NICK EICHER, HOST: Our response to the coronavirus made a lot of temporary changes to our lives. But some things in some cases may become permanent features.
Students taking the SAT and ACT, for example. Testing centers shut down, and students had no scores to submit with their college applications.
So colleges started making exceptions.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Many schools are making those standardized tests optional for the next year or two: Students who don’t submit scores won’t suffer in the admissions process.
In May, the University of California took that decision a step further. It’s going “test-optional”—permanently. WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen reports.
LEXI TONG: I was like really stressed and really excited to get it over with.
ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: This is Lexi Tong, a high school junior who signed up to take the SAT in mid-March.
TONG: I was feeling a lot of pressure because I know that the SAT…it matters how much scholarship you’ll get for college and also if you get accepted or not.
She went to the testing center on the day of the exam, but ran into a slight problem: Coronavirus shutdown.
TONG: The testing center was supposed to email you…if they were canceling it.
They didn’t. The students waited outside in the rain for 45 minutes and no one ever showed up.
TONG: So then we’re like, Okay, I guess it’s canceled. So it’s very anticlimactic, because we just kind of said, Okay, bye and just got in our cars.
Lexi still plans to take the test. But with so many colleges going test optional, it might not actually matter.
Bob Schaeffer is the interim executive director of FairTest. He’s pushed for years to end the use of SAT and ACT scores in college admissions. So he was thrilled when he heard about UC’s decision.
SCHAEFFER: And so the University of California regents voted to be test optional for two years…And then after four years, they will not require test scores at all in any manner.
Other colleges will bring back test scores after the pandemic ends. So why is UC doing it permanently? Schaeffer says the regents had other factors to consider.
SCHAEFFER: They were looking at the impact of the ACT and SAT in two areas. One its ability to predict how well students will perform in UC classes. And the second is its impact on the diversity of the student bodies admitted.
Schaeffer says the tests discriminate against low income students and minority groups.
SCHAEFFER: Students who come from the wealthiest families consistently score substantially higher than those who come from middle income families, and particularly lower income families.
That’s partly because wealthier families can afford tutors and test prep courses that help boost scores. But Joseph Soares thinks it’s more than that. Soares chairs the sociology department at Wake Forest College. Wake Forest went test optional in 2009.
SOARES: It’s an example of a test where black and Latino youth will do very well in their high school grades, well enough that we are certain that they would do brilliantly in college, but they will perform badly on a standardized test, such as the SAT or the ACT.
Robert May teaches philosophy and linguistics at the University of California. He says admissions teams already consider demographics and socioeconomic status when deciding who to admit. So when the regents decided to remove SAT and ACT scores from the mix, May says the decision wasn’t practical, it was political.
MAY: They are going to be influenced, you know, by what they view as political considerations, iterations of issues where the university is seen as an entity, an institutional entity within the state of California. And in that regard, we are very much tied up with the politics of California and the politics of the nation.
But there’s another criticism of the tests: How well do they actually predict a student’s success in college? According to Fair Test’s Bob Schaeffer, they don’t.
SCHAEFFER: ACT and SAT are great measures of multiple choice test taking skills…Now, you could argue that students who think deeply about a question, look at it from both sides, will do better in college in life. But that doesn’t get a higher score on the SAT or ACT. Students who work quickly, who guess well, who know how to play the test taking game…are the ones who score highest.
Joseph Soares says using high school GPA is a far better predictor of future college success.
SOARES: And college admissions is treated as a science when the reality is it’s still more art than science.
Soares is a bit of a statistician. He says if you combine all the factors—high school GPA, demographics, economic status—you understand about 30 percent of the factors that influence whether or not a student will graduate from college. If you add SAT and ACT scores to the mix, that number goes up by just 1 percent.
SOARES: The predictive value of one percentage point is diddly squat.
In other words, according to Soares, test scores don’t help predict future success.
At most colleges and universities, submitting a test score is still the norm. But more and more colleges have made that optional, even pre-COVID-19. And now that the University of California has joined the ranks, Robert May says others will likely follow suit.
MAY: How we go about doing our business affects others. So, I think it will have an enormous impact.
And Bob Schaeffer says the colleges that are taking a temporary break from the tests might never bring them back.
SCHAEFFER: And we’re quite confident that once schools use test optional processes, don’t rely on ACT/SAT scores anymore, they will continue with that policy.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.