COVID forces colleges to rethink admissions tests

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 25th of March, 2021. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It.

Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: skipping college admissions tests.

Last year, many SAT and ACT test centers shut down due to the pandemic. That left students without the test scores usually crucial for getting into college. So last year, many universities made standardized tests optional.

BASHAM: Taking tests should be easier this year, but students may not need to bother. WORLD’s Esther Eaton explains why.

ESTHER EATON, REPORTER: When Illinois high school senior Clay Lindner signed up for the ACT last summer, students were waiting hours in digital queues hoping to snag seats at test centers COVID-19 hadn’t shut down.

So when a computer glitch transferred Lindner’s registration to Arkansas, he didn’t risk competing for another spot in the Chicago area. Instead, he switched his registration again: to Kentucky, where there was less risk of cancellation and he could stay with relatives.

But not everyone can hop states for a test. A lot of students were stuck without scores, so colleges and universities switched their admissions policies to test-optional. That meant applicants could skip SAT and ACT scores and still get in. 

Jon Bahr is head of enrollment at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University.

BAHR: In addition to the entire spring run of tests being pulled off the calendar, the fall run was impacted by restrictions on the number of students that could reasonably sit in a location to take a standardized test, and so we were trying to be responsive to the experience that our students were going through. And in doing so, you know, eliminate barriers or burdens that they might have for accessing higher education.

Some schools had already made the SAT and ACT optional for applicants. In New York, Roberts Wesleyan College found SAT scores didn’t predict success for the school’s African American and first-generation students. So in 2016, it made standardized test scores optional for those with high enough grade point averages.

Kimberley Wiedefeld is enrollment head at Roberts Wesleyan. She said the college has enrolled more racially and economically diverse students since making the switch. And she considers that part of its mission as a Christian school.

WIEDEFELD: When confronted with the information that says the SAT and the ACT have zero predictive value for a Black or African American student at Roberts’ campus, I believe it’s an ethical responsibility to say—we can’t continue using this metric.

Not all school administrators felt that way. But COVID-19 pushed many to reconsider. Testing improvement organization FairTest estimates more than 1,300 institutions are test-optional for fall 2022, up from just over 1,000 pre-pandemic. A handful have extended the change for three years. Some have made it permanent. And almost 70 schools are now test-blind, meaning they won’t consider scores even if students submit them.

So how do schools weigh applications without tests? Some have kept minimum GPA standards or require scores only from certain applicants, such as homeschoolers. At Alabama’s Samford University, where about 35 percent of this year’s applicants didn’t submit scores, enrollment head Jason Black said admissions counselors focused on transcript reviews, essays, and letters of recommendation.

BLACK: We would say previously before the pandemic that there are many factors and test score was not any more weighted than something else was, which was absolutely true. But when you remove it, no matter what portion of the pie it is, and you don’t have something to replace it with that is an equal, then it’s really, the pie’s not edible, right? It’s useless. And so, we had to rethink the entire process. It probably doubled the time that it took to review an applicant.

Not all students are happy about dropping standardized tests. Some feel extra pressure on other portions of their application, such as grades and extracurriculars. And the pandemic disrupted those, too. Test-blind admissions also frustrate those who hope high scores will offset weak GPAs.

Whether more schools will stick with test-optional policies for good depends on how new students fare. In the past, schools that tried a test-optional policy usually kept it. But those schools tried the policies after extensive planning, not out of necessity.

For now, admissions counselors are focused on helping those admitted during the pandemic as they wait for data on student retention and academic success. Jason Black says that includes the team at Samford.

BLACK: Going test-optional does not strike fear in us. We can make these decisions about permanent policies as, you know, as the weeks and months unfold.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Esther Eaton.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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