Last year I wrote a piece for The Journal of College Admission on behalf of high school college counselors titled, “Standardized Testing Rules Our Lives.” This year, standardized testing may take some lives.
As coronavirus cases soar across America, more than a dozen state flagship universities still require testing. Some institutions also continue to require testing to qualify for merit aid, and many of those publicizing test-optional policies are doing so with careful word-smithing and a wink. They are seeming to send a subtext to students: Submitting scores will make you more competitive.
This has led to confusion and anxiety. Testing centers are limiting capacity for social distancing and state policies differ around shelter-in-place—and students are trapped in the middle. Some students are packing up their antibodies to travel great distances to test, entering communities far beyond their own.
Those unable to find seats are asking their counselors to assure them that their lack of scores won’t hinder their chances. The honest answer is never, “Yes, you’ll be fine” (with the exception of applying to institutions with test-blind policies).
And what of the student who could test, but would rather follow public health guidelines to keep their family members safe? Can they also claim, “Unable to test,” and will they be expected to defend this commonsense choice on their applications?
Before the pandemic, I viewed colleges requiring testing as a curiosity. Were they really unfamiliar with the correlation between test scores and family income, with an origin story tied to the eugenics movement, and the mountain of studies indicating that scores are not the best predictor of success in college? Now I view colleges requiring tests as obsolete—so entirely out of touch with the current moment as to render themselves irrelevant.
I have always counseled my students to view the admission process as a sample of what you can expect to experience as a student. If a college is requiring you to enter a test center during a pandemic—to risk your health at best, the health of your family or your own life at worst—that may be a sign that they value problematic testing data and crude measures of ability and prestige more than your safety. Will that change when you are an enrolled student?
Colleges that have shifted to test-optional policies are not off the hook either. While walking back requirements last spring was appropriate in the moment, the country is now in a markedly worse place, with spiraling COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The fine print in these optional policies varies wildly, so despite the worsening pandemic, we have yet to see less demand for seats.
Limited testing has opened back up this summer, with already at least one confirmed case of a test site spreading the virus. And in the conversation around the impact on students, often lost is the fact that neither colleges nor testing agencies staff test sites. They impose that responsibility on high school staff. Many of us are now being asked to risk our lives to provide these services, or face angry families because we are limiting testing options and therefore limiting college options.
I work in California, where the California State University system made two bold moves last spring that have proven to be ahead of their time. On April 17, they declared a total suspension of the use of standardized tests for the 2020–21 academic year, and on May 12, announced that classes would be delivered remotely this fall. These policies are truly student-centered because they ask no one to risk their lives to apply or enroll. When I am counseling a student about applying to a CSU campus, the question of whether to test—and all of the complications that come with it—is off the table. The CSU is the largest system of four-year colleges in the country, so I would urge campus leaders in other states to ask themselves, if CSU can do it, why can’t we?
Application season is upon us. There is no more time to waste. Colleges must clarify their priorities, and those priorities must be in the interest of public health and safety. Any policy short of verbiage like, “students lacking test scores will not be at any competitive disadvantage,” or signing onto NACAC's Test-Optional Statement, which asks members with test-optional policies in place to affirm that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score, is asking high school communities to risk death for a test. Sound hyperbolic? It’s not, given the perceived high stakes around college admission. The time to act is now. We cannot wait for the news article that quotes a student’s last words as, “But I really wanted to attend (your college’s name here).”
Lauren Cook is dean of college & gap-year advising at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay (CA) and immediate past-president of Western ACAC.
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