The pandemic. It is here. Although the weather is nice, the sun shines exuberantly, and final exams are done, COVID-19 is still present. It is reshaping how we live our lives from every perspective including education. The fragility and inequities in America’s higher education system are more apparent thanks to COVID-19.
Despite all this, there are some positives to come out of the virus. With students lacking access to stable internet connections to complete virtual learning, student support services being reduced to ensure personal safety, and the cancellation of standardized tests and closure of test centers, the already marginalized populations around the world face even greater hurdles to access American higher education. One way colleges and universities can combat inequity in access is to eliminate one hurdle for these populations - standardized testings (in the form of SAT and ACT). Despite all the hurdles presented by COVID-19, the virus served as a catalyst for change in standardized testing and its role in university admissions (at least for one year).
Colleges and universities across America are ushering in test optional policies - some for the Class of 2021 and others for 2021 and beyond. Yet, others are going test optional indefinitely including all public universities in Oregon. According to Oregon State University's news site, Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University said, “Standardized tests add very little to our ability to predict an individual student’s success at a university or college.” That being said, there will be some changes within the admission process for the Class of 2021 and possibly beyond.
In 2019, 51 schools went test optional according to fairtest.org. 51 seems modest in comparison to the almost 200 who announced test optional policies this spring (2020). This phenomenal progress has COVID-19 to thank as a catalyst. “All told, U.S. News now lists more than 540 test-optional schools in the first tier of their respective classifications, including public university systems in California, Delaware, Indiana, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Washington State,” states a recent press release on fairtest.org. It is important to check what the policies are and to whom they apply. For domestic students (US citizens and permanent residents), please refer to this list from Fair Test. For international students, please refer to this list by Sarah Loring de Garcia.
Simply because a college/university goes test optional does not mean the policies are the same or even truly optional. It is important to note, test optional does not necessarily mean test blind. Test optional does not mean test flexible either. To help families understand, the definitions of each type of policy are below:
Test blind - This policy does not require students to submit any standardized test scores.
Test flexible - This policy allows applicants to submit various standardized test scores to support their application
Test optional - Test Optional’ means it is not mandatory for students to submit their SAT or ACT scores as part of their application.
So what does all this test optional talk mean for students applying to uni?
LAUNCH believes grades/academic achievement, academic rigor, personal statements/motivation letters, recommendations, and demonstrated interest/engagement will play a much larger role in the applicant process than in previous years. With one less data point on which to evaluate applications, colleges and universities will look to find ways to determine the best fit students for their university. Knowing this, we encourage students to apply to schools where they are a fit academically, socially, and emotionally. We encourage students to find schools that fit their values and where their gifts and talents will be seen, nourished, and encouraged.
Going test optional brings some positive results for parents and students alike. With less stress placed on test preparation, students can dedicate themselves to achieving their best success in the classroom and through their extracurricular activities. They can find more time to learn that second or third language, learn to play an instrument, conduct science experiments, do research over the summer, or engage within their community to produce positive change.
Schools should encourage students to embrace going test optional. While LAUNCH knows test scores are sometimes utilized as part of teacher evaluations, encouraging students to embrace a test optional approach to university applications can reduce testing anxiety and improve student performance in the classroom. It can also make the university search one degree less stressful than in previous application cycles.
What you need to know -
Test optional policies will vary per university so again, please check the lists mentioned above. For Ivy League schools, pay special attention to the language being used to describe the test optional policy. Cornell University among others, while stating they are test optional, puts forth their stance clearly in your policy that they prefer you submit your scores: "In Cornell’s review during the 2020-2021 application cycle, results from the ACT or SAT might still be a meaningful differentiator in particular for students who: live near or attend a school that will be open, and where testing will be offered, or who live near a testing center that will be offering more testing seats or dates than they did in 2019; and have not experienced lost income for one or more of their household providers or other significant new hardships and losses during 2020." If they are highly encouraging it still as in Cornell's case, LAUNCH believe educators and parents should advocate for these universities to embrace a welcoming test optional policy. Students across the world do not have access to testing.
Carefully consider if your health is really worth sitting for an exam. If not, adjust your expectations and consider other universities. Currently, only a third of testing centers in the US are operating and even less around the world. With social distancing rules in place throughout the globe, students may not be able to travel upwards of 5-8 hours (where the nearest test center is located) to sit for this exam particularly if there are travel bans in place, they are immunocompromised, or have additional barriers to access.
The use of a test optional policies increases access to students, which in theory, could increase diversity, inclusion, and promote equity. In fact, there are now 570+ “top tier” colleges/universities who are test optional for the upcoming year. In this particular situation, top tier means universities who excel nationally or regionally. This does not mean national universities are better than regional ones as they offer different undergraduate student experiences with regional universities being more geared towards the undergraduate student experience in all aspects of study.
Test optional does not mean test blind. Some colleges/universities are saying it is ok not to submit, but if you have your score you should submit. However, LAUNCH encourages families to embrace this time and go completely test optional if you can and remember to #dreamlaunchsoar.