grade-point average and no college plans. He worked odd jobs for a few years before applying to Lamar University, a large, regional institution in East Texas. He got in, he says, because of an above-average SAT score. He thrived, earning three bachelor’s degrees.
Though grateful for his experiences at Lamar, Sarda was bothered by one thing. “My opportunity came because I took a test, not knowing what it really told me about myself,” he says. “The score didn’t reflect the kind of student I was in high school — I was a terrible student.”
Now, Sarda is Lamar’s director of undergraduate and graduate recruitment. A majority of the institution’s incoming first-year class is nonwhite, and it enrolls many low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students. While Lamar walks the college-access walk, it’s also a place where a test-optional policy once would’ve seemed unlikely. It just wasn’t done at big state institutions.
About a year and a half ago, Sarda’s memory of the mismatch between his SAT score and his academic commitment led him to ask: Are we using the right metrics to assess applicants?
A deep dive into internal data revealed that students’ high-school grades and class rank reliably predicted their first- and second-year retention rates, but that the SAT didn’t add any predictive value. Two students with the same GPA and a 100-point difference in scores were just as likely to persist.
If it doesn’t add anything to admissions decisions, how can you keep a requirement that disproportionately affects students from marginalized backgrounds?
“For so long we’ve taken on faith that these tests have told us something invaluable about the students we are getting,” Sarda says. “But if it doesn’t add anything to admissions decisions, how can you keep a requirement that disproportionately affects students from marginalized backgrounds?”
This summer, Lamar dropped its ACT and SAT requirement for good, a decision that required some adjustments. Previously, Lamar, which admits about four-fifths of its applicants, used a straightforward formula: class rank and ACT or SAT score. So it established a more holistic — and time-consuming — review process.
The university also changed its scholarship-awarding process so that applicants not submitting scores would be eligible. “Without doing that, we would’ve missed the entire point of test-optional,” he says. But that move required the university to retool the class-rank-only formula so that it wouldn’t blow its aid budget.
Going test-optional is no silver bullet, Sarda insists. It doesn’t guarantee a single college-access outcome.
But he believes it’s important to change the signal: “For many vulnerable students, just the idea of going to college can be very overwhelming. If we show them we are willing to change, we hope they see us differently — and not as this immovable object operating in the same way for perpetuity.”
Sarda is among several admissions leaders from underrepresented backgrounds who have been pushing their institutions to question long-held testing policies. For ages, the overwhelming majority of people who have shaped, designed, researched, and debated the merits of tests at conferences have been white men. Slowly, that’s changing.
Recently, Nikki Chun, director of undergraduate admissions at California Institute of Technology, shepherded its decision to eliminate SAT Subject Test requirements after finding that they were an unnecessary barrier to applicants. This spring, she helped convince the institute to adopt a test-blind policy for two years.
Yes, Caltech is a tiny, specialized college, an outlier in the admissions world. But within the profession, where Chun is widely respected, those changes resonated widely. “As someone from a marginalized background,” says Chun, a native Hawaiian who’s part Chinese, “I can’t be spouting ‘student-centered this’ and ‘inclusion that’ without at least interrogating the utility of these tests.”
For all the ways that those tests can hinder disadvantaged students, they’re still just one brick in a towering wall, as Dominique J. Baker has seen.
Baker, a former assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, says she left the profession because she was tired of going to the conference room to cry after reading applications from low-income and underrepresented minority applicants that she knew had no chance.
“Within the current system of selective admissions, there is only so much that an individual admissions professional can do for students who have been dramatically affected by structural racism, who have survived unbelievable traumas and hurdles” says Baker, who is Black. “It’s not just their test scores and GPAs, it’s the whole system. We as a society systematically fail students.”
Baker, now an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University who studies college access, has been keeping up with the surge in test-optional announcements. “Some of them look like they were written at gunpoint,” she says.
Recently, Baker has talked with admissions officers at selective colleges where parents and students have complained that even a one-year suspension of testing requirements would lower the quality of the degree they’re paying for. “We’ve done a very good job at telling people that they can be encapsulated in their test scores,” she says. “I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Sometimes when you lose something, you gain something, too. That was true for Bertha Tobias, the thoughtful young woman in Namibia.
After the IB canceled its exams in March, she felt empty: “I thought ‘Well, now what am I living for?’ I felt purposeless, directionless.”
But that feeling led her to question the importance of tests, which had long given her life structure. “I was left with the work of making my own education make sense,” she says, “without this external rubric.”
Tobias, who plans to enroll at Claremont McKenna College in the fall, asked herself which courses she had truly engaged with. Could she apply the economic theories she had studied to real-life situations? How did what she had learned relate to who she wanted to become?
Week after week, Tobias’s search for meaning led her to write drafts of a potential book about the conflict of being a poor student at a wealthy school. She reflected on how her high-end education would afford her opportunities that many people in her country lacked. She resolved not to be a “sellout” who turns a blind eye to the difficulties of others.
In July, Tobias celebrated her 20th birthday with her family over a lunch of wings, fries, and a chocolate milkshake. By then she had received her IB diploma. Though the organization’s algorithm-driven method for assigning final grades proved controversial, with many students saying they deserved higher marks, she was happy with her own.
No, it wasn’t the same as having earned scores on exams. She could still taste the thrill of hoping for those 7s. “But when you get a 7, you don’t have incentive to ask yourself what that means beyond a 7,” she says. “What this forced me to look at is a lot more valuable than a score.”
She called the canceled exams a gift.
The world isn’t about to stop wanting and needing test scores, though. Entire education systems depend on them. The testing industrial complex, though disrupted by the pandemic, isn’t going to shut down. Even as old rivals such as the ACT and College Board grapple with how to administer their old-school exams during unprecedented circumstances, a relatively new company called Duolingo has been surging. Its test is tailor-made for this era of school shutdowns.
What this forced me to look at is a lot more valuable than a score.
Mila Bileska knows all about it. A high-school senior in Skopje, North Macedonia, she had planned to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (Toefl) at a university this winter, but it was canceled because of Covid-19. So she registered for the Duolingo English Test instead.
The online-only exam can be taken at any time, anywhere in the world. It was created to give students without easy access to testing facilities a way to prove their proficiency to colleges. It costs $49, a fraction of traditional language-certification exams. The adaptive test, which records students via their computer camera, evaluates their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, and includes a short interview. Once recognized by just a handful of colleges, it’s now accepted by more than 2,000.
Bileska took the test in her bedroom beside a stuffed yellow bear while her mother was roasting a chicken in the kitchen. She liked the exam and even laughed during the part that required her to distinguish English words from gibberish. She was pleased with her high score, which made her more confident about her English.
An aspiring scientist, Bileska plans to apply to several highly selective colleges in the United States. Though she has yet to take the SAT, she hoped to do so in August if it isn’t canceled because of a recent uptick in Covid-19 cases in Skopje.
Though each of the colleges on Bileska’s list has dropped its testing requirements for all applicants, she has long believed that standardized tests are “the only way for international students to show that they have the knowledge necessary for entrance.” She will take the SAT because she’s a teenager in a tiny country on the Balkan Peninsula, hoping to stand out among hordes of applicants from other nations. She will take it because a solid score in her application, she says, would be “a bonus.”
Many students grow up hearing that tests are Very Important. Principals, teachers, counselors, coaches, tutors, admissions officers, professors, guide-book publishers, journalists, pundits, independent educational consultants, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and all those next-door neighbors who brag about their own children’s scores all amplify that message around the world.
Pay the fee. Take a seat. Fill in all the bubbles. In return, you might get something: a number, widely valued; an affirmation, deeply felt.
It’s really hard to refuse the bargain.